Why do you love Impressionist paintings?” asked my friend Pinkie.
I thought I knew the answer: After all, I’d been studying Impressionist art for more than fifty years. Yet I found myself echoing Sancho in Man of La Mancha.
Aldonza asks Sancho why he follows Don Quixote. “Oh,” answers Sancho, “that’s easy to explain, I . . . I . . .”
“I’m telling you. It’s because . . . because . . . .”
When I think I know what I think, yet find myself saying, “because . . . because,” I start writing. And when I began to scribble down thoughts about Impressionism, I arrived at R. S. Thomas.
For his eighty-fifth birthday, I sent Thomas a book dealing with Monet’s paintings, which he promptly, as was his habit, acknowledged: “It was kind of you to remember my birthday and to send such a pleasant book on Monet. As you know, I love the Impressionists.”
Now, I though, I have R.S. on my side as I try to answer Pinkie’s question.
Why did R.S. love the Impressionists?
My answer begins with Romanticism, which rejected the aspects of modern life that Thomas uses “the Machine” to symbolize – the quantifying, monetizing, and factifying of life.
Thomas loved the Impressionists, because he himself was, in many ways, a poet in the tradition of Romanticism. And Impressionism is, in part, an outgrowth of Romanticism.
Romanticism was a rebellion against the Age of Reason in many of its manifestations: In architecture, the construction of perfectly balanced buildings. In philosophy, limiting all proposition about truth to the reasons of the head. In painting, a realistic depiction of how people and things actually look. In science, experimental verification of facts. In poetry, strings of rhyming couplets that use classic meters; here are Samuel Johnson’s couplets on the destructive pest that is the quest for gold:
Wide-wasting pest! that rages unconfin’d,
And crowds with crimes the records of mankind;
For gold his sword the hireling ruffian draws,
For gold the hireling judge distorts the laws;
Wealth heap’d on wealth, nor truth nor safety buys,
The dangers gather as the treasures rise.
The Age of Reason fathered the industrial revolution, with its hunt “For gold;” with its treatment of laborers as black-inked numbers in ledgers; with its “insatiable greed that gave birth to machines and aeroplanes and missiles and all the technology of the contemporary world.”
And along came the camera, another new machine, and the photograph-like paintings produced by the artists of the Age of Reason were no longer needed to record how family members and prize horses and pampered pets actually looked.
Photographers stop time, pin down a fact, and say, “This is how it is.”
By doing those things, photographers set painters free to say, “No, that’s only how it looks, not how it is. Is means much more than appearance at a split-second moment in time.”
Phrased differently, photographers set painters free to be poets – to paint metaphors, to capture emotions, to hint at transcendence.
Impressionists painted with both heart and mind fully engaged. They did not stop movement; rather, they painted the movement of wind over grass, the flickering of sunbeams on waving water, the spreading flush of passion in the faces of dancers.
R. S. Thomas loved the Impressionists, because they did with pigments what he did with words.
Thomas opens his poem “The Bright Field” with a snapshot:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it.
In mid-line, Thomas puts his camera aside, picks up his Bible, and alludes to two of Jesus’s similes:
But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it.
The biblical reference (Matthew 13:44-46) allows Thomas to lift his poem out of the photographic moment into that which transcends the momentary – into the impressionistic:
I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
Here Thomas leaves a gap between the stanzas – a cliff to stop us and give us time to ask, “Life is not hurrying . . .”
Not hurrying unnecessarily?
Not hurrying to catch a bus?
Back to Thomas: Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
Another biblical allusion (Exodus 3:1-6) reminds us that Thomas’s poems, like Impressionist paintings, require our active involvement. Unlike a Realist paintings and photographs, which declare, “This is how, in fact, it looks,” an Impressionist painting or poem invites us to share in the creative process – to see with our inner eye; to become emotionally, not just rationally, involved.
The photographer snaps something swimming in the sea and says, “Fish.” The Impressionist paints something swimming in the sea and says, “What do you see?”
William Blake writes: “What it will be questioned when the sun rises do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea?
“O no no I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
Poetry and prose of R. S. Thomas quoted in this blog:
“insatiable greed” – “No-One,” R. S. Thomas: Autobiographies, 108.
“I have seen the sun break through” – “The Bright Fields,” Laboratories of the Spirit, 60.