Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Landscapes of Loss

Alfred Sisley was born in France but to English parents, who sent the young Sisley to London to study business. This sounds like a cruel fate but his parents did him a great service because instead of studying hard to become a banker Sisley kept bunking off to hang out in the National Gallery, entranced by what he found there. Sisley returned to Paris four years later determined to become a painter, and undertook an apprenticeship in the studio of Charles Gleyre, who also taught Renoir and Monet. The rest, as they say, is history, as Sisley, along with his classmates, rapidly captured the imagination of the cultural public with their experimental plein air painting (and as Frank Auerbach once said "artists often come in gangs"…).

Sisley in England and Wales is a small show of two distinct groups of pictures Sisley painted over two visits to England. The first, in 1874, shows the bustling Thames (now ghostly quiet), and sun-filled Regattas at Molesley and Hampton Court palace. The pictures are light-hearted but Sisley was a dab-hand at finding a challenging view and the paintings are filled with interesting perspectives and spatial explorations such as the gently curving Road from Hampton Court to Molesley and Under the Bridge at Hampton Court. The paintings also include hints of industrial progress: water plumping stations, wiers and dams, as though Sisley wanted to show the beauty of the countryside but wanted also to present the viewer with a modern view. However whereas these paintings seem light and carefree the paintings resulting from his second visit, which was at the very end of his life, choke the throat.

Sisley’s parents disapproved of his relationship with his partner Eugenie and cut him from their will. In 1897 the couple headed to England to marry in secret docking first at Southampton and travelling to Cornwall, before tying the knot in lonely circumstances at Cardiff Registry Office, settling at Langland Bay for a time so that Sisley could get to artistic grips with the ragged peninsula at Gower.

In stark contrast to the paintings of 1874 these later works were made at a time of great emotional strain and personal difficulty. Not only were the couple effectively outcast, they were both dying; Alfred had throat cancer and Eugenie cancer of the tongue. Given the circumstances it is hardly a cause for surprise that the Welsh landscapes are made of sterner stuff that the Molesley Regattas of some 20-years earlier. In Sisley's hands, Welsh Coast (Penarth) and Cliff at Penarth are places of futile contemplation, imbued with Sisley's heavy heart, and Storr's Rock at Rotherslade Bay becomes a summing-up of the violence of life, an immoveable, tangible mass of tumultuous emotion. This work is Sisley's emotional life laid bare, shipwrecking itself on lonely coves and violent outcrops, and that these paintings are his final reckoning of the world only strengthens that palpable, plummeting sense of loss.

It's free to get in, and the brilliant catalogue is only 6.95, but you might need to take a hanky.

Sisley in England and Wales
at The National Gallery until 15th February 2009
and at National Museum Wales, Cardiff 7th March to 14th June 2009

The National Gallery