Friday, June 19, 2009

Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy Gustave Caillebotte March 27-July 5

The Brooklyn Museum:Gustave Caillebotte Exhibition
March 27 to July 5

I've always liked Caillebottes work a lot and thought that he was an important and influential artist in spite of the fact that he is not one of the first names you think of when you think of the impressionists. This may be in part because he started painting late, died young at 46, and stopped painting several years before dying. In fact he was a bit of a dilettante, and consequently doesn't have that large a body of work. The other reason, I think is that he didn't entirely buy into the whole plein air thing, and most of the work in the show is clearly not painted from life. This is the reason he was seen as something of a reluctant impressionist, even though like the impressionists he rejected the academy and chose to paint images from every day life. Also his rich colors, avoidance of detail, and loose painterly depiction of light in its many forms clearly make him an impressionist, but an idiosyncratic one.

Caillebottes stylistic signature was his unusual and complicated compositions, and his "bizarre perspective" as one critic called it. He liked to create deep illusionist space with a dramatic diagonal, and used it in some very ambitious and imaginative ways. The strange vantage points and the way he cropped his images are what give his paintings their abstract integrity, and I think what make him an important figure. This is most impressive in his urban street scenes and his images of boats, where he frequently painted from the perspective of the passenger. The way he renders the strange elliptical shapes of the boats and the light dancing on the surface of the water reminded me of some of Thomas Eakins paintings of the same theme, but with a more painterly French quality. He was obsessed with boats, and he designed and raced them as well as painting them. This was one of the things that kept him from painting full time. The show has a wall of half models from his designs which were supposedly very cutting edge for the time. Anyway, that's what they say. I don't know anything about boats.

The show's a bit uneven though. Some of the paintings have this bold imaginative structure, but some are more generic impressionist landscapes where he tries his hand at the plein air painting that was the signature of the impressionists. They're technically beautiful, but not distinctive or that original. The major problem should be blamed on the Brooklyn Museum. Caillebottes most famous painting is "Paris Rainy Street Day" which is in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute, but for some reason isn't in the show. There's also an important painting of his that I've only seen in reproduction called "Boulevard Seen From Above". I would like to see it in person, but that also wasn't in the show. It made me wonder what other jewels didn't make it in. They did put a lot of boat models in the show, but personally I would have rather seen the paintings. According to the Museum this is the first retrospective Caillebotte has had in the US in over thirty years, so you'd think they'd want to include his best stuff, right? I think Caillebotte is a really intriguing figure who deserves further exploration and examination, or at least better treatment than he's received here.

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