It may seem an easy option to have as the main Festival exhibition yet another collection of the ever popular French Impressionists, but because of the nature of the Impressionist project – the landscape painters probably painted a canvas a day during large periods of their lives – these exhibitions can still spring surprises and even shift assessment. A show I saw in Vienna last year was full of work I hadn’t even seen reproduced and very credible impressionist works by Gustave Caillebote suggested that he should have a rather more prominent place in the canon. However, a mediocre work by him in the Edinburgh show, unaccountably used in the publicity leaflet, puts that judgment once more in the balance.
Crossing on the ferry from Dieppe, I picked up a leaflet for an exhibition entitled A City for Impressionism in the Musee des Beaux Arts, Rouen. I would love to have seen this show. Pissarro seems to have been the star of it, with a group of canvasses that emphasise the industrial state of the city, with steamboats on the river and factory chimneystacks belching forth. He makes Monet’s sailing boats on the Seine seem old-fashioned and pretty, and his famous series of Rouen cathedral appears to be upstaged by Turner’s painting of the building.
Four paintings in the National Gallery’s ‘blockbuster’ would have justified the entrance fee for me: Manet’s Croquet Players from Frankfurt that is a wonder of free brushwork, Renoir’s Woman with Parasol from the Musee Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid is one of a handful of works by this artist – Le Coup de Vent in the Fitzwilliam is another – that captures an instant impression, Sisley’s stunning snow scene and the long rectangular Bonnard with a woman and a cat.
I wasn’t greatly thrilled by the Christen Kobke exhibition despite the obvious skill of the artist. You don’t need to be an expert in art history to be reminded of Dutch painting of the Golden Age, but compare any of Kobke’s large landscape paintings with the Cuyps still on show at the Queen’s Gallery and you see the problem. His portrait of the landscape painter seated in an interior with table and wall mirror, is not unlike the sort of interiors with figures that Vermeer painted, but in spite of the refined painting it is cluttered. The small portraits sometimes come close to the delightful smallscale portraits by Corot, but never quite get there
It is instructive to take a look at the reproductions in the Scottish National Galleries’ What’s On leaflet. The Impressionists may not appear to be interested in formal qualities, concentrating on a curtain of sense data, but the paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh and Monet show how they were instinctively able to focus in on perfect compositions. This is not true of the Charles Courtney Curran, the James Guthrie and the Kobkes which all have awkward intervals in their arrangements. The best paintings in the Kobke show are two little works of Naples. Relaxed in sketching mode, he was able to get the unity in these which evaded him in his larger works.