Enchantment in the ordinary
During the late autumn Sunday afternoons, when the sky is chilled in silver, there are streets in residential London that look very much like this picture painted by Camille Pissarro. The rows of cosy brick houses haven't changed. The trees and the walled gardens are still well tended. And on a cold Sunday outing, people still wear capes and hats and the occasional warm wool skirt and walk hand in hand with long- haired children or push pompous-looking perambulators along the sidewalk. Carriages have been replaced by cars, but there are many streets that continue to use the original lampposts. It's a feeling of continuity, of family ties and family pride. For those dressed in their best, these are leisurely afternoons with somewhere to go, something to see, someone to visit. It's predictable, it's comfortable, it's reassuring. And Pissarro has caught it like a snapshot, as though it were yesterday.
But the date is 1871 and the subject is supposed to be the Crystal Palace -- which was moved in 1852 from Hyde Park, London, to Sydenham, a suburb of London. So much to the forefront are the dwellings of the middle class, and the strolling families, that the Crystal Palace seems more like an afterthought than a subject. Indeed, of all the subjects such an artist would choose, I should not have thought a street in suburbia to be one of them. Especially not for an artist like Pissarro, who more often than not painted factories and smokestacks, working boats and working men, market gardens and market people -- and not "la vie bourgeoise."m
Unlike his fellow Impressionists, Pissarro's thinking (and therefore his approach to painting) was affected by the political writings of the day, of the anarchist philosophers and political theorists. Although brought up in a middle-class home, he rejected the values he thought it represented and chose to identify himself with the life of the working man. Even his decision to become an artist was a conscious break with his background.
Pissarro's preference for the industrial and modern aspect of life also separated him from his impressionist colleagues, Monet, Renoir and Sisley. While they were glorying in the picturesque -- picnics and parties, sunsets and snow scenes -- he continued to paint that which seemed workaday, even dull. As a consequence, his paintings were sometimes considered unmemorable and were often overshadowed by the work of the other Impressionists. But he eschewed popularity. He had such a respect for the unspectacular and the practical that it enabled him to see that which was poetic in that which was prosaic.
What then was pissarro doing by painting such a bourgeois scene as "Crystal Palace, London, 1871"? Perhaps he was taken politically off guard when he moved to England to escape the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1870-71. Delighted with life in England, with london and its flowery suburbs, he settled at Lower Norwood, describing the area as a "charming suburb of London." Nearby, in Sydenham, the Crystal Palace stood as a monument to the modern, industrial age, a structure of prefabricated wood and glass and a reflector of light. It could have seemed a perfect vehicle for Pissarro to paint, and yet what he has painted is an ordinary street that he probably knew well because of its proximity to his home. And by upstaging the famed Crystal Palace -- the one unusual feature on the street -- he has completely deglamorized the scene. Yet because he was captivated by what hem saw, he immersed the entire scene in Impressionism. From a distance, "Crystal Palace, London, 1871" seems as lifelike as a photogrpah. But when one stands close to the canvas, the familiar scene dissolves into chaotic, irrational patches of pure pigment, no more sensible than the dots and lines that go into the making up of a television picture. Indeed, the world the Impressionists saw was one not of tangible, three-dimensional forms but rather of light and colour materialized in vapour, for to them, vaporous atmospheric conditions were thought to come between objects and the eye and thus dematerialize all form.
In "Crystal Palace, London, 1871" Pissaro, the truth seeker, is teaching us to see enchantment in that which would seem ordinary if it were not for its period charm. As an Impressionist, Pissarro is showing us something extraordinary, in fact, the great trick of the senses; that which the eye takes in as solid, completely disintegrates under inspection.