After First Impressions...

At the Rolly-Michaux Gallery Through November 26 "An official whom I'd heard of as the Flemish patron-of-the-arts was showing me
By Diana R. Laing

At the Rolly-Michaux Gallery Through November 26 "An official whom I'd heard of as the Flemish patron-of-the-arts was showing me around his apartment one day, consulting me in front of each painting, talking a little about Art, a lot about nature, praising the landscape, explaining the subject and, above all, pointing out the price of each work to me..." Baudelaire

The wind licked Dartmouth Street aimlessly, twirling bits of paper across the sidewalk. Pedestrians shivered and hurried as the shadows grew longer; the afternoon was fading fast. The guests hurried into the gallery to luminous landscapes, restrained delight and canapes. Baudelaire, whose art criticism could be as sparse and illuminating as his poetry was scented with opiate-rich darkness, would have enjoyed the scene. For here, in this glass-fronted room glowing out of the duck of Boston, the sophisticates peered and exclaimed much as they would have a century or more ago at the opening of a Paris Salon. While describing the "Painter of Modern Life" in the mid-19th century, Baudelaire had hinted of the paradox that attends modernity:

"[It] is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable."

In the 20th century gallery the people admired the immovable flecks of paint that still suggested the fleeting vision of a group of Post-Impressionist painters. They chatted idly. The afternoon was a skirmish of de-clawed cultural one-upmanship. There was a lot of talk about market prospects for the paintings and the scarcity of a certain artist's work because it is difficult to sound knowledgeable about the sensations impressionism evokes. It is perhaps the most ambiguously worded of artistic messages precisely because it imparts no message. There is a foreshadowing of the primitivism of later 20th century art in it and much of its restlessness, and so one is relieved to fall back on exchanges of anecdotes instead of theories of aesthetics.

Rolly-Michaux's Sunday afternoon preview, however, did not just afford a glimpse of viewers as preoccupied with each other's reactions to art as with the art itself. The paintings on exhibit include 10 works rarely seen in this country by the Post-Impressionist Georges Binet (1865-1949) and a rich collection of recent works by the 65-year-old Rouen artist, Albert Malet, who has been called "the last of the Impressionists." The paintings are very different in spirit but alike in quality; this is a small exhibition, but you will want to linger long.

Georges Binet was one of those fortunate individuals not compelled to starve as an artist. He was well-to-do and had almost immediate artistic success at the Paris Salons, receiving gold medals for his work, becoming an Officer of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, and finally made Knight of the Legion d'Honneur in 1937. The prosperity and security show through every canvass--his is a decidedly comfortable art. There is no question of his technical skill or the "prettiness' of his paintings, large or small (he generally preferred to paint them about 10' by 15"). Indeed, they are jewels. One feels the same covetousness for these shimmering landscapes as for any precious and portable object.

"Evian" was painted in 1900, and its view of the waterfront could only have been from an elegant carriage on the sloping road above. The work shows an afternoon hazyhot, captured forever beneath a coat of varnish, fresh sea air sealed in with this sketch of an age one imagines in likewise indefinite terms. Binet was very fond of flowers and there are several rather innocuous but decorative paintings of poppies, roses or a flowering tree over a stream. And yet one begins to wonder about this artist while looking at "Saint Mandrier," a view of boats moored at a dock. Painted in 1943, it is almost identical technically and in mood to his turn-of-the-century vista of Evian. In an age when one is accustomed to an artist's regular reappraisal and redirection of his own work, this continuity is rather a surprise. It is almost as if Binet, having once perfected his craft, spent the rest of his life hermetically sealed away from the explorations of his contemporaries. It seems ironic that Impressionism--itself a traditions of mid-19th century art--should be the vehicle for this man's repeating for fifty years the same kind of radical challenge to the etiquette-formal image. After all, wouldn't an old man view the scene about him somewhat differently than a young one? This may be explained by the pure accident that there are very few of them on the market just now, so it is possible that the artist did make weird and wonderful journeys in the tangled warren traversed by the successors of Manet, Degas, et al., but here, now, it is hard to trace a great deal of development.

Albert Malet, despite the unenviable distinction of being "the last of ... ," paints intensely beautiful scenes that could have been painted any time in the last 100 years but not by anyone else. They are timeless without that overly decorous and rather anonymous look of the Binets. "Bords de Seine pres de Rouen" is a painting with the classic Impressionist theme--the play of air, light and water--that is a gorgeous and glowing juxtaposition of summery pinks, oranges, turquoises and golds with a twilight wintry landscape of muted purples and greys. "Neige a Limesy" is the only one of Malet's works on exhibit here that doesn't include a body of water, but it too is spectacular quite out of proportion to its size (21" by 25 1/2"). Again there is a skillful use of both transparently bright colors and sludge-heavy ones; the sky is a gold-tinged pink in stark contrast to the dark tree silhouetted in the foreground. The landscape in the background is lavenderhued without the musty scent.

Someone once said that avant-garde movements inevitable lose their momentum, citing Impressionism and the hippie movement as classic examples of his theory. Yet the art of Malet is fortunate: Created in an age so befuddled by every kind of "-ism" from Fauvism to Cubism to Dadaism, and with new fashions developing in geometric progression, it is graced by a label which, while evoking instant recognition (everyone's aunt gushes over "the lovely Impressionist paintings"), does not really set any limits on an artist's self-expression. Impressions pure and simple. Few painters escape the biggest pitfall along this path--a surrendering to the superficial image, a revelling in aesthetics and the senses as a compensation for one's alienation from modern life, what Walter Pater called a "quickened multiplied consciousness"--yet Malet seems to.

"Honfleur" for example is a relatively simple harbor scene with two sailboats, one red, one blue, at the right foreground, but the painting is not just pretty. When Binet paints this kind of subject, one hears a chatter of Edwardian polite conversation. With Malet, though, though, it is the screaming gull one imagines.

"How much is that divine Dufy?" queries a lady sipping white wine slowly from a clear plastic cup. The painting in question is Raoul Dufy's "Le Palmier, Pension Sevigne" and the price high in the thousands. There are half-laughs in the lady's party, and they move on to "a more affordable fantasy," a $2,700 Binet. As you walk away toward Copley Square, the gallery looks like a three dimensional version of one of its pictures. There is the same dichotomy between the warm, brightly lit, glass-walled room and you (heading in the falling-dark for the subway) as there is between a straggling New England winter and the Mediterranean sun.