The Truth about Impressions by Bill Kirton
As the untrammelled lunacy of our times shows no sign of abating, I'm using this post to retreat to an age when communications were concerned with higher, more aesthetically challenging topics. A priceless recording has been discovered in the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Far from suffering from the distortions of the earliest Phonautograph waxings and the strangulated yells of Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, it has a clarity which has enabled the famous French scholar Jacques Frère to decipher every word. More remarkably still, it is the earliest example of a recorded interview. It dates from 1890 and the interviewer was a renowned contemporary art critic. His female interviewee is not identified by name but her role and historical importance are revealed in her answers. My translation of the transcript attempts to replicate her Parisian vernacular.
Paul Cézanne via Wikimedia Commons
CRITIC: Are you ready, Madame?
WOMAN: Will it hurt?
CRITIC: No, your voice will be captured on the cylinder, that’s all. Now, I assume your association with these so-called Impressionists means that you’re aware that they claimed to be ‘a generation whose fragmentation of the visual elements of experience dispensed with the erroneously deduced borders between reality and art’.
WOMAN: Yeah. Bloody rubbish.
CRITIC: Oh… Why do you say that?
WOMAN: Well, I was their landlady, wasn’t I? Used to take up their absinthe of an evenin'. I knew all of ’em.
CRITIC: So I understand. It must have been interesting work.
WOMAN: Yes, it was. I’d go into the studio – naked, of course – well, that was one of the rules, you see. Gents wore clothes, ladies didn’t. Mr Manet thought of that one. He was a little bit inadequate, I think, our Edward.
CRITIC: A true genius, though.
WOMAN: If you say so. Anyway, I’d go into the studio and there they’d be talkin' about translucent pigmentation and the transient fragility of perceptual experience, and they’d shout ‘Allo, Clothilde. Don’t forget the bromide’. And they’d all laugh, and start up again about the aesthetics of transcendence and textures within traditional chiaroscuro concepts. They didn’t seem to mind me listenin' to their filthy talk.
Edgar Degas via Wikimedia Commons
CRITIC: It sounds as if you were more or less accepted as one of their number.
WOMAN: Oh I was, I was. Even after that day I stepped on Mr Lautrec. He wasn’t hurt but they used to put him up on the mantelpiece after that, where I could see him, so he weren’t in no danger.
CRITIC: But danger must always have been a possibility. All those artistic temperaments?
WOMAN: Well, no wonder. The salon kept on refusin’ their paintin's, didn’t they? And it’s true some of them would come home in a foul temper. Mr Degas usually brought along one of his ballet dancers or jockeys, so he’d be alright, but Mr Cézanne used to just sit there fondlin' his oranges, and Mr Lautrec was so livid he nearly fell off the mantelpiece into the teapot. Course, Mr Gauguin was lucky. He won the lottery. Got away from it all. Trip to the South Seas.
Édouard Manet via Wikimedia Commons
CRITIC: It must have been soul-destroying for them, though.
WOMAN: Yes, every year it was the same. Trouble was, people kept encouragin' ’em. That Mr Baudelaire, the poet. Fancied himself as an art critic. He came along one day and said they were the forerunners of one of the greatest revolutions paintin’s ever seen. He was pissed at the time, mind you. He had a dead rabbit on a string. Said he was lookin' after it for a friend while she had some confidential treatment.
CRITIC: But he was right, wasn’t he? Their vision, their new perceptions of light and colour. They’ve revolutionised art.
WOMAN: Nah, it was their optician what done that.
CRITIC: Their optician?
WOMAN: Yeah. He was rubbish. Mind you, I only twigged when I noticed Mr Seurat’s glasses had spots all over ’em.
WOMAN: Yes. And Mr Renoir – well, he used to get a bit excited when all the models were about and his glasses’d steam up, so his paintin's came out all fuzzy. And Mr Van Gogh… well…
WOMAN: Well, you must’ve seen his paintin's, how different they are from the rest.
CRITIC: Well, yes, but he did have a special vision.
WOMAN: No, that’s it, you see. He didn’t. He had very little vision at all. Poor Vince. He couldn’t wear glasses because of his ear. Like I said, it’s all that optician’s fault. They could’ve been quite good artists.
CRITIC: Fascinating. I believe you were also there when Verlaine shot Rimbaud.
WOMAN: Yeah. What a laugh. He took out his…
Unfortunately, the recording stops abruptly at that point, but M. Frère is hopeful that more such gems are still lurking in the archives.