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Impressionism & Graffiti With a Common Denominator?

Rom Levy Rom Levy
Rom Levy Rom Levy
Rom is the founder & editor in chief of StreetArtNews. In 2009, he launched the ‘StreetArtNews’ website to promote underground art, which widened his scope to work with a larger roster of street artists on events and exhibitions. He is noted as one of the latest figures to help popularize street art and as an authority on the latest trends in urban contemporary art.
September 15, 2013
8 min read

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The sentences and paragraphs that follow are merely my opinion as Bruno Santinho, they were written, not to provide answers but rather share ideas and raise questions… speaking of which, I’ve been asking people a question lately with the intent to quench my curiosity and analyze how certain ideas are rooted in the psyche of modern culture. The question is quite simple. Name an art movement that came to be, thanks to a technological advancement in painting mediums and used the urban landscape as its muse?

On the left: Peasantby Cezanne. On the right: mural by Roid.  

No matter who the victim of this question was, gender or age, the reply is more often than not, Graffiti.
I have a certain difficulty hiding my delight and chuckling inside at the irony of it all… The reason is because the answer I was really looking for was Impressionism. At least a little over a decade ago in Art History classes the answer was clear, I guess not any more.
In fact there are certain similarities in the way these two art movements originated. In one case it was the paint tube (and its synthetic pigments that provided much more vivid colors) that gave painters the opportunity to finally leave the studio and paint outdoors, in direct contact with the urban landscape and all that came with it; the light, the movement, the energy and vibrancy of the city and these elements all translated into the artwork. The fact that they no longer had to mix each individual color but had a rich palette at the expense of a slight squeeze of the tube made them work in ways never before tempted. These spontaneous color choices, as well as quick brush strokes, were fundamental for the Impressionist aesthetic and resulted in an instinctive process, let’s not forget, they didn’t have time on their side either in order to capture the ephemeral light.
Paraphrasing Renoir’s words “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism.”

This alone is enough to establish a comparison to Graffiti, (the vibrant colors, the outdoor painting and the use of new painting techniques and mediums) the short time periods… Never mind the fact that the Impressionists were also neglected, ignored and even rejected by the art society of their time and had to find alternative ways to expose their work. Their answer to these adversities was The Salon Of The Rejects, where they broke barriers and detached themselves further from tradition; this was 139 years ago in 1874.
This attitude paved the way for other movements and techniques that derived from their audacity and defiance of the academy.

So in many ways these same contours can be seen in the Graffiti / Urban Art movement. Simply replace the paint tube by the spray paint and advance a “few” years in history. This cylindrical object revolutionized the way artists could paint. The speed, the colors, the quick dry and permanence of the paint, and portability of the cans changed the game and propelled a whole new technique and “savoir faire” that surfaced from the walls of our metro poles.
Despite of its concept dating back to 1790, and various attempts at reaching a result that could be commercialized it wasn’t until the mid 70’s that all the elements (environment friendly propellants, clog free valves, mixing peas etc…) came together to industrialize the spray paint. It was at this same time period that the first graffiti manifestations started to appear on walls (no use in dwelling into the idea that graffiti originated in pre-historic times and so on and so on… we are talking about Graffiti as an art movement and not the isolated act of randomly scribbling on a wall). As the Hip Hop subculture grew and gained massive popularity so did Graffiti and names like Lee Quinones, Fab 5 Freddy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Harring among others started to be recognized by their peers as pioneers of a new art movement that took the world by storm and spread its tentacles from the subway trains of New York to a brick walls all over the world.

On the left: Mural by Barry McGee. On the right: Picking Peasby Pissarro.

These walls were in a way, The Salon Of The Rejects of contemporary artists who found a way to quickly expose their art to hundreds of people walking to and from their work places. The power of these images on our walls and the messages they portrayed became so immediate that the recognition of the people behind their creation was inevitable and only a matter of time before the public acknowledged them as the artists of our time, of our culture. I believe graffiti was the “slap in the face” that was needed to move beyond the conceptual arts and embrace an art movement that could be understood and related to by the masses. In a sense we can say Graffiti demystified contemporary art the same way the impressionists did before and this inevitably caused the people to embrace the art form.

Much like Impressionism, Graffiti and Urban Art opened the doors to a group of individuals that without the spray can, would never have been promoted to the status of artists and would never have had the opportunity to show an audience their work. I have a feeling that if this didn’t happen it would be us, the art lovers, that would have lost a great opportunity to see such amazing work flourish from the streets…

On the left: Untitled (Blue Sky Line) by Basquiat. On the right: Impression: Sunrise by Monet

The intention of the article you have just read is not to compare or establish a parallelism between Graffiti/Urban Art and Impressionism, although I believe it can be done from an aesthetical point of view, the intention is simply to portray how what is happening to graffiti and Urban art isn’t new. It’s not really a personal vendetta that the critics have against this art form; it really is the way things happen. Anything that is new or different must endure the process of assimilation and acceptation and gladly graffiti is heading towards the end of this process and we are finally seeing this art being embraced and accepted.
In fact its actually normal that a movement with illicit work in the public space as its favored medium and roots in illegal activities would have a hard time being viewed as art and accepted as such but its slowly coming along so don’t be surprised if in a few decades your children or grandchildren will write an essay on Barry McGee, Revok, Aryz, David Choe, or Roid like we did on Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne or Vincent Van Gogh…
Just appreciate the spectacle, its not everyday that an art movement that will go down in history emerges in front of our eyes…

On top: Mural by Revok. Below: Starry Night by Van Gogh

Cover Images: On top: Gare St. Lazare by Monet. Below: Mural by Aryz.

Author: Bruno Santinho

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