Impression, for the uninitiated, is summarised rather succinctly in this film as being an artistic movement in which the artist is free to express their response to the world. Having eagerly enjoyed last year’s Royal Academy exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’, I approached this film with a base level of knowledge and eager to learn more. And, to be sure, while the film is thorough and illuminating in its research, the dull structure and uninspired filmmaking meant that discovering how these beguiling masterpieces were created was often as dull as watching paint dry.

The film begins by charting John Signer Sergeant’s friendship with Monet, and from then takes in a wide array of sociopolitical milestones. Charting America from exploration to exploitation, individual to industry, rich to super rich. There are plenty of illuminating arguments made throughout. Featured academics make a case for the growth of the American garden movement being a reaction to the growth of cities, industrialisation and even immigration. These formidable factors are viewed as being reason enough for artists and elites to retreat into their gardens, safe havens of expression, objective beauty and solitude in a rapidly changing (meta)physical landscape. Another interesting argument to be made, and it is made rather well, is the connection made between the garden and impressionist movements to the burgeoning women’s movements. Rather than being confined to the indoors and viewed as immobile, figures of women in impressionist painting are in some cases protofeminist. They strike expressive and ambitious poses that goes beyond simply aligning them to the ‘life-giving’ symbolism of gardens and nature.

Here, however, is where I have to refrain from praising the film. The second half of the film is rigidly structured around a rotation of historical analysis, coupled with individual interpretations particular paintings. It was here is where I really struggled most with the film. The fact that these readings take up a considerable amount of the final third meant I was more than ready for the credits to begin rolling in, much the same way one hurries out of a gallery when feet begin to tire and the mind loses focus.

It feels more like it should be screened in a museum. Gillian Andersons’s altogether monotone voiceover feels tailor made for an overpriced audio tour. One can understand there being a preference to fostering a subdued and genteel atmosphere; to align itself with the subject matter. But while the painting are borne of passion, the camera work is as bare bones as they come: devoid of dynamism, opting for smooth pans across gardens, and lengthy close ups of pictures hanging on gallery walls. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, the sad fact is that the footage looks cheap and unenthused. Something that can be illuminating within the setting of a museum, aided by a guide, when seen on a screen with stifled camera angles is rather uninspiring to say the least.


Dir: Phil Grabsky
Scr: Phil Grabsky
Prd: Amanda Wilkie
DOP: Clive Mattock
Music: Dimitri Tchamouroff
Country: USA
Year: 2017
Run time: 87 mins

The Artist’s Garden: American Impressionism is in cinemas 21st March.

By Robert Whitehead

Keele/Kings College London graduate Film Critic 23