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A SAM show of paintings worth mega-multiples of their weight in gold.

NOT ONE PERSON in 20 who ponies up $45 for the catalog of SAM's latest show will ever even dip into the introductory essay by curator Ann Dumas, let alone the seven additional monographs appended to it. And in this case that is a very good thing, because a lover of art or life would find more depressing reading hard to come by.

For most of us, the impressionists need no justification. Their work, and much of the rest of French art produced during the two astonishing decades of their flourishing, all but defines what the average Western human being means by the word "painting."

But alas, museum professionals, bless their hearts, do need justification.

Not employees of the development and membership departments, of course; no one ever lost money on an impressionist show. But curators are made of sterner stuff. The delight of sharing beautiful things with one's fellow creatures must figure somehow among the private motives driving them; in public, and before their peers, they need to demonstrate their scholarly seriousness and acuity of eye. A show must have a rationale, a theme, a thesis, to set it apart from all the other shows on tour; to live in more than memory, it must also have a substantial printed catalog, with texts supporting the theme or thesis selected.

You have to sympathize with anyone trying to come up with a fresh approach to the impressionists; any striking flowers growing in that field have long since been plucked. So it is that organizers of Impressionism: Paintings Collected by European Museums have been driven to select a theme that has little or nothing to do with the beauty, craft, or even subject matter of impressionism but a lot to do with politics, competition, and hard cash. In current critical jargon, the catalog text deals with the "reception" over time of the impressionist oeuvre: by museum officials, collectors, and above all art dealers—not just in Paris or France, but all across Europe.

ART HISTORIANS NEVER tire of pointing out that the word "impressionist" was applied sarcastically, that the first impressionist group exhibition in 1874 was met with public anger and incomprehension, that the work at first sold only at "derisory" prices or not at all. But in the hundred-odd years since the French state grudgingly accepted the gift of 38 works from the estate of the collector (and painter) Gustave Caillebotte, impressionist paintings, even second- and third-rate impressionist paintings, have become the blue-chip investment of the fine-art stock market: sometimes lagging one or another fashionable growth area, but good as—indeed, better than—gold as a store of value.

The story of impressionism, rendered in piecemeal fashion through the eight essays in SAM's catalog, is the story of the birth of a new industry: the modern art business. As with most such tales, it's not the idealists and innovators who occupy center stage but the manipulators, marketers, and money-changers. From this perspective, too, impressionism marked a revolution; not in the way paint could be applied to canvas but in who would buy and how they could be persuaded to pay for it. Before impressionism, the market for art was dominated by the establishment: the aristocracy, the state, the church, buying directly from the artist. After impressionism, the market-maker was no longer the purchaser but the dealer, in uneasy but symbiotic alliance with the critic, with both ultimately dependent on the press for their power.

It is an index of the spiritual power of much impressionist painting that looking at it can make you utterly forget how inextricably embedded it is today in the money-power-status matrix of late capitalist society. I suspect that this is the case because, during most of the 13 glorious years between 1874 and 1886 that the impressionist group held together, the machinery of commerce which was to carry their work to world domination was not yet functioning continuously or well. During those years, there was little reason for the artists in question to pursue any but personal—aesthetic, societal, emotional—objectives because there was no economic or political incentive to do so.

The result is a kind of purity of effect, manifested in a dozen different but equally inspiriting ways. Nothing is being sold to us: We are only invited to see, in intensely plangent fashion, just how lovely the world is, even at its most ordinary; how exquisite the passing moment, dissolving even as we look at it, how incredibly rich the texture of human association, somehow richest at its most thoughtless.

Other artists in other times achieved something like this; the Roman muralists of the early Christian era, the domestic painters of the Dutch Golden Age, Velằuez even at his most mythological. The impressionists do it while representing a world recognizably our own, a world of machines, factories, and artificial light as well as abounding nature and summer skies. They represent it too as we experience it: asymmetrical, off-balance, blurred along the edges. It is they who taught us to see it this way; but their way is closer to the truth, and there is no going back.

There are some weak and even dreadful paintings in the show, most of them by Renoir in his late commercial greeting-card vein. But offset by the incomparable shimmer of his 1874 Woman with a Parasol, they don't matter. There are some mushy Monets, too, compensated by the Mus饠d'Orsay's cool, sun-dappled The Port at Argenteuil. The absence of blockbuster images ensures that almost every work in the show offers the double pleasure of encountering the unfamiliar in familiar guise, in juxtapositions that never were before and likely never will be again.

 
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