Impressionists Take On London At Tate Britain In A Patchy Exhibition

Impressionists in London, Tate Britain ★★★☆☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 14 months ago

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Impressionists Take On London At Tate Britain In A Patchy Exhibition Impressionists in London, Tate Britain 3
Just one of the many times London looks fantastic in this exhibition. Image courtesy Tate.

Who doesn't love Impressionism? It seems that every year there's at least one London exhibition based on the movement, each trying to find a different angle to take on this popular genre.

Now comes the turn of Tate Britain to look at how Impressionists flourished when they sought escape from wars in France. In truth only half the exhibition is dedicated to Impressionists and so the title of the show is misleading. This has caused consternation among many critics, but what about the works and the exhibition itself? Are they any good?

One of Monet's stunning Westminster series. Image courtesy Kaiser Wilhelm Museum

The opening room is quite brilliant. Visitors will walk in expecting the pretty flowers and landscapes that are most associated with Impressionists, but will instead be slapped in the face with masses of death and bleakness.

Gustave Dore's painting of a nun fleeing with a child in her arms as fires blaze in the background makes you fear for his subjects lives and Corot's painting of a dream where Paris is in flames and an apocalyptic angels flies away is a nightmare come to life. James Tissot adds to this atmosphere of death with a view of executed communards being thrown over the wall of a fortification — a falling lifeless body about to join the heap of others on the ground. This may not be Impressionism but it's powerful work, by painters inspired by their fears from fleeing the Franco-Prussian war.

It's not just paintings; sculptures feature strongly in this show too. Image courtesy Tate.

It's only once this show hits its stride that we get the Impressionism we're familiar with, such as Pissarro's idyllic steam train leaving Lordship Lane station and Monet's views of the Thames.

We're then greeted by the society paintings of Tissot — all frilly dresses and military uniforms. These saccharine scenes are art history's equivalent of Ikea prints — so it's best to skip a room full of them.

Tissot's society paintings are best skipped altogether. Image courtesy Tate.

As these painters made London their home we see some lovely views of a bank holiday in Kew and people relaxing on the banks of the Thames near Hampton Court Bridge. Then there's a beautiful Pointillist rendition of Charing Cross Bridge by Pissarro and Monet's red and yellow splotches on dark blue representing the lights and energy of Leicester square at night — oh, how little has changed.

Then there's the pièce de résistance —  a room full of Monet's views of Westminster and the Thames in the fog. Each work is subtly different in its use of light and colour, but all of them are breathtaking — capturing the very essence of the heart of our city. It's stunning and it transports us to to a crisp winter's day as we wait for the sun to burn off the fog over the Thames.

Pissarro's stunning view of Charing Cross bridge painted using a Pointillist technique.

It's fitting to end on the works of Andre Derain, as his bright and colourful boats and bridges don't reflect true colours at all and are a precursor of the successor to Impressionism — the Fauvist movement he co-founded with Matisse. This ending is needed to complete the exhibition's narrative from pre to post-Impressionism, via the Impressionists themselves.

This is a patchy exhibition with a very strong beginning and end, but could use more tightening of its belt in the middle.

The EY exhibition: Impressionists in London is on at Tate Britain until 7 May. Tickets are £17.70 for adults.

Last Updated 17 November 2017