Impressionism Festival Taps Into Global Concerns

A still shot of Robert Wilson's Star and Stone: a kind of love...some say, picture by AM/SWAN
  • by SWAN - Southern World Arts News (normandy, france)
  • Inter Press Service

Images of explosions, falling debris, a cheetah fleeing in the darkness – all sent a message that the world is in a precarious situation on many fronts and that urgent restorative action is needed.

Yet, along with the tangible sense of angst, the show seemed to call for hope, with the intoning of Angelou’s famous line: “But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”

The 25-minute projection, by Texas-born experimental theatre artist Robert Wilson, forms part of the massive Normandie Impressionniste festival, now in its 5th incarnation and this year celebrating the 150th anniversary of impressionism, the art movement that scandalized critics when it emerged in the late 1800s.

Running until Sept. 22, and with a head-spinning 150 events taking place throughout Normandy - the region most closely associated with famous impressionist artists such as Claude Monet - the festival comprises exhibitions, installations, theatre pieces, concerts, and other shows.

It features both renowned and emerging artists, from across France as well as from countries including India, Japan, China, South Africa, the United States and Britain … all “in dialogue” with impressionism, and history, according to festival director Philippe Platel.

“We wish to show what’s happening now, to update the view of art, even as Normandy remains central,” Platel said in an interview.

The 1874 Paris exhibition that sparked the term impressionism (from the Monet painting Impression, soleil levant) was met mostly with disdain as conventional painters and critics opposed the breaking of academic rules. But the movement, with its focus on a different way of seeing and capturing light, would go on to have global impact.

Still, while the impressionists were seen as radicals, their first shows featured just one woman artist, Berthe Morisot. Now, the festival has made it a point to include almost as many contemporary women artists (47 percent) as men, said Platel - although it’s clear that the “blockbuster” exhibitions centre on male painters.

The Wilson / Angelou show, titled Star and Stone: a kind of love…some say” is presented as one of the highlights of the festival, and Platel emphasises that Angelou (who died in 2014) was an “immense feminist poet”.

Her words are transmitted in the original English and in French translation (read by French actress Isabelle Huppert), alongside music by composer Philip Glass. (Wilson and Glass have previously collaborated, most notably for the opera Einstein on the Beach.)

With its moving, intense images, Star and Stone evokes historical atrocities, including slavery and two world wars. It recalls the damage inflicted on Normandy during World War II, but it also reflects current brutal conflicts. (During the projection on May 22, a woman strode past, and, obviously angered by the visuals, or mistaking the show for a demonstration, shouted out the word “anti-Semitic” several times, to the apparent bafflement of spectators.)

Some of the projected scenes, especially against the full-moon backdrop on this particular night, conjured Monet’s iconic paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, works that themselves hang in an exhibition opening May 25 in Le Havre.

The harbour town, which saw entire neighbourhoods flattened in World War II bombardments, has over the past decades embarked on a cultural and architectural renaissance, and it hosts an impressive museum of modern art (MuMa) which is showcasing 19th-century photography in Normandy, as part of the festival.

Photographier en Normandie: 1840-1890 juxtaposes photographs and impressionist paintings, giving an idea of the medium’s development and the concerns of artists at the time: the rapidly changing landscapes caused by the industrial revolution, for instance.

It pulls together several iconic paintings of landmarks and the sea, while the photographs too capture marine scenes, daily life, and environmental transformations brought on by the building of railway lines during the 19th century. The show caters to both painting and photography buffs, or anyone interested in early picture-taking processes and their global impact, not least on artists.

Back in Rouen, another highlight of the festival is an exhibition by 86-year-old English artist David Hockney, who has been living and working in Normandy since the Covid-19 pandemic. His show Normandism at Rouen’s Musée des Beaux-Arts offers a different kind of impressionism, mixing pop art with the quality of light so important to his predecessors.

Here, vibrant greens, yellows and blues pull spectators into the landscapes for which rainy Normandy is famous, and the exhibition also features striking portraits as well as paintings that Hockney has created via iPads.

The latter record his individual technique and take viewers on a journey from the first line traced to the colourful completed work.

In the “dialogue” between contemporary artists and the impressionists, a main theme is water - the sea, ponds, rain - with echoes of climate change. In one standout show, Oliver Beer, a British painter and musician, reinterprets Monet’s famous Water Lilies series, transforming soundwaves into visual depiction on huge azure canvases.

In another, renowned French artist Marc Desgrandchamps incorporates human forms into his portrayal of water and landscapes, suggesting fragility as well as the need for environmental protection.

While these artists have consciously accepted the call to use impressionism in their shows, the impressionists themselves drew from others, especially from Japanese artists, whose work Monet collected. The festival highlights these international links with an exhibition set to begin June 22 in Deauville: Mondes flottants: du japonisme à l’art contemporain / Floating Worlds: from “Japonism” to Contemporary Art.

Meanwhile, Tokyo-born, France-based artist Reiji Hiramatsu will hold a solo show, Symphonie des Nymphéas / Water Lilies Symphony in Giverny, the town where Monet lived, painted and created his water gardens. The exhibition starting July 12 will comprise 14 screens, inspired by certain Monet works… which themselves were inspired by Japan.

Other international artists include Shanta Rao (Indian-French), with an exhibition titled Les yeux turbides / Turbid Eyes in the commune Grand Quevilly, where she invites viewers to see how objects change with light; and South African Bianca Bondi who uses mounds of salt to create luminous landscapes for a show in Le Havre.

With the emphasis on light and dialogue across the festival, the words of Maya Angelou almost seem to form a refrain, calling out from Rouen, to rebut oppression and exclusion: "Leaving behind nights of terror and fear / I rise / into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear". – 

© Inter Press Service (2024) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service