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Pissarro the pathfinder

Camille Pisarro, the man who inspired Cézanne and Renoir

Olivia Weinberg | May/June 2013

He was calm and clear-eyed, with a rabbinical beard and a humble smile. Cézanne called him a “master” and “a father for me”; Renoir said he was a “revolutionary”. He was the only artist to exhibit at all eight Impressionist shows between 1874 and 1886, and he wrote the movement’s founding letter. Camille Pissarro deserves more attention than he tends to get.

He is best known for his quiet grassy paintings of the lush French countryside: big wholesome fields, fluttering leaves that whisper in the wind and scruffy haystacks in all shapes and sizes. But Pissarro also had a lifelong interest in the human condition, exceptional in a landscape painter.

Think of Cézanne, Monet or Sisley: their landscapes show barely any sign of human life. Unlike his younger peers, Pissarro (1830-1903) painted less than a handful of unpopulated scenes—and his figures are always well worth a look. Some stand at the forefront, impossible to ignore, like "The Haymaker", 1884; others dissolve silently into the background. "The Cabbage Field, Pontoise", 1873 (above), is a simple study of lights and darks, with no frills, no pretence. The brushstrokes are lively and the thick impasto catches the sunlight. The canvas is covered in more than 50 shades of green, apart from a tiny hunched figure in blue, easy to miss. But in each setting Pissarro places ordinary people in their ordinary environment and gives us just enough detail to understand the landscape through them. He presents an uncomplicated rustic world that bristles with real social observation. His paintings quiver with life.

Never afraid to experiment, he changed his approach more than any other artist in the Impressionist circle, and in his late sixties he turned to the city. In 1897 he rented a room at the Hôtel de Russie in Paris and produced a series of paintings looking down the Boulevard Montmartre. Different from his landscapes—less intimate, more rapid—they are nonetheless every bit as accomplished. Now, finally, we have an exhibition that attempts to restore his reputation as one of the path-finders of modern art. Unaccompanied by his peers, this is all about Pissarro. ~ Olivia Weinberg

Pissarro Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, June 4th to Sept 15th; Caixa Forum, Barcelona (dates TBC)

EXHIBITIONS AT A GLANCE
Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (MoMA, New York, June 15th to Sept 23rd). “Chairs are architecture,” Le Corbusier once said, “sofas are bourgeois.” Quick-witted and beady-eyed, he was a giant of modern architecture. This, his largest New York show yet, promises 3D models and more.

A Crisis of Brilliance (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, June 12th to Sept 22nd). Spencer, Gertler, Bomberg and Nash were all students at the Slade in 1908—the school’s last “crisis of brilliance”, their teacher Henry Tonks said. Some of the most distinctive British art of the 20th century.

Nordic Art: the Modern Breakthrough 1860-1920 (Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich, May 30th to Oct 6th). Nordic art has been steadily gaining momentum and this sweeping survey proves a point. Full of icy colours and cool whispers.

In Fine Style: the Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion (Queen’s Gallery, London, to Oct 6th). A peek into the royal wardrobe through the masterly eyes of Holbein, Hilliard and Van Dyck. Imagine sumptuous fabrics, silky breeches and twinkling jewels, only better.

Wari: Lords of the Ancient Andes (Kimbell Art Museum, Texas, June 16th to Sept 8th). At the end of the sixth century, a drought ravaged the central Andean region of Peru. In its wake, the Wari civilisation was born. Here are their creations: intricate mosaics, colourful textiles and ceramics that zing.

Michael Landy: Saints Alive (National Gallery, London, to Nov 24th). After rummaging through car-boot sales in search of defunct gadgets, Landy has mixed his findings with fragments from old-master paintings, to make seven towering saints that twist and twirl. Confused? Me too, but it should be fun. ~ OW

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