"Pissarro's People" at the Legion of Honor contains nearly 100 works of art, paintings as well as works on paper. These show the artist's family and friends, farmers markets in the French countryside, and workers in the fields. The show concentrates on figures rather than the landscapes that Impressionists are known for. Camille Pissarro, who considered himself an anarchist, shows workers' individuality. Local curator of the show James Ganz talks about how Pissarro would have been right at home in San Francisco, how the painter's images of bankers resonate now, and how Pissarro saw himself as a rural worker.
You've said Pissarro would have been at home in San Francisco. Why is that?
One of my colleagues referred to him as an aging hippie. Pissarro was very left - he self-identified as an anarchist, which had different connotations then. Now you think of an anarchist as someone setting garbage cans on fire, running around Oakland with masks. But he was pro-labor, pro-worker, and anti-industry, so I can see him quite happily in San Francisco. He was an individualist, and that's an exciting thing that comes out, and at the same time he was the one who stayed the course through the entire run of the Impressionist exhibitions. While some of his colleagues bailed, he stuck with it.
What has been the most enjoyable thing for you working on this exhibit?
I've always been interested in biography, and I like that this exhibition is really about the artist and his life, his relationships, his politics. It's not just about, "Oh, look at this beautiful painting," but it's really about what is behind these paintings and the intellect and the philosophy of the artist himself. I like how we start and end with self-portraits.
How do his politics enter into the show?
As I said, Pissarro was an anarchist, which was an essential aspect of his makeup as a person and an artist, and it certainly informed his art. He spent most of his life in the countryside rather than the city, which he felt was essentially corrupt. He painted many landscapes, but this exhibition focuses on his figure work. Many of them focus on working people, but I think in a kind of revolutionary way. It doesn't look down on them, it doesn't pass judgment on them, it doesn't show them as oppressed or lazy. It shows them as people living their lives in the contemporary world. And while that may not seem like a political statement to people coming to the show in 2011, it certainly was a new approach to this subject matter.
His images of rural labor and farming are quite different from the work of anyone at the time and emphasize the positive aspect of country living, of farming, of communal labor. The market scenes are not Parisian markets, but they're rural markets, which he so admired. The show ends with these kind of mythic, fantasy scenes, these landscapes that go on forever with no property lines. He was opposed to holding property.
Most vividly, there's book of pen-and-ink drawings, which reveal his strong political views in a way that doesn't quite come out in his paintings. It was never meant to be displayed - in fact it has never been exhibited before in a Pissarro exhibition until now. It's an extraordinary thing. The page we're showing is so unbelievable to me. This image of a banker clutching a sack full of capital surrounded by a mob of people is so resonant now.
What do you want people to know about Pissarro?
It's really important to note how he identified himself as a rural worker. He identified himself with the subjects he painted. He was very aware of the importance of handcraft, and many of his paintings were labored over, some over the course of more than a year. His technique as a painter was very deliberate, very time consuming. You think of Impressionism as a kind of free-flowing, fast style, but Pissarro did not paint quickly. If you really spend time looking at those canvases and brushstrokes, you see an artist who really worked hard at his art.
I think he certainly saw himself as a rural worker. There's that great photo of him where he's pushing an easel out to the landscape. He looks like he's pushing a wheelbarrow. He might as well be pushing a piece of farm equipment. I think his humanity really comes out in this show, which is very moving. Pissarro is an artist you really want to get to know. You can get to know him in three ways - through his paintings, through his drawings, and also through his letters, which are so revealing.
"Pissarro's People" continues through Jan. 22 at the Legion of Honor, 100 34th Ave. (at Clement), S.F. Admission is $7-$11.