A few months back, staff members from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Dixon Gallery and Gardens flew to New York to generate some heavy-weight P.R. The crew sat for interviews with art publications like Artforum and Art in America. They conferred with travel writers, critics, and culture bloggers.
"We even talked to a guy who writes for time-share publications," says Kevin Sharp, the Dixon's executive director. "And we were happy to do it too. We want people to know what's happening in Memphis."
So what is happening in Memphis? And is it really so radical that it warrants coverage by such a diverse array of media?
For starters, the Dixon is hosting the exclusive American engagement of "Jean-Louis Forain: La Comédie parisienne," a scaled-down version of the Forain retrospective that opened at the Petit Palais in Paris earlier this year to appreciative crowds and loving reviews from the international art press.
That would be big news, even if "Monet to Cézanne/Cassatt to Sargent: The Impressionist Revolution," a broad survey of French and American Impressionism and Post-Impressionism wasn't also opening at the Brooks on July 16th. To maximize resources, the two events have been co-branded as "A Very Impressionistic Summer," a cooperative effort between two art institutions with a history of not doing much of anything together.
The joint exhibition makes an art-inspired trip to Memphis doubly attractive by giving visitors an opportunity to pay one price for two shows and immerse themselves in the world of beloved artists such as Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, and Degas.
"If you're looking for Impressionism this summer, Memphis is definitely the place to be. I can say that unequivocally," says Brooks Museum executive director Cameron Kitchin.
When the two directors realized they were both opening large Impressionist exhibits in the summer of 2011, they started having discussions about whether or not the Brooks and Dixon could bring their resources together in a mutually beneficial way.
"We could have just done some cross-promotion," Sharp says. "I think a lot of institutions would have been happy just saying, 'Hey, look, we're both doing Impressionist shows,' and leave it at that."
Kitchin says an easy nominal partnership was floated, but it was another idea that took hold: "Full immersion. Joint ticketing, joint marketing, joint press visits and, ideally, a blending of education and outreach resources.
"We could even take things further and join the curatorial messages," Kitchin adds. "That's when everybody looked around the table. And they said, 'Why not do it all?'
"It's always the easier path to go it alone," Kitchin says. "But it's better and more courageous to link arms, like in a marriage — to trust your partner and make something bigger than you might have on your own."
Sharp, who joined the Dixon in 2007, doesn't take the idea that there was ever any serious rivalry between the Brooks and the Dixon very seriously. "I don't know for a fact that anything like that ever existed," he says. "It's just an assumption that nobody ever took the time to tamp down."
Kitchin, who started working for the Brooks in 2008, says he can only speak to the future and that he started cultivating a collegial relationship with Sharp as soon as he arrived in Memphis.
"Cameron and I have lunch every couple of months and talk about our calendars," Sharp says. "We don't treat them like some state secret."
Regardless of what may have gone on before, the new partnership is allowing the two institutions to trace the historical arc of Impressionism by making a lot of significant work by a diverse slate of artists available to the public, while also taking what Kitchin describes as "a deep dive" into Forain, a compulsive satirist, painter, and man of his time.
Memphis' "Very Impressionistic Summer" has a provenance that predates Sharp and Kitchin. The joint show never could have happened if John Buchanan, a previous executive director of the Dixon, hadn't acquired Woman Breathing in Flowers from a New York gallery in 1987. It was the Dixon's first Forain, a major work originally shown in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886.
In 1992, Buchanan visited Paris, where he struck up a conversation about Forain with Waring Hopkins, an American art dealer who operates a gallery. Hopkins, a Forain enthusiast, had assembled an impressive collection of the artist's early work and was about to put 58 pieces on the market. Buchanan said not to bother. He'd take them all for the Dixon. Then, as Sharp puts it, Buchanan returned to Memphis to figure out how he was going to pay for the "gutsy acquisition."
The Hopkins acquisition turned out to be a coup for the Dixon, which went from zero to nearly 60 Forains in five years. Suddenly, the intimate Memphis art space had a significant collection of paintings by one of France's most revered artists. In 1995, a small catalog was published and the Dixon's Forains crossed the Atlantic once again for a tour of Europe.
When the works returned from the trip, they were placed in storage and remained out of sight until 2007, when a dozen pieces were loaned to the Portland Art Museum for a show called "The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec."
"'The Dancer' was a beautiful show," Sharp recalls. "It reawakened our interest in doing something with the collection, which includes several images of dancers, including a series painted directly onto fans."
According to Sharp, the Dixon was on the verge of packing its Forain collection for an exhibit originating from Memphis when another request letter arrived from the Petit Palais in Paris, an immense, classically inspired museum. A Forain retrospective was in the works, and the Dixon's collection was being called home again.
Sharp started looking for a way to bring the exhibit to Memphis.
"Of course, we'll defer our project for your definitive retrospective," he said. "But what are the possibilities of having the show in the States?"
The partnership with the Petit Palais turned out to be an important one, with the Dixon loaning more pieces to the show than any other single contributor outside of the Forain family. A year after the conversation was initiated, the Dixon became the exclusive U.S. venue for "La Comédie parisienne."
It's difficult to stand in a mall poster shop looking at all the mass-produced Monets, Cézannes, and Renoirs and imagine there was a time when all the pretty pictures that we all know so well were scandalous. "That's an idea that runs through every gallery in our exhibition," says Kitchin, who wants people to see the Impressionist revolution as an actual revolution whose repercussions are still being felt today.
"They're so filled with light and color, and they have these great, pleasant scenes from everyday life," says Stanton Thomas, the Brooks curator for "The Impressionist Revolution." "They are all so easy to live with."
But in their own time, scholars and critics used different words to describe the art. "Persecuted, hounded, shunned, and banned": This is how the French newspaper Le Siècle described the 30 painters and "alleged anarchists" who banded together in the spring of 1874 to show their controversial work.
"It is hard to overstate just how radical this artwork was and how vilified it was," Sharp says. "Everybody hated Impressionism from the day it emerged. They thought it was the downfall of civilization," he says, name-checking Albert Wolff, the critic who, annoyed by the Impressionists' purple trees and butter-colored skies, swore, "No sensible human being could countenance such aberrations."
Except people did countenance them, and in 20 years, Impressionism became the dominant aesthetic of the age.
The Brooks curatorial staff hopes to illustrate how the paintings, now considered so beautiful and conservative, seemed radical in their time by juxtaposing works by the early Impressionists with some beautiful examples of French academic painting.
"This is exactly the kind of painting the Impressionists hated," Thomas says, pointing to a portrait by Bouguereau, one of the most popular French academic painters working at the onset of Impressionism.
"It's sentimental; it doesn't really do anything. They even hated the painting technique. 'Well licked,' they called it, because the surface was so smooth. I compare it to ice cream, because, well, it looks like it's been licked."
"It's interesting that these academic painters, who [were considered the best during their time] are the ones who've been forgotten," Kitchin says. "And we remember the radicals."
Impressionism was born during a period of physical, technological, and political upheaval in Paris. The city was undergoing "Haussmannization," the invasive transformation of Paris from an old-world capital into a modern metropolis. Is it any wonder that the Impressionists were obsessed with radical change and modernity?
"Can you imagine living in a house under major renovation for 20 years?" Sharp asks, trying to convey a sense of the disorder and change that went hand in hand with Haussmannization. "Because that's what the city was like, with ongoing construction and scaffolding everywhere."
Thomas says that if there's one common misconception about Impressionism, it's the notion that it was a unified movement. The artists' connections were primarily social, and many of their innovations had as much to do with rapid technological advances as with any shared distaste for "well-licked" paintings. "They had a lot of goals in common," Thomas allows. "They were all radicals and revolutionaries. But, as a group, they were never too overburdened with dogma."
Some Impressionist painters may have taken their paint and canvas outdoors into the "plein air" in response to studio-locked academics, but they also took their art into natural light because the invention of metal paint tubes made it practical to do so. Newly available pigments allowed the artists to avoid using black in favor of contrasting colors laid down in short, fat, painterly strokes. And the world was becoming increasingly connected by way of the railroads. For the first time an urban painter could leave the city with his materials in tow and return in a day.
Not every Impressionist worshipped the outdoors. Degas preferred to paint interior spaces and liked how gaslight enhanced both the dreamy and the nightmarish qualities of a scene. Forain's sensibilities were similar. Degas, who was known to have a difficult personality, once accused the like-minded artist of painting "with his hands in my pockets." Forain's inclusion in the Brooks exhibition, courtesy of the Dixon, not only helps to contextualize the artist's unique place in the evolution of the movement, it conjoins the two exhibits.
Kitchin explains how Forain became the thread binding the two exhibits:
"Once the Brooks had entered into a partnership with the High Museum in Atlanta to bring in its world-renowned collection of American and French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism and to join it with works from our permanent collection to create an exhibition of national importance, we thought, Wouldn't it be even better if we requested some of the Dixon's collection? So we made a formal request to bring a significant set of pictures from the Dixon to the Brooks. Kevin said, 'Absolutely.' Then he said he wanted us to take some of the Forain pictures too."
"Those Forain pictures are public, tangible evidence that this partnership is collegial and real," Kitchin says. "Important pictures that could have been in the Dixon's exhibition are here in ours."
Forain always valued drawing and was better known for his work as a newspaper illustrator than as a painter. When asked where his next exhibit would be, he once gave an answer that presages Andy Warhol: "On the newsstands."
The Dixon's Forain retrospective suggests that the artist was often both fully engaged as painter and journalist — that for Forain the jobs were nearly interchangeable. His slyly satirical paintings of johns looking at prostitutes, male patrons looking at female dancers, and drained artists looking at submissive nude models shows a highly developed sense of humor and irony, laced with an equally developed sense of outrage.
"He is a moralist painter," says Florence Valdes-Forain, the artist's great-granddaughter. As she tours the exhibit and views one of Forain's paintings of dancers being sized up by middle-class men, she says, "You can tell he disapproves. At that time, dancers came from the lower classes, and they weren't sent there to excel in dance but to find someone to protect them and their family and give them money. As an artist [Forain] was always engaged in the world around him."
"La Comédie parisienne" glosses over some of the messier aspects of Forain's career. The young bohemian with the biting wit, who once shared rent with poet Arthur Rimbaud in a dirty room full of "spider noises," became overtly political in the 1890s after Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the only Jew on the French general staff, was accused of spying on France for Germany.
The Dreyfus affair polarized France, and Forain, who took part in the Franco-Prussian war, sided with the often anti-Semitic anti-Dreyfusards. Much of his work from this period, especially his illustrations, lampooned the politics of the day from a nationalist perspective.
After World War I he turned his attention to religious themes, with drawings that call to mind Picasso's visits to the bullfights in Barcelona and richly detailed paintings reminiscent of the Rembrandts he copied as a young, struggling artist hanging out at the Louvre to stay warm.
"La Comédie parisienne" is an exhaustive exhibit, featuring watercolors, pastels, oils, ceramic tile, and stained glass. The show's starkest images are of French troops during World War I.
Forain lived his nationalism, and at the age of 62, he enlisted in the French army's camouflage unit, but his greatest contributions to the war were his stark renderings of soldiers on the march and in the midst of battle. The war paintings and later paintings of the nightlife in Jazz Age Paris suggest that Forain was less concerned with details than with shapes and movement.
"At every point, Forain is modern," Sharp says.
It's been said that the Impressionists didn't just change how artists painted, they changed the way we see our world. Taken together, the exhibitions at the Brooks and Dixon make a strong case for that argument.
"This really was a revolution," Kitchin says. "And it was broader than just paint and canvasses. Individuals broke from centuries of tradition, and it caused an enormous stir and contributed to grander revolution."