If a documentary-style film about the inspiration behind a successful art exhibition doesn’t exactly sound like your cup of tea, hold it right there. The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism might be just what you need to restore a glimmer of light to your soul in these troubling times. You may well ask what a film about a lesser-known branch of the Impressionists could contribute to your life, and the answer would be twofold: ‘The opportunity to relax to the soothing tones of golden-voiced narrator Gillian Anderson’, and ‘A much-needed dose of perspective’.
In this film, which takes the viewer on a guided tour of the exhibition The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887–1920, it becomes apparent early on that there is nothing new under the sun. You thought Cape Town’s hipsters had some funny new-fangled ideas about permaculture and rooftop gardens? When middle-class Americans started feeling oppressed by expanding inner-cities and growing industrialisation, they found refuge in artists’ communes in old country houses all over the North-East, where they could spend all their time painting sun-drenched flower beds full of exotic blooms and genteel ladies draped elegantly next to rose bushes.
The film offers a timely reminder that people everywhere have always had their anxieties about modernisation, immigration, and change in general. It also illustrates how the American Impressionist movement provides a window to the evolution of women’s role in society at the turn of the century, and as such features works by the likes of Maria Oakey Dewing and Mary Cassatt, and William Merritt Chase (who didn’t mind painting women in strong poses). The audience is also introduced to trailblazing landscape architect Beatrix Farrand. Women were central to this movement that sought to find respite from grimy city life by creating and immortalising beautiful gardens, and the film ensures that their contributions might now be known by a wider audience than just students of American art history.
Western society has come far over the last 150 years, and yet in many ways it hasn’t budged at all. This reviewer can heartily recommend The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism to anyone who needs to hear that the ‘hot-button’ topics discussed at the dinner table at Florence Griswold’s art colony rather resemble the ones dominating our Twitter debates today. The film might even inspire some of us to participate in those debates whilst sitting in a public garden somewhere — the Impressionists may have been on to something there.
This instalment in the Exhibition On Screen series is directed by Phil Grabsky, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau between 15 and 20 April. Book your tickets at www.sterkinekor.co.za.