Paint the Effect

On July 19 of this year, Canadian poet and author Dennis E. Bolen published a review, in the Vancouver Sun, referring to the Norm Gibbons novel, Voyage of the Arrogant, as “narrative impressionism.” The term appeared new to me, but made sense. Impressionism emerged as a visual art revolution, but it rose from roots in social upheavals that included politics, philosophy, music, and literature.

Cezanne, Mont St. Victoire, 1 of 60 versions

Cezanne, Mont St. Victoire, 1 of 60 versions

When I hear the word “impressionism” I see the bold, gold brushstrokes of Paul Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire, which, years ago, I first associated with impressionism. I should say: a version of Mont Sainte-Victoire, because from 1878 until his death in 1906, Cezanne painted over 60 perspectives of the scene, the mountain, valley, and villages near his home in Aix-en-Provence.

After the artist’s death, German poet Rainer Rilke grew so enchanted by Cezanne that he spent half a year in Paris and Prague, visiting galleries nearly every day and writing letters to his wife Clara about the artist’s vision. He contemplated colours working together “as if every place knew about the others.” He spent hours before a single painting – “airy blue, blue sea, red roofs, talking to each other in Green” – and recalled, “for a long time nothing, and suddenly one has the right eyes.”

Monet, Impression, soleil levant

Monet, Impression, soleil levant

As often happens in history, the impressionists earned their name from an insult. On April 15, 1874, in the studio of popular aerial and portrait photographer Nadar, on boulevard des Capucines, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, Pissarro, Monet, and twenty-five other painters, routinely rejected for the annual Salon de Paris, staged their first group public exhibition of 165 pieces. Le Charivari art critic Louis Leroy recorded his tour through the exhibit with famed landscape painter Joseph Vincent. Leroy satirically explains to Vincent, “Oh, form! Oh, the masters! We don’t want them anymore, my poor fellow! We’ve changed all that.” He deftly places his insult on the tongue of his esteemed guest, “a recipient of medals,” standing before Claude Monet’s Impression, soleil levant, Le Havre harbour in loose brush strokes that suggest an orange sun rising over the docklands.

Monet later explained: “Landscape is nothing but an impression, and an instantaneous one. … I had sent a thing done in Le Havre, from my window, sun in the mist and a few masts of boats sticking up in the foreground…. They asked me for a title for the catalogue; it couldn’t really be taken for a view of Le Havre, so I said: Put Impression.”

In Leroy’s account, upon reading this title, Vincent scoffs, “Impression – I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it … what ease of workmanship! Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape.”

Leroy called his diatribe “The Exhibition of the Impressionists,” and thus, while mocking these upstart artists, he inadvertently named the most important art movement since the Renaissance.


What did the impressionists do to so upset the Academie des Beaux-Arts? Heaven forbid! They abandoned the sanctioned styles taught by “the masters,” who depicted heroic scenes in precise detail and hid the brush strokes with careful blending. The horror! They depicted ordinary people in common settings. How quaint! They actually painted outside and in cafes, and observed the genuine shapes and colours of raw nature. The impudence! They imposed their own personal visions, feelings, and impressions on these uncouth subjects.

In so doing, they entirely anticipated 20th century neuro-psychology that would reveal the complexity of a human mind that receives, reconstructs, and interprets images. The new visual art depicted, not “things” unto themselves, but associations and reciprocity. The work foreshadowed the modern scientific understanding that we cannot describe “things” at all, but only relationships, interactions among apparent things, that nothing in nature exists alone, and that all events unfold within larger dynamic systems. They foreshadowed the sciences of holism, ecology, and cybernetics.

Van Gogh, Potato Eaters, detail

Van Gogh, Potato Eaters, detail

Modern physics, for example, has learned that in the sub-atomic realm, the more precisely we attempt to describe one characteristic of a system, the more vague the rest of the system appears. There are real limits to precision and to knowledge. The world appears complex, unstable, and elusive. Science, clearly, can achieve greatness, carry humans to other planets, and build vast wireless communication networks, but science cannot describe anything precisely, and must work with a dynamic world that will not sit still for its portrait.

So the impressionists, as they came to be known, served as the vanguard, crashing the culture, overturning the paradigm of precision. The insurrection, in both subject matter and technique, reached a crescendo in the 1880s with Vincent Van Gogh, who – except for his generous brother – never sold a painting in his lifetime. “Art galleries,” Van Gogh wrote to his sister Wilhelmina, “are in the clutches of fellows who intercept all the money [and only] one-tenth of all the business … is really done out of belief in art.” One-tenth? Sounds encouraging. One may wish we could say the same for modern art and publishing.

A necessary leap

Impressionism took root as a reaction against regulated, sanctioned art. The painters mingled in Paris cafés with equally frustrated writers, musicians, performers, sculptors, and philosophers.

Rodin’s Balzac

Rodin’s Balzac

French sculptor Auguste Rodin depicted vitality, distinctive character, and spirit, with riotous shards of clay that appeared to explode from his subjects. This unbridled power appears in his treatment of Honoré de Balzac, whose quirky, morally ambiguous characters revolutionized the French novel, and have influenced novels ever since.

Meanwhile, in Holland, a few Dutch poets adopted impressionist ideals – intimacy, raw emotion, and modest subjects – pushing back against a clique of Calvinist ministers, who had dominated Dutch writing. Jacques Perk, a relative unknown, who died at 21, left behind a collection of sonnets that rejected classical forms and rhythms, unleashed an impressionist movement in Holland, and inspired Dutch novelist Louis Couperus, whose psychological studies influenced Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Grey.

During the impressionist uprising, French poet Stephane Mallarmé held his now famous salons, gatherings of artists and intellectuals in his home in Paris, to discuss art and philosophy, conversations that influenced later symbolists, dadaists, and surrealists. Mallarmé wrote ambiguous phonetic verse and warned that “To name an object is to suppress three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which derives from the pleasure of step-by-step discovery; to suggest, that is the dream.” He wrote to French physician and symbolist poet Henri Cazalis, “I am inventing a language which must necessarily … paint, not the thing, but the effect it produces,” (“… non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit.”)

Et voila! There it is. Literary impressionism.

Virginia Woolf: “What a lark! What a plunge!”

Virginia Woolf: “What a lark! What a plunge!”

A prose of narrative impressionism lingered, only a kiss away. In England, Virginia Woolf, both by instinct and intellect, created an impressionist narrative style. In Mrs. Dalloway, particularly, Woolf deposed the conventional novel with a new way of witnessing events, through mental landscapes, broken, confused, and grasping at dreams, plans, and memory, glimpsing the effects of characters and events, not the events themselves.

“As writers,” Ruth Ozeki ponders in A Crucial Collaboration, “we rely on our readers to finish our thoughts.” And this means, “All meaning is created through relationship.” Subject, writer, and reader form a living system. Dennis E. Bolen pointed out in private conversation, that if an author does not spoil the reader’s hunt, if the author “creates a vérité that exceeds the literal description” then the prose encourages a “necessary leap” between information and image, and this leap “facilitates a psychological entry to the reader’s mind.” The reader, the viewer, becomes invested in the image, and then has a chance of discovering Rilke’s “right eyes.”

Consider the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, the haunting Never Let Me Go, or the popular Remains of the Day. Ishiguro writes only of effects, never mentioning, much less describing, the thing itself, the human dilemma, the evil empire that would harvest body parts or champion Hitler from the comfort of an English manor house. Ishiguro shows us the impact on others, on the spirit of others, on the delicate balance of society, and on the fragile psychology of an individual. And there, in the reflections, we glimpse the full weight of his subject.

History confused

A young Irish poet, William Yeats, attended the Mallarmé salons, absorbed the impressionist mutiny against convention, and began his own revolution in Sligo under Ben Bulben, along “pools among the rushes that scarce could bathe a star.” Yeats pursued a poetic language in magic and folklore.

Why folklore? Because folk tales – faeries and giants, absent fathers and lost mothers, animal voices and natural symmetry, carry the heart of the matter in a primal impressionism, rooted in real life, a natural knowledge that truth crouches camouflaged behind the archetypes of a story. Oral history performs an essential role that fixed, bookish history cannot touch. Conventional books attempt to preserve facts, histories, and truths, which can be biased by the perspective of the author, often conveying an erroneous history based on prejudice, mistakes, or outright propaganda.

Oral history performs the opposite way: In oral folk history, the details constantly change. The father is lost at sea. No, the father was a drunkard. No, the missing father was a prisoner of the king. Nevertheless, the core, the heart of the story, remains forever true. Some children grow up fatherless. Let us discover that, not in facts, but in emotions, in glimpses, in pictures that reflect the pain or the recovery. Flexible, oral history can preserve truth better than fixed, written history. In the ancient Hebrew scriptures we stumble upon this conflict between the “People of the Book,” sanctioned by kings, and the “People of the Land,” the peasant am-ha-Aretz, who intermarried and exchanged culture with their neighbours. Our modern word “pagan” literally means a country peasant, those people who believed in unsanctioned deities, who worshiped nature!

So, Yeats and other naturalist poets took refuge there, in magic, nature, folklore, and in the deeper truths of the living, oral culture. In Soldedades, the great Andalusian poet Antonio Machado finds inspiration in the folk songs of children heard in the stone streets around the water fountain, “in such old meters!” and in which “the history is confused but the pain is clear,” (“.. confusa la historia / y clara la pena.”).

Antonio Machado

Antonio Machado

He aqui! There it is again. In old songs, in ancient meter; in a confused history, the pain is clear. In Moral Proverbs and Folk Songs, Machado, builds a poetic language from folklore and reminds us: “el hacer las cosas bien / importa más que el hacerlas.”

“Making things well / is more important than making them!”

Why? Because making things well requires attention! Not just attention to the thing being made, but attention to its history, its context, and its impact on the village, on society.

“Wake up, you poets,” (“Despertad, cantores”), he continues. “Let echoes end, and voices begin.”

Ignore the sanctioned echoes. Create something real, even if confused. The world itself is confused. History is confused. History is not linear, not precise, and never captured. History is impressionistic in its nature, since all histories are reconstructions, and those reconstructions rely on shards of evidence, dubious memories, and even intentional misinformation from historians with political agendas, tenures to protect, or patrons to flatter.

Genuine art teaches us to see. Metaphor and impression are the language of nature, where everything is relationship, and where nothing stands alone.

And thus, we do not step onto the deck, or join the Voyage. We witness the effects. But in those effects, we sense something real, something far more important than facts or chronologies. The history is confused. The pain is clear. And even that clarity remains a fleeting impression.



Dennis E. Bolen: Master of Observation brings intimate dialogue to life

Ruth Ozeki: A Crucial Collaboration

Louis Leroy: The Exhibition of the Impressionists

Stephane Mallarmé, interview, “To name an object..”

Norm Gibbons: Voyage of the Arrogant

Virginia Woolf: Mrs. Dalloway

Antonio Machado: Poetry Dispatch