‘The Impressionist Line’ draws unexpected connections

What comes to mind when you hear “Impressionist”? If your answer has to do with vibrant oil paintings covered in thick brushstrokes – works like Monet’s The Water Lilies – then you are in good company. You probably do not think of prints and  drawings and it is also very unlikely that you thinks of dance, or of sculpture.

The Clark Art Institute’s newest exhibition, the Impressionist Line, challenges assumptions about what defines Impressionism. The exhibition, which opened on Sunday, showcases approximately 50 Impressionist prints and drawings from the Clark’s works-on-paper collection. These are organized into three general groups.

First are the precursors to Impressionism, artists who began the rebellious streak for which the Impressionists are known by exhibiting outside of the rigidly censored Paris Salon, at the 1863 Salon de Refusés or “Exhibition of Rejects.” The Impressionists, whose varied work focused on genre scenes or depictions of everyday life in Paris, come next, contradicting the long-privileged position of paintings showing important moments in grandiose fashion. Last are the post-Impressionists, in whose works one sees early signs of the imminent shift towards abstract art. Thus the Clark’s exhibition presents a largely unacknowledged – but arguably critical – aspect of the Impressionist movement. Prints and drawings made up over half of the artworks displayed in the eight Impressionist exhibitions held in Paris between 1874 and 1886, around which the Impressionists organized themselves. It was largely through works on paper that these artists developed and carried out their experiments in realism, challenging and subverting the tenants of French academic art.

With the Clark exhibition’s prints and drawings, one may wonder: Where do dance and sculpture come in? The Clark not only pushes boundaries of media by emphasizing the drawn and printed line, but it also brings other modes of expression into the discussion, prompting broader considerations of the intersections between media. Take, for example, two highlights of the exhibition, Edgar Degas’ images of dancers: a pastel, The Entrance of the Masked Dancers, and a monotype, Three Ballet Dancers. The first, full of color, approximates the effects of many of the Clark’s Impressionist paintings. The second uses only black ink and its absence to depict ballerinas lit from above; light reflects off of the twirling figurines, the world seeming to move around them in a blur of lines.

Another Degas work, The Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, enhances the pleasure of seeing these images at the Clark. The bronze sculpture was cast from the original 1881 wax figurine after the artist’s death. The original’s realistic portrayal garnered harsh criticism and disdain from many of Degas’ contemporaries for not showing the ideal graceful ballerina, but rather an awkwardly proportioned young girl, in a stance that appears simultaneously defiant and painful. This story sheds some light on the climate in which the Impressionist Line works were created and the conventions they pushed against.

This sample of Degas’ works suggests an affinity between dance and Impressionism in the late 19th century, a connection brought to the fore through a breathtaking performance during the exhibition’s opening.

As explained in the lecture preceding her dances, Jodi Sperling of Time Lapse Dance Company drew inspiration from Loïe Fuller, who rose to fame through her combination of dance, colored lights and expansive fabric costumes. Enveloped in folds of white silk, Sperling rippled across the Clark’s stage, her fluid movements recalling at times the serenity of waves, and at other moments the energetic fluttering of wings.

Given their shared interests in mimicking natural effects, it is little wonder that Fuller was a favorite subject of the Impressionists. In fact, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, a post-Impressionist artist with several works in the exhibition, created a lithograph of Fuller that the Clark owns, available for viewing upon appointment in the Manton Study Room for Works on Paper. Impressionist Line will be on view until Jan. 7, 2018.

Impressionist Line features Edgar Degas pastel drawing, The Entrance of the Masked Dancers.’ Photo courtesy of Clark Art Institute.