Against the grain;Arts in Scotland;Exhibition

23rd May 1997 at 01:00
The Birth of Impressionism: From Constable to Monet. McLellan Galleries. May 23-September 7

Deedee Cuddihy previews an exhibition which helps pupils understand Impressionism

Glasgow Museums' major summer show, The Birth of Impressionism, gives pupils a unique opportunity to see not only 150 paintings created during the era which marked the start of the modern art movement, but also the context in which they were produced. The exhibition is being billed as the first of its kind to demonstrate why a particular group of artists began to produce work which was so different from the accepted norm - and why members of the public reacted so strongly against it.

"Unless you're an art historian, it's difficult to understand how a movement whose images are now some of the most recognised in the world - and so acceptable that they even appear on chocolate box lids - once caused such storms of protest," says Vivien Hamilton, the show's curator. "That's why the focus of the exhibition is educational, because explaining the background to the movement will allow people without specialist knowledge to look at Impressionist paintings with a new eye."

The organisers stress that while the "icons" of Impressionism will be absent from the show, there will be beautiful works aplenty by artists such as Monet (the leading member of the group), Pissarro, Sisley and Cezanne as well as Degas, many of whose pictures were gifted to Glasgow by the collector Sir William Burrell. (Burrell apparently tried to sell his Degas pictures because of worries about their moral content, but no one was willing to pay his asking price.) While most 19th-century artists seemed content to play safe and carry on in their studios, turning out rigid and increasingly dull pictures in the prescribed manner, another group - influenced by painters such as Constable and Courbet - had begun moving towards a more naturalistic style. The introduction of oil paint in tubes meant they could work more easily out of doors. Indeed, some were completing entire pictures in the open air, a practice which caused hoots of derision from their contemporaries as well as from art critics.

The coming of railways gave city-based artists easier access to the countryside, while the developing art of photography, new colour theories and a craze for Japanese prints also influenced the group whose work eventually became known, derisively, as "Impressionism" because of its sketchy, unfinished look. All of these areas are touched on in Galleries 2 and 3, where fine art is mixed with photographs, interactive displays and short video presentations.

Gallery 5 centres on La vie parisienne and the cafe life, with artists and writers meeting and exchanging ideas. This was so much a part of the Impressionist movement, largely due to the fact that, unlike their studio-bound contemporaries, painters who worked out of doors had a lot of time on their hands once darkness fell.

The story comes to a stunning conclusion in the sixth and final gallery where visitors can feast their eyes on 18 glorious landscapes created by a group of artists who, although now universally acknowledged for the beauty of their work, were once dismissed as "lunatics".

* Admission to The Birth of Impressionism, pound;5pound;2.50; school groups who book get in for pound;1.50 a head; (tel: 0141 331 1854) * Previews for secondary and primaryspecial needs teachers take place on May 28 and 29 respectively; * A study pack will be available for secondary schools; * Art workshops for P6 and P7 (pound;2 a head, including entry to the show) are being held twice a day from May 26 to June 20; * The education programme for the public includes free lunchtime lectures on Tuesdays (noon-1pm) throughout the run of the show, children's and adults' summer workshops, figure drawing in the galleries, readings, French language tours and performance art. Programme available from the McLellan Galleries; * For further information and booking, phone the museum's education service on 0141 287 27478.

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