The small oil painting shows a sunlit landscape with a peasant couple in a horse-drawn hay wagon. Painted by Camille Pissarro around 1878, it’s representative of 19th-century Impressionist rural scenes, and typical of Pissarro’s idealized view of country life.
But there’s one striking difference: it’s painted, not on canvas, but on the artist’s own palette. Above the horizon are uneven discs of color—green, blue, red, yellow, white—that might be multihued suns, but are, in fact, the blobs of pigment used to make the picture.
This painting-about-painting is part of a current exhibition at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Pissarro’s People presents a new perspective on an artist known primarily for his landscapes, looking at his human subjects through the lens of his artistic credo and radical politics.
The exhibit also resonates in intriguing ways with the Clark’s two other current shows—a group of large-scale photographs focused on airy indoor spaces, and a set of sprawling sculptural forms by the contemporary African artist El Anatsui. Though the media, content and tone of the three shows are quite distinct, they share a central concern with dynamic human interactions around culture, work, space and even artistic materials.
Radical ideas, Idealized Scenes
The Pissarro exhibit is the Clark’s summer centerpiece attraction (it and the Anatsui exhibit run into the fall). The nearly 100 works on view—paintings, drawings, pastels, watercolors and prints—foreground the figures in the artist’s work, especially his own family and the farm workers in the French countryside where he lived. Into those works, curator Richard R. Brettell, a noted Pissarro scholar, inserts an awareness of the fact that Pissarro was not only a successful artist, but a committed anarchist whose political principles informed and permeated his art.
A central figure in the French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements, Pissarro (1830-1903) wasn’t actually French. Born into a Sephardic Jewish family on the Caribbean island of St. Thomas, then a Danish colony, he was always a bit of an outsider, belonging to several worlds and never fully part of any. His art, however, expresses not alienation, but an optimistic faith in the goodness of humanity and a utopian vision of society perfected.
Pissarro was interested in the ideas of the anarchist philosophers Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Peter Kropotkin, who saw the state as the tool of propertied classes and the enemy of a just social order, and envisioned a society based on cooperative associations and equality of labor. Kropotkin’s exhortation to artists is reproduced on the museum wall: “You poets, painters, sculptors, musicians—if you have understood your true mission and the concerns of art itself, then pick up your pen, your brush, your burin, for the cause of the revolution.”
For Pissarro, his portrayals of peasant life were not just pretty pastorals but tributes to honest labor. None of his hay-makers, apple-pickers and country market vendors are representatives of the downtrodden poor, like Millet’s gleaners, but rosy-cheeked workers reaping the fruits of their own toil. These scenes are more than idyllic landscapes, the exhibit argues; they’re visions of a future society that embodies Pissarro’s agrarian ideal.
The artist’s politics can be glimpsed even in his domestic scenes. In the family portraits, the books his children are seen reading often have red covers—the mark of socialist literature of the time. According to the exhibition catalogue, “Pissarro was the only Impressionist who made figure paintings in which the domestic worker is the central motif.” Like his rustic farmers, the maids and servants in his paintings are not drudges but healthy women doing “clean, comfortable work.” Indeed, Pissarro insisted on a certain egalitarianism in his own household, where everyone did chores and the servants were considered members of the family; his wife Julie had been a maidservant in his parents’ house.
But in one corner of the gallery, the artist’s sunny idealism is given a sobering counterpoint. “Les Turpitudes Sociales,” a series of 30 drawings he made in 1889, illustrates the “social depravity” of the capitalist world of greed and tragedy. Drawn in a style that evokes political cartoons of the day, and with titles like “No More Bread,” “Cortege of a Poor Man,” “Art in Stagnation” and “The Hanged Millionaire,” the cycle presents a rare didactic expression of Pissarro’s convictions.
In line with his belief in social equality and labor parity, Pissarro considered himself a worker on a par with the field hand. “Physical labor, adding brushstroke after brushstroke to canvas,” explains one of the exhibit’s wall texts, “was a deliberate repetitive act not unlike hoeing, harvesting and plowing the earth.” The artist demonstrated this principle in that landscape he painted on a palette, as one his tools became the medium of the work itself.
Pissarro’s utopian worldview was a little na?ve, of course. But it’s interesting, even inspiring, to look at his idealized peasants in the context of his revolutionary vision: hard-working citizens of a brave new world whose luminous horizons stretch to the limits of human aspiration.
Human Relations in Time and Space
El Anatsui is a living artist, but his philosophy of art parallels Pissarro’s in its concern with human agency and historical forces. Born in Ghana in 1944, he has spent most of his career in Nigeria, working in various sculptural media, often with found objects. The current installation, in the Clark’s Stone Hill Center, features three very large pieces, abstract billows of light and color made from& liquor bottle caps.
What began with curiosity about the material, after finding a discarded bag of the aluminum caps, has become Anatsui’s current medium of choice, employing thousands of those cylindrical bands (and dozens of studio assistants) to create spacious sculpture-scapes. The metal pieces are pressed flat or twisted and looped, and wired together into huge flexible sheets. Some sections shine with the silvery reverse side of the metal, others shimmer with color; look closely and you can read the distillers’ brand names.
The three pieces on show are hung in drapes and folds along entire walls of the gallery. The smallest, “Delta,” measures 11 by 15 feet; “Strips of Earth’s Skin” is 22 feet across; and the 35-foot span of “Intermittent Signals” spills around a corner onto another wall. As with most abstract work, the viewer is invited— obliged—to read meaning into it. You might find a seascape in the metallic waves, or perhaps, in the weave of pulsing color, an evocation of kente cloth.
Anatsui welcomes these interpretations, and, unlike most artists, he also encourages curators and collectors to display his work in their own way—in this case, to hang the pieces flat or folded, against a wall or free-hanging. “Each time they are brought out it should be an opportunity for them to take on a new shape,” he says in an interview in the exhibition catalogue. “Giving freedom to people to configure my works is to awaken the artist in them.”
Besides, he argues, “Human relations are not fixed,” so why should his art be? And Anatsui sees his art very much in terms of human relations. For him, the bottle caps are not just an accidental source of material. “I like the fact that they have been touched by human hands at so many stages,” he says. What’s more, to Anatsui they represent nothing less than a metaphor for the African slave trade.
Bottled drinks first came to Africa from Europe, and liquor was one of the currencies used by Europeans to purchase slaves from their (very often) African captors. Alcohol was a key ingredient in the infamous “triangle trade” between Africa, Europe and the Americas, in which slaves were imported from West Africa to work the Caribbean plantations of sugar cane, which was distilled into rum and other spirits—primarily in New England—which in turn was shipped to Europe or directly to Africa to obtain more slave labor. That link, Anatsui says, “adds some symbolic meaning to the relationship between the three continents or peoples of the world today.”
Public Places, Human Spaces
Both Anatsui’s interest in overlapping histories and Pissarro’s eye for expansive vistas find echoes in Spaces, a selection of large-format works by German photographers Candida H?fer and Thomas Struth. The exhibit is an experiment, the Clark’s Director of Collections and Exhibitions, Kathleen Morris, told me. It’s presented in the museum’s main gallery, a rather old-fashioned, formal hall where the Clark’s foundational collection is usually housed.
With most of the Renoirs and other Impressionist paintings currently on tour, the staff decided to “shake it up a little bit. We completely emptied the gallery, painted the walls a much lighter color and created a bare space.” The current exhibit, Morris says, “is all about space.” The 19 photographs are, first of all, enormous—the prints average five feet across—with a sharpness of detail and color that is almost surreal.
All the scenes are of large public spaces. Struth focuses on museums and church interiors, H?fer on libraries and cloisters. H?fer’s spaces are almost devoid of people—the depth of field and quiet atmosphere almost make a foreground figure of the empty air. By contrast, Struth’s interest is in the people in the spaces, their interactions with their surroundings, and the physical and thematic reflections they produce.
A suite of five overlapping shots from the Prado in Madrid shows a crowd pressing in to look at Velasquez’s iconic painting “Las Meninas,” with its famous multiplicity of perspectives between the subjects, the painter and the viewer. In Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia, we see a group of tourists inspecting a work of art, but we can’t see what they’re looking at—it’s behind the camera. One of the viewers has a pair of sunglasses tucked into his shirt collar. Get up real close and you can see the subject of their gaze, reflected in the lenses: Michelangelo’s “David.”
The Clark’s trio of exhibits delivers a wide diversity of styles, media, subject matter and artistic viewpoints. But taken together, they also offer an intriguing perspective on what art is all about. In this view, it’s the attempt to express the human condition through human interactions: the two-way interplay of hand and eye, ideas and materials, artists’ visions and viewers’ insights.
Pissarro’s People runs through Oct. 2, El Anatsui through Oct. 16, Spaces through Sept. 5, at the Clark Art Institute,225 South St., Williamstown, (413) 458-2303, clarkart.edu.