The Impressionists were a movement of like-minded artists in France in the latter half of the 19th century who revolutionised how we look at the world. Artists before them had generally been more concerned with depicting religious events or significant moments in human history. A painting was there to tell a story and the skill of the artist was used to create an arresting and dramatic picture. Not all artists painted in this way but it was the established and accepted method.
Then painters like Renoir, Monet, Pissarro, Morisot and Sisley broke with this tradition and tried to look at the world anew – to see nature as it appeared in all its unique vividness and freshness, without a need for a grand narrative or story. Their method was to paint the world as they saw it directly and this required new techniques and new approaches to how they depicted what they saw and also how they used their materials. In the years between 1865 and 1875 one of the most radical movements in art history was instigated only to meet with great objection and derision. However, what was once outrageous 150 years ago is now one of the most popular art movement of all time.
What then was so new about Impressionism and why should it concern us here in a blog about meditation?
One unifying factor is ‘sensation’. The driving force of the Impressionist movement was a curiosity about the world as it actually appears to us in all its fleeting and changing ways, when all we have to go by is the information we take in through our senses. As painters representing these sensations, the information they were most concerned with was light, and light, rather than objects, is what the Impressionists strove to depict. This stimulus of the visual sense then became the colours, the forms and ultimately the subject matter of these artists paintings. Monet in particular was obsessed with the nuances of light at different times of the day and would paint the same view over and over again because he knew each time he painted the same scene it would be different.
As living beings our main way of deciphering the world is through sensory information. All our senses combine to provide us with valuable clues as to what is going on around us. We mostly interpret these sensations based on our conditioning which means we are prone to react in unconscious or habitual ways. Some times, however, we are able to stop and let these sensations wash over us – whether it is a sound, a taste or something we look at. The urge to grasp or to reject these sensations is put on hold and we can fully embrace the experience without making an initial judgement. In the language of vipassana meditation these sensations are called ‘vedana‘ or ‘feeling tone’ and are seen as the stimulus for a move towards either craving or aversion, both directions that lead to habitual behaviour and block our creativity.
What links the Impressionists response to light and the meditator’s response to her own sensations is an ability to put aside the habitual story we tell ourselves and to fully embrace the experience we are having. We do not always have to read a narrative into our own feelings or thoughts – sometimes the bigger picture is one where there is no story but rather a bigger vision. In this way we can put aside our preconceptions about the world and start to see it afresh.
Image – Pierre-Auguste Renoir, The Garden, Oil on Canvas – 1875.