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Lasting Impressions: The Legacies of Impressionism in Contemporary Culture

Lasting Impressions: The Legacies of Impressionism in Contemporary Culture

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Lasting Impressions: The Legacies of Impressionism in Contemporary Culture

523 pages
7 heures
Jan 24, 2017


Impressionism captured the world’s imagination in the late nineteenth-century. Portraying the sensations left behind as modernity progressed, impressionist artists revolutionized the arts and the wider culture. Impressionism transformed painting and literature, and later film and advertising, and introduced new ways to look at and think about objects. Its legacy can be felt in a range of examples in popular and high culture, from cubism and the works of Zadie Smith and W. G. Sebald to advertisements for Pepsi and the observations of Oliver Sacks and Malcolm Gladwell. Yet despite impressionism’s ongoing aesthetic and cultural domination, the movement has also been associated with superficiality and commodified kitsch.

Jesse Matz considers these two versions of impressionthe timeless and the negativeto explain the genre’s significance today. He examines impressionism’s footprint in the way we define good” and bad” art and in our imagining and reimagining of the status and aesthetics of art. As Lasting Impressions moves through contemporary literature, painting, and popular culture, Matz explains how the perceptual role, cultural effects, and social implications of impressionism continue to generate meaning and foster new forms of creativity, understanding, and public engagement.
Jan 24, 2017

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Lasting Impressions - Jesse Matz

Lasting Impressions

Literature Now

Literature Now

Matthew Hart, David James, and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Series Editors

Literature Now offers a distinct vision of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first-century literary culture. Addressing contemporary literature and the ways we understand its meaning, the series includes books that are comparative and trans national in scope as well as those that focus on national and regional literary cultures.

Caren Irr, Toward the Geopolitical Novel: U.S. Fiction in the Twenty-First Century

Heather Houser, Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect

Mrinalini Chakravorty, In Stereotype: South Asia in the Global Literary Imaginary

Héctor Hoyos, Beyond Bolaño: The Global Latin American Novel

Rebecca L. Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature

Carol Jacobs, Sebalds Vision

Sarah Phillips Casteel, Calypso Jews: Jewishness in the Caribbean Literary Imagination

Jeremy Rosen, Minor Characters Have Their Day: Genre and the Contemporary Literary Marketplace

Columbia University Press

Publishers Since 1893

New York    Chichester, West Sussex


Copyright © 2016 Columbia University Press

All rights reserved

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Matz, Jesse, author.

Title: Lasting impressions : the legacies of impressionism in comtemporary culture / Jesse Matz.

Description: New York : Columbia University Press, 2016. | Series: Literature now | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016018775 (print) | LCCN 2016034377 (ebook) | ISBN 9780231164061 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780231543057 (electronic)

Subjects: LCSH: Impressionism in literature. | Art and literature. | Impressionism (Art)

Classification: LCC PN56.I5 M38 2016 (print) | LCC PN56.I5 (ebook) | DDC 700/.411—dc23

LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016018775

A Columbia University Press E-book.

CUP would be pleased to hear about your reading experience with this e-book at cup-ebook@columbia.edu.

Cover design: Jordan Wannemacher

Cover image: © Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images




1. First and Lasting: Histories for the Tache

2. The Impressionist Advertisement

3. Photogénie from Renoir to Gance to Renoir

4. The Image of Africa from Conrad to Achebe to Adichie

5. The Impressionist Fraud: Klein, Saito, Frey

6. Contemporary Impressions, Kitsch Aesthetics: Kinkade/Doig

7. The Pseudo-Impressionist Novel: Sebald, Tóibín, Cunningham

8. Thinking Medium: The Rhetoric of Popular Cognition




Color Plates


I would not have written this book without the encouragement of editors who have been such a great help to so many of us. Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz invited me to contribute an essay to their book Bad Modernisms, and thanks to their wonderful editorial stewardship, that essay, which became this book’s chapter 2, also became the basis for the project as a whole. Another chapter went from a conference paper to an essay for David James’s collection, The Legacies of Modernism, and that led, in turn, to his invitation to publish the larger project in this series at Columbia. David James and his series co-editors Matthew Hart and (again) Rebecca Walkowitz enabled the development of the project at every stage. I recall gratefully and fondly many moments when their support and guidance were decisive, and of course their own work inspiringly set a high bar for achievement in this field. When Philip Leventhal took the reins as editor, the book gained in intellectual and professional distinction, and I am also grateful to Miriam Grossman and Leslie Kriesel for their work bringing the book to completion. My superb research assistant Aaron Stone also gave me invaluable help in locating rights holders and also some of the book’s key examples.

Five friends, all far better scholars than I, read parts or all of five chapters and gave me crucial advice about them. James Carson’s eagle eye and sharp mind transformed the introduction. Kate Elkins’s theoretical expertise helped me clarify the invited talk that became chapter 2. Jed Esty’s intellectual and personal generosity were crucial in many ways, and Nico Israel, also incredibly generous and so helpfully brilliant, gave me excellent advice. Sophia Padnos offered marvelous editorial guidance.

James Carson’s advice came as part of a seminar session (devoted to discussion of this book’s introduction) that also included Piers Brown, Jennifer Clarvoe, Deborah Laycock, Tessie Prakas, Patsy Vigderman, and Nobuko Yamasaki. A prior session of the same seminar that helped me with chapter 7 also included Laurie Finke, Sarah Heidt, and Kim Mc-Mullen. Also invaluable has been the support of the group of modernist scholars that has met monthly for more than ten years at the lovely home of Stephen Kern, including Murray Beja, Kate Elkins, Ellen Jones, Brian McHale, James Phelan, Bill Palmer, Jessica Prinz, and others. Scott Klein and Michael Moses asked me to write an essay on Jean Renoir, and research for that project greatly enhanced this book’s work on French impressionist cinema. Similarly, an essay prompted by Michael D’Arcy and Matthias Nilges helped me develop thoughts about impressionism after film, as a context for this book’s account of the fiction of David Mitchell.

Friends and colleagues who gave me vital help on particular points include Eliza Ablovatski, Reed Baldwin, Ian Baucom, Fred Baumann, Gary Bowman, Jessica Burstein, Robert Caserio, Sarah Cole, Thomas Davis, Matthew Eatough, Philip Fisher, Laura Frost, Andrzej Gasiorek, Cécile Guédon, Marcell Hackbardt, Lewis Hyde, Grant Johnson, Pericles Lewis, Janet Lyon, Natalie Marsh, Wendy Moffat, Don Monson, Mona Nacey, Ilona Sármány-Parsons, Christopher Reed, Max Saunders, Jené Schoenfeld, Urmila Seshagiri, Jonah Siegel, Joy Sperling, Anna Sun, Helen Vendler, and Stephen Volz. (If I have forgotten to name others, it is only because this book has been too long in the making.) I am deeply grateful to Réka Mihálka, whose fine translations enabled me to read material on Béla Kontuly, and my cousin Lili Márk, who helped me communicate with Hungarian museums and galleries. In the final stages, people including Kay Peterson at the Smithsonian and Tracey Panek at Levi Strauss & Co. Archives were graciously helpful with images and permissions. Much earlier, my critical insight into impressionism developed under the instruction of my dissertation advisors, Paul Fry and Mark Wollaeger, and I remain indebted to them for everything.

Kenyon College gave me support through Faculty Development Grants and, most importantly, the Newton Chun Award. My mother, the painter Susan Matz, graciously gave me permission to use her Kontulys—including one of my sister, Patty Matz, upon whom I always depend and who gave me such loving care while I was trying to write this book. Support and inspiration also came from the rest of my family, Melvyn Matz, Alayne Baxter, Morty Peritz, Chris Brozyna, Gordon Matz, Guy Matz, Jennie Matz, Sadie Matz, August Matz, and Skyler Brozyna. And then there is Jeffrey Bowman, who needs no acknowledgment but still.

Material in this book appeared in substantially different form in the three essays mentioned above: Cultures of Impression, Bad Modernisms, ed. Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 298–330; Pseudo-Impressionism? The Legacies of Modernism: Historicising Postwar and Contemporary Fiction, ed. David James (Cambridge University Press, 2012), 114–132; and Impressionism After Film, The Contemporaneity of Modernism, ed. Michael D’Arcy and Mathias Nilges (London: Routledge, 2015), 91–104.


Béla Kontuly, Pseudo-Impressionist

Two still-life pictures hung in my childhood home (fig. I.1, fig. I.2). Had you seen them, you might have called them impressionistic, judging by the brushstrokes, the sketchy rendering, and the relatively loose and open composition (fig. I.3). Then again, their dates—1962, 1963—would have distinguished them from actual impressionist pictures, as would the dark palette, dissimilar to the impressionists’ higher tones. But had you asked me, I would have said only that they were pictures of fruit and flowers and that they were art. I had no sense of their style or significance and certainly no way to judge their value. Really, I hardly saw them. They were simply natural features of our domestic environment. My innocence, however, lasted only until I was fifteen, when someone made me see these pictures all too clearly.

I had a friend who knew a lot about art. Her parents were serious collectors with wonderful taste. Her aesthetic environment had always been significant, and in this respect, our worlds were very different. But the difference escaped me until the day she happened to coin a term to describe my family’s still lifes: pseudo-impressionism. She spoke it politely enough, but the term was an eye-opener. Instantly I saw the truth. Our pictures were cheap knock-offs, and I perceived them for what they were—for their false artistry, their fake luxury. I knew little about impressionism, but I could tell what was wrong with these pictures. With their failed insouciance and obvious commercialism, they were poor pretenders, and certainly not art. And I too was defined by the difference, brought to self-awareness (like so many before me) by an aesthetic distinction.

I.1   Béla Kontuly, Still Life, 1962, oil on canvas, 60 x 70 cm., private collection

© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Hungary, Budapest

I.2   Béla Kontuly, Still Life, 1963, oil on canvas, 77 x 98 cm., private collection

© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Hungary, Budapest

I.3   Still Life, 1963, detail

How I wish I could say I knew better than to care. But this experience did have a lasting effect. I developed a strong interest in impressionism, pursuing college coursework on the subject and writing a dissertation on impressionism in literature. Although I would not say the shame of pseudo-impressionism really motivated me, it did sharpen my insight, making me sensitive to the cultural politics of impressionist aesthetics. Not just the works themselves but their part in the social life of modernity captured my interest. I saw the point of the revisionist sociology pursued by Robert Herbert, who taught my undergraduate survey, and my dissertation depended heavily on Fredric Jameson’s account of impressionism’s political unconscious. Both were rejoinders to pseudo-impressionism—Herbert with his analysis of the bourgeois social life implicit in the pictures, Jameson with his sense of the romance and reification in impressionist aesthetics.¹

The dissertation became a book about the social politics of impressionism in literature. Literary I mpressionism and Modernist Aesthetics (2001) argues that social difference helped shape the way modernist writers saw how impressions make their way from life to art. As many critics have noted, impressions blend forms of perception. Sensations and ideas, feelings and judgments, belief and speculation: these opposites are combined by what impression connotes. What is more, fiction writers dedicated to rendering impressions (Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and others) tend to conceive of these combinations as fraught collaboration between different social types. That is, when these writers explain themselves, they imply that impressionism demands joining powers of perception typically attributed to different kinds of people. Rich and poor, male and female, young and old: these social opposites are also conjoined, precariously, by what the impression connotes, and so impressionism strangely thrives on social difference, in works of fiction lush with perceptual immediacy but fraught with thematic conflict, plots in which struggles between different kinds of people both enable and jeopardize the kinds of subjective revelation so important to modern fiction.

Centering on this social crisis in impressionist representation, my book built upon other studies of impressionism’s social politics, but it was also a legacy of pseudo-impressionism. It made something of my own early brush with social difference.

But impressionism has long been known to create conflict over the nature and function of art. In its day, it seemed at once to heighten aesthetic value and to lower aesthetic standards. It was politically radical—intransigeant—but also socially insouciant, exacting in its eye for cultural detail but apparently reckless in its way of trading time-honored procedures for the flighty whims of the premier coup. Impressionism reduced better judgment to superficial sensations—unless it actually grounded judgment in truer realities. Or both: the problem with impressionism was that it undid the difference. This was so even after impressionism came to an end. Postimpressionism was one result but by no means a final one, for much of the subsequent history of Western art follows from the problem whereby impressions entailed conflicting paradigms for aesthetic experience and cultural value. What I came to know as the problem of the impression has persisted more generally, not only in the history of art but also in many areas of cultural and social life. Especially where we think we encounter pseudo-impressionism, we actually see latter-day versions of the perplexity through which impressionism originally troubled art’s status and uses. My trouble over it, then, was part of what helped make impressionism powerfully transformative, not just in its day, but beyond.

Lasting Impressions looks to this beyond to show how telling confusion over the status of the impression—its perceptual role, its cultural effects, its social implications—continues to generate meaning. When impressions shape our judgments, structure information, and define aesthetic experiences, they persist in the thematic dynamism that originally made them a basis for a revolution in art. Such persistences vary in their effects in literature, film, the art world, popular psychology, and other areas of culture. I begin with pseudo-impressionism because it poses the question of persistence with special variability. Perhaps it fakes the impression’s perceptual dynamic; perhaps it is a belated pretense, true to the impression but too late to count as authentic. Perhaps it aims at some material advantage contrary to the spirit of the original impressionist revolution. Any of these motives would define pseudo-impressionism as kitsch, and indeed there is plentiful evidence that kitsch is what characterizes impressionism’s persistence today. But of course kitsch raises questions about aesthetic authenticity and its social fallacies. No longer what it once was, kitsch suggests another way to define pseudo-impressionism, for if that term names a mass-market commodity that threatens to destroy aesthetic experience, it actually does carry forward the special perplexity of the original impression. In other ways too, impressionism continues to work new variations on its original dynamic. This book explores some of these lasting impressions—the important and often unlikely significance of many forms in which impressionism has survived its historical moment.

But I begin with pseudo-impressionism for another reason as well. There is more to the story of my family’s still lifes. Recently I thought to find out more about them. And what I found was a complex history of impressionism and its legacies across the twentieth century.

For twenty-five years I presumed that the pictures were mass-market hack work. Painted in a clichéd style by no one in particular, they seemed to embody the worst of what impressionism had become: commercial art, avant-garde improvisation dead-ending into dashed-offkitsch. That, anyway, was my anxious view of them. But they had a more telling provenance, and a more compelling history. My mother bought them for a total of $300 in 1964 from a Hungarian painter who had traveled to the United States to sell more of his work. He found us through our family doctor, who had been his boyhood friend. If this ordinary acquisition had always confirmed the insignificance of the pictures, I began to wonder if a Hungarian artist in the United States in the 1960s might not have had a different story to tell. What I found, when I went in search of him, was a major artist. His name was Béla Kontuly, and he had been a figure in Hungary in the years leading up to World War Two—a significant innovator, a leading portraitist, and an exquisite muralist whose works still appear in cultural sites across the country. A 2003 retrospective exhibition of Kontuly’s work at the Ernst Museum in Budapest confirmed my discovery of an artist to be proud of after all.

But the truly surprising discovery was not that Kontuly’s style of impressionism had a respectable extraction. It was that he had been no impressionist at all. The pictures we bought from him in 1964 looked nothing like the work that had made his name before the war. Kontuly had developed his signature style in the late 1920s and 1930s as a member of the School of Rome, the neoclassical movement first established in proto-fascist Italy and then active across Europe. Kontuly held a prestigious scholarship at the Hungarian Academy of Rome and dedicated himself to that school’s novecento forms and ethos: a constructivist abstraction and its avant-garde modernity, the planar, hard-edged style so forceful for its aesthetic, dehumanized, often ironic detachment from human interests. Girl in a Striped Shirt (fig. I.4) captures the spirit of the style as Kontuly practiced it. Here a purified realism is the better part of modern sophistication; the girl’s doll seems more human than the girl herself, and the contrast joins with pure color and closed fields to stress the more inhuman beauty of abstract forms. Another picture, Orphans (fig. I.5), makes explicit the aesthetic ethos at work in Kontuly’s modernist classicism. Dispossession, alienation, and impersonality abet the liberation of purer forms, in the spirit of the antisubjectivism that defined this moment in the history of European painting. The 2003 exhibition catalog sums up this style and its claims to timely participation in the neo-classical, Neue Sachlichkeit, precisionist and objectivist realist trends . . . in Europe and American in the 1920s and 1930s.²

Abstraction, objectivity, and their uses—to cutting-edge aesthetics, to prewar cultural politics—are a world away from the bland likeability of the later still lifes. And the difference is a matter of record. Although the later work ended up in anybody’s domestic spaces, the early work triumphed at big exhibitions, in 1936–37, for example, when Kontuly won the Arnold Ipolyi Award and the Klebelsberg Memorial Award, appeared in the Hungarian exhibition at the Venice Biennale, and won gold and silver medals at the 1937 World Exhibition in Paris.

I.4   Béla Kontuly, Girl in a Striped Shirt, 1930, oil on canvas, 99 x 69 cm., Tamás Kieselbach collection

© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Hungary, Budapest

I.5   Béla Kontuly, Orphans, 1931–1932, oil on canvas, 90 x 80 cm., JPM MMK, Pécs

© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Hungary, Budapest

What a gratifying discovery, Kontuly’s true importance. It redeemed us both: here was a true artist with avant-garde credentials, and even if my family’s pictures were not the major ones, they had an indirect claim to value. A serious collector (and his daughter) might take real interest in Kontuly’s work from the 1920s and 1930s, and, by extension, a polite interest in his later paintings. Had I known, I might have answered the charge of pseudo-impressionism with some significant remarks of my own. But what exactly would I have said? Kontuly’s important work only makes the question of pseudo-impressionism more perplexing. What made him revert to it? How could he have painted Orphans in 1931 and then, thirty years later, our pictures, which look like they should have been painted sixty years before? Compare two other pictures, one an example of Kontuly’s signature 1920s portraiture and the other a portrait of my sister, painted from a photograph in 1964. How could he first paint the ultramodern portrait of Magduska Pacher (fig. I.6) and then much later the impressionistic Patty Matz (fig. I.7) as if she were at Argenteuil rather than Astoria? How did bold, forward-looking abstraction revert to yesterday’s dappling? My gratification at discovering Kontuly’s historic art made me only more curious about the style of our paintings, not only for personal reasons, but because an explanation could say something about impressionism more generally. What does Kontuly’s pseudo-impressionist reversal tell us about the afterlife of impressionism?

I.6   Béla Kontuly, Portrait of Magduska Pacher, 1937, oil on canvas, 80 x 81 cm., collection of Károly Lászlo

© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Hungary, Budapest

I.7   Béla Kontuly, Portrait of Patty Matz, 1964, oil on canvas, 50 x 30 cm., private collection

Permission: Susan Matz

Of course, Kontuly might have chosen to simulate impressionism in order to sell pictures. In the years following World War Two, public taste in Hungary rejected contemporary artistic developments in favor of more comforting, serviceable forms of realism—domestic or pastoral imagery rendered in familiar, inviting ways. The choice of impressionist realism specifically would have been a smart one for an artist trying to maximize profits in a depressed economy simply because it could be achieved more quickly, with less risk. Even if the original impressionist non fini took painstaking labor, later knock-offs could be finished fast, to no small advantage for the artist. Evidence does show mass production of imitation Hungarian impressionism after the war as well as a market overseas for it.³ Kontuly himself took advantage of the ARTEX distribution system to find buyers in Japan and the United States.⁴ If this was opportunism, a tactical strategy, Kontuly’s pseudo-impressionism might exemplify one primary way impressionism survived its moment: through co-optation or selling out. Kontuly’s late style might be symptomatic of the way impressionism easily becomes a commercial aesthetic, when its popularity, expediency, and gestural energy make it so handily available to vigorous mass production and circulation. We discover something uniquely self-destructive about the impressionist aesthetic in its readiness for reproduction in forms that compromise its aesthetic and cultural ideals.

But the relationship between aesthetic ideals and commercial realities is not so simple. There are many reasons to complicate it—weren’t the impressionists themselves always commercial, and hasn’t public taste always shaped modern art?—and there are specific reasons to rethink selling out in Kontuly’s case. In the years leading up to the war, the School of Rome moved toward closer alignment with fascist goals—dropped the modernist touch and shifted more toward Nazi artistic ideals.⁵ Reactionary trends encouraged an antimodernist rejection of the school’s avant-gardism; a conservative megalomanic monumentalism became the benchmark for achievement.⁶ Kontuly took part in the production of fascist art, for example with his Hungarian Industry (1936–37), the work that won a gold medal at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition, a mural Ivan Berend cites as an example of the Hungarian School of Rome’s political shift. But at the moment in which full fascist takeover in Hungary failed and Hungarian art managed to avoid the complicity that took hold elsewhere in Europe, Kontuly’s mural work took on a more benign religious iconography. Avowedly apolitical, Kontuly shied away from fascist iconography, and his particular Neue Sachlichkeit style transitioned nicely into a kind of neutral realism. After the war, however, even his relatively neutral style read as School of Rome, and, as the 2003 exhibition catalog notes, he was not very warmly received; neither did he get any awards, which was mostly due to the fact that the Roman grantees were politically ‘compromised.’⁷ Now adrift in a world without patronage or a viable public market—without the state, elite buyers, or the masses, all of whom now favored traditional realism—Kontuly had to shift again, to a pictorial world created with light strokes, attenuated and empty surfaces . . . looser handling of the brush and enrichment of the color scheme of the pictures.⁸ He turned to pseudo-impressionism, but the shift looks different in the context of the available options. There is a subtle but significant difference between the forms of realism demanded by official art policy and public taste at this moment and Kontuly’s impressionistic style, which has aspects of both a generic neoclassical realism and impressionist modernity. This pseudo-impressionism could well have been a gentle but notable way to nudge art away from instrumental forms of realist representation toward something more aesthetically free. Indeed, the conditions of art’s survival often determine choices that disallow any valid distinction between art and pseudo-art, and in this case, Soviet-era impressionism may even reverse the relationship between authenticity and what might seem to be regressive co-optation.

Moreover, if Kontuly had only been trying to sell pictures, he might not have committed himself aesthetically to the project. But at least one picture indicates that he did. In 1961, Kontuly produced an impressionistic self-portrait (fig. I.8). Compared to an earlier self-portrait, painted in 1932 (fig. I.9), this picture seems to be more evidence of a regressive tendency, more evidence that impressionism’s survival is aesthetically backward. Here again, the vanguard style is a thing of the past, strangely supplanted by a nineteenth-century optic. But because the later picture is a self-portrait, it would not have been intended for public sale; Kontuly probably painted it for his own sake, and it probably expressed his own interests. Moreover, elements of the picture indicate a telling affinity between Kontuly’s 1930s aesthetic and his 1960s work: the two pictures frame their subjects at the same level, in the same position, with analogous objects assigned to similar parts of the picture plane. Figural artworks appear in the upper-right corner, framed items in the upper left, and both pictures show Kontuly holding something of allegorical significance in the fingers of his right hand: in the older picture, a paintbrush; in the later one, a cigarette. This altered motif might solve the mystery of Kontuly’s stylistic reversal. Although it is tempting to read the cigarette as a sign of protest against what art has become—a sign of late-career bitterness, a tragic loss of what the paintbrush figured in 1932—it has a certain aesthetic modernity of its own.⁹ On one hand, the cigarette might suggest that Kontuly had no choice but to adopt a style not really his, and the self-portrait as a whole does seem to say so: Kontuly has rendered his face in fine detail but surrounded it with a swarm of sketchy impressions, as if to indicate that he himself has been consumed by an impressionistic prerogative. On the other hand, the cigarette might just indicate a different and not necessarily lesser prerogative, an aesthetic more amenable to ordinary pleasure, in the same way a Soviet-era impressionism might nudge a compromise between instrumental realism and a freer form of art.

I.8   Béla Kontuly, Self-Portrait, 1961, oil on canvas, 80 x 70 cm.

© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Hungary, Budapest

I.9   Béla Kontuly, Self-Portrait, 1932, oil on canvas, 80 x 80 cm., JPM MMK, Pécs

© 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/Hungary, Budapest

There is more evidence that impressionism might have had this weak but important aesthetic significance for such an artist at such a moment. In Hungary, impressionism began to develop much the way it did elsewhere. Parallel to the Barbizon School—France’s earlier plein air set—was Hungary’s Nagybánya Group, who similarly went out into the open air for impressions of the moment. But whereas Barbizon had been a mid-century phenomenon, Nagybánya was founded in 1896. Impressionism in Hungary got a later start, and then never really took hold, because Nagybánya never really embraced the fundamentals: spontaneity, apparent formlessness, and aleatory effects.¹⁰ Instead, it went directly for something more like an art nouveau aesthetic, and from there to postimpressionist forms. In Hungary, impressionism itself was a non-event, and if it did matter, it was mainly as an object of opposition for artists and critics who had, by 1910, taken a more direct route to modernist neoclassicism and abstraction.¹¹ The Group of Eight, championed by Georg Lukács, set an anti-impressionist agenda, favoring disciplined, intellectual ‘investigative art’ of structure, solidity, and order, equating impressionism with unbridled and selfish individualism in a society lacking in any solid substance and valid, powerful ideas.¹² Lukács influentially attacked the way impressionism turned everything into decorative surface and promoted an architectonic art that could destroy all anarchy of sensation and mood, even to the point of what he called a declaration of war on all impressionism.¹³ Impressionism lost that war, but it did become a force in the marketplace, as dealers alert to its mass-market potential promoted commercial production of new canvases and post-hoc reclassification of old ones. Miklós Rózsa’s Impressionist Painting of 1913, for example, now appears to have been a tactical effort to drum up business rather than an accurate account of a true movement in Hungarian art.¹⁴ In one sector of culture, anyway, calling art impressionist was a way to confer status upon it. But this was precisely why Lukács and others opposed it: the status in question was that of a cosmopolitan aesthetic, and the Hungarian avant-garde wanted to assert a uniquely national modernity. Impressionist modernity seemed to disallow the kind of local aesthetic through which Hungary’s future might be a renewal of its ethnic past. And it was mainly Hungary’s Jewish bourgeoisie that drove the market for impressionist pictures in the years before World War One because those pictures enabled "Jewish art connoisseurs to articulate their identification with their homeland but also to demonstrate that they were au jour with the modern Parisian taste."¹⁵ Add to this complex context the fact that its critics were largely Jewish intellectuals, and Hungarian impressionism takes on a special character—a certain cultural significance quite possibly behind Kontuly’s peculiar version of it. The anti-impressionist Jewish intelligentsia felt the need for stable society governed by rules that could treat them fairly—nothing like the anarchy of impressions.¹⁶ Hungarian impressionism was defined, then, through a kind of infighting between cosmopolitan taste and nationalist realism. For an artist like Kontuly, fifty years later, this mixed history would have made impressionism a very meaningful point of reference: a nation once resistant to the impressionist aesthetic now could use it, insofar as that aesthetic could restart a Hungarian modernity in defense against Soviet imperialism. In other words, the non-event of an impressionism once lost to commerce and nationalism could now be repurposed as a form of free-market cosmopolitanism, its imagery signifying a kind of worldly insouciance. In small measure, of course, and weakly, but that weakness is significant too. For it would have amounted to no small apology for Kontuly’s participation in the strong art of fascism. Although he always spoke against any political use for art, he did win that gold medal at the 1937 Paris World Exhibition, which was, as Karen Fiss has shown, a playground for fascist collaboration.¹⁷ Pseudo-impressionism was, ultimately, a mode of wishful expiation.

Another way to make this case would be to contrast pseudo-impressionism with the apparently more authentic movement dominant around 1960. If abstract expressionism was America’s way of asserting its fully energetic dominance of the art world, a belated impressionism could have helped a migrant Hungarian artist to assert an alternative that questioned the validity of any dominance at all. In a sense, to make this claim is to return to the worst implications of pseudo-impressionism, but to redeem them. The worst thing to say about Kontuly’s pictures of the 1960s—what was implied by my friend’s dismissal of them—is that they are merely opportunistic simulations, sadly artless versions of an art form that had been important a century before. They are pseudo-art both for failing at aesthetic contemporaneity and for failing even to achieve true impressionist excellence. Even worse than just selling out, Kontuly is guilty of the deficiency attributed to this sort of thing more generally—amateur art, mass-market landscapes, pictures meant for decoration, which outstrip the problem of their commercialism with their essential failure as art. If, however, the heedless pleasure involved in such cases has some legitimate use as a corrective, in moments in which art’s pseudo-conceptual power has become all too dominant, pseudo-impressionism becomes harder to dismiss. Amid mid-century sociopolitical repression, the weak aestheticism of a belated, mitigated impressionism has a certain power; in a different context, in a different fashion, Kontuly’s late work finds the right time for the impressionist effort to perform its uncertain combination of truth to life and good-for-nothing, and might be appreciated for its originality in this regard, especially if impressionism in Hungary had never really had a chance to assert the incipient challenges of its historical forms.

Pseudo-impressionism may well be little more than a mistake, a naïve production separate from progress or contemporaneity in the arts, only a sign of impressionism’s irrelevance. Or worse, it may be opportunistic, a deliberate refusal of aesthetic, cultural, or social relevance chosen in order to profit by the public’s easy preference for impressionistic imagery, and therefore a sign not just of inauthenticity but of impressionism’s own unfortunate collusion with today’s merely popular taste. Both of these negative views, however, raise further questions, with a force we might attribute to impressionism itself. Perhaps impressionism has its own kind of timeliness, essential to its version of the aesthetic. Perhaps the legacy of impressionism is to allow for a kind of co-optation that makes us question the nature and purpose of art itself. This legacy makes us attentive to the ways aesthetic relevance depends upon context—impressionism’s antirealism has meant different things in different times and places—but it also suggests that the problem of impressionism has a special transhistorical effect, confusing categories that keep changing, giving it ever new opportunities.

One last thing must be said about Béla Kontuly, something about the irony of Hungarian pseudo-impressionism circa 1963. The year Kontuly painted our second still life was also the year that saw a general amnesty for political prisoners, and, in the same spirit, a start to a relaxation of official art policy in favor of renewed avant-gardism. The mitigated aesthetic progressivism we have attributed to his late work may not have been so timely after all. It could have become something more ambitious, perhaps, and this irony contributes yet another quality to Kontuly’s impressionistic style of painting. If I had regarded it first with shame and then with something like pride in its peculiar claim to cultural significance, I have finally come to value its pathos—to feel for its layered traces of lost chances, which are not unlike those of my own family history. In some ways this pathos is like kitsch as pseudo-impressionism redefines it. Both are small consolation. But it is also an aesthetic feeling—a misplaced longing very much symptomatic of what impressionism itself has become.

Lasting Impressions

Impressionism is everywhere. Its original imagery dominates blockbuster exhibitions as museums ceaselessly crank out shows of impressionism as a form of fancy art sausage for the masses.¹⁸ It also prevails among the new mass-market pictures and posters that decorate so many public and private spaces, with its unique wide appeal and non-offensive nature, as well as the amateur painting leagues that constitute so much public art practice.¹⁹ Because impressionism historically ramified across the arts into literature, film, and music, these arts also continue its legacy. It is still a dominant style of mainstream literary fiction, and much cinematic style is indistinguishable from its first impressionist innovations, despite technological change. Indeed, technology has only made life more impressionistic: much of what defines perception and information in new media environments—fleeting and fragmentary distractions, superficial and immediate quality—make impressionism more pervasive than ever. Impressionism is the folk art of modernity itself.

And yet impressionism is nowhere. Few major artists today would lay claim to it. Unlike other historical styles or movements that have been revived and reinvented, impressionism itself, despite its great influence and general dominance as a mode of perception and information, has no contemporary art world avatars. Those who invoke it do so at their peril. Peter Doig, for example, whose early work bore traces of the impressionist project and was explicitly indebted to the likes of Monet and Bonnard, has been successful only to the extent that he has been able to transcend, ironize, or brazen out this debt. If Doig credits Monet as a source for the pinkish snow of Bob’s House (fig. I.10), he makes it clear that Monet is but a memory trace refracted through a set of transformative reconceptions.²⁰ By contrast, there is Thomas Kinkade, who has made an industry out of unreconstructed impressionism, characterized by sentimentalized color and light effects and touristic plein air improvisations. If Kinkade’s An Evening Out (fig. I.11) also owes a debt to Monet’s pinkish snow, honoring that debt with such fidelity means destroying the picture’s status as art. The more directly Kinkade cites Monet, the more he sells, but the more he becomes a nonart problem. Of course, he also owes that status to unrestrained mass marketing, a factor that only sharpens the strange contrast between impressionism’s ubiquity and its effective nonexistence. Kinkade’s impressionism is literally everywhere, but that has only further guaranteed impressionism’s art world erasure.

I.10   Peter Doig, Bob’s House, 1992, oil on wood, 72 x 90 in.

© Peter Doig. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2015

I.11   Thomas Kinkade, An Evening Out, print, 21 x 26 in.

© The Thomas Kinkade

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