The Post-Impressionists by Belinda Thompson (2nd edition 1990)

Impressionist artists paint what they see; post-Impressionist artists paint what they feel

Post-Impressionism

The most important thing about ‘post-Impressionism’ is that the expression was coined in 1910, by an English art critic (Roger Fry), well after the painters it referred to were all dead. It is generally used to describe the principal French painters of the 1880s and 1890s, specifically Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, along with lesser artists of the period – but is an entirely invented, post hoc expression.

This large format book (30 cm tall x 23 cm wide) includes 180 illustrations (80 in dazzling full colour) so that, even without reading the text, just flicking through it is a good introduction to the visual world of the era.

The Impressionist legacy

Essentially, the Impressionists in the 1860s and 70s had broken with the constraints of the style of academic painting which was required to gain entry to the annual exhibitions at the official Paris Art Salon – thus also breaking with the traditional career path to establishing a professional livelihood through sales to traditional ‘bourgeois’ patrons.

The Impressionists saw themselves as a group of ‘independents’ or ‘intransigents’ who broke various rules of traditional painting, such as:

  • the requirement that a painting depict grand historical or mythological subjects – the Impressionists preferred to depict subjects and scenes from everyday life
  • the requirement for each painting to be as realistic as possible a window onto an imagined scene by concealing brushstrokes – whereas the Impressionists foregrounded highly visible dabs and brushstrokes
  • the requirement to bring each painting to a peak of completion, with a high finish – whereas the Impressionists often let raw canvas show through, deliberately creating an air of rapid improvisation in pursuit of their stated aim to capture ‘the fleeting moment’

The Impressionists also established the idea of organising group exhibitions independent of the Salon, a new and provocative idea which placed them very firmly outside the official establishment. The history of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, held between 1874 and 1886, is complex and multi-layered.

Meanwhile, their great patron, the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, developed the idea of holding one-artist shows organised in such a way as to show each artist’s evolving style and subject matter, itself a novel idea at the time.

And lastly, the Impressionists garnered from their various writerly supporters a range of manifestos, pamphlets and articles defending them and explaining their artistic principles.

These, then, were the achievements and strategies which the post-Impressionists inherited and took full use of.

The weakness of post-Impressionism as an art history term

Thompson’s book from start to finish shows the problematic nature of the term ‘post-Impressionism’ almost as soon as you try to apply it. Sure, many of the ‘post-Impressionists’ exhibited together at a series of exhibitions in the 1880s and 90s – but they were never a self-conscious group, never had manifestos like the Impressionists.

Far from it, during the 1880s Gauguin, who developed into a ‘leader’ of many of the younger artists, expressed a violent dislike of the so-called ‘neo-Impressionist’ group which developed in the 1890s and which was virulently reciprocated. Yet, despite hating each other, they are both now usually gathered under the one umbrella term, post-Impressionism.

The new young artists of the 1880s and 1890s worked amid a great swirl of artistic movements, which included Symbolism (Odilon Redon, Gustave Moreau) and the would-be scientific neo-Impressionism (often identified with Pointillism) of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, as well as the influence of non-French artists such as Ferdinand Holder (Swiss) or James Ensor (Belgian) and, of course, of the Dutchman Vincent van Gogh. All of these came from different traditions and weren’t so in thrall to the essentially French Impressionist legacy.

Again and again consideration of the term post-Impressionism breaks down into the task of tracking the individual careers and visions of distinct artists – with the dominating personalities being Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, but with lesser contemporaries including Puvis de Chavannes, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Eduard Vuillard also contributing.

If you can make any generalisations about the ‘post-Impressionists’ it is around their use of very bright, harsh garish colours (compared with the Impressionists’ more muted tones) and their departure from, their flying free from, the constraints of a ‘naturalistic’ ideology of painting ‘reality’.

In summary

Thompson’s book is an excellent and thought-provoking account of the complex of commercial pressures, individual initiatives and shifting allegiances, characters, theories, mutual competition, individual entrepreneurship and changing loyalties which undermine any notion of a clear discernible pattern or movement in the period – but which makes for an absorbing read.


Four key exhibitions

The first half of the book gives a detailed account of a series of key exhibitions, which she uses to bring out:

a) the differences between so many of the artists
b) their changing ideas and allegiances

The Eighth Impressionist Exhibition (1886)

Of the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition we learn that only Degas, Pissarro, Guillamin and Berthe Morisot of the original group exhibited, Renoir and Monet having cried off, partly hoping still to exhibit at the Salon. Degas created a lot of ructions by insisting that the show take place during the same weeks as the official Salon’s big annual exhibition – a deliberately provocative gesture – and insisting that a number of his figure-painting friends take part, though they had little real affinity with Impressionism (namely Mary Cassatt, Forain, Zandomeneghi and the completely unrelated Odilon Redon).

It is useful to learn that the pointillists Seurat and Signac, along with the old-timer Pissarro and his son Lucien (who were both experimenting with pointillism), were given a room of their own. This explains why they gave such a strong vibe of being a new and distinct movement and so prompted the critic Félix Fénéon to give them the name ‘Neo-Impressionists’.

As mentioned above, Gauguin had a falling-out with Signac which led the followers of both to crystallise into opposing camps.

The Volpini Exhibition (1889) – ‘Groupe Impressioniste et Synthétiste’

To mark the centenary of the Great Revolution of 1789, the French government sponsored a huge Universal Exhibition, to be held in buildings erected in the grounds around the newly opened Eiffel Tower.

As part of the Exhibition the Salon/Academie of Beaux-Arts staged a big show designed to tell the story of French painting over the previous century, which included some but not many of the Impressionists, and then only of their early works.

Gauguin organised a rival show at the Cafe Volpini in the nearby Champs de Mars made up of artists he had met painting in Brittany, including Émile Bernard, Émile Schuffenecker, Charles Laval, Léon Fauché and Louis Roy. Later historians credit this show with the launch of a ‘Pont-Aven’ school (named after the French town where Gauguin had developed his style) but Thompson shows how varied in look and style these artists were, which tends to undermine that claim.

Notable were the absentees: Toulouse-Lautrec was considered for the Volpini show but eventually debarred because he’d been exhibiting at a private club, and van Gogh, who desperately wanted to be included, was prevented from doing so by his art dealer brother, Theo, who thought it was a tacky alternative to the official Exhibition.

To the untrained eye the pieces shown here:

  • have gone completely beyond the Impressionist concern for the delicate depiction of light and shadow into a completely new world of vibrant colours and stylised forms – The Buckwheat Harvest by Émile Bernard
  • and, if they are depicting ‘modern life’, they do so with – instead of dashes and daubs of light – very strong black outlines and sinewy lines, very much in line with Lautrec’s work and the feel of Art NouveauAvenue de Clichy, Five O’Clock in the Evening by Louis Anquetin

The word ‘synthétiste’ appeared, applied to Anquetin’s work, and meaning the combination of heavy dark outlines with areas of flat, unshadowed, uninflected colour.

The art critic Fénéon wrote an insightful review of the exhibition in which he singled out Gauguin as having found a new route past Impressionism which was also completely opposite to the pseudo-scientific approach of the pointillists, a style in which Gauguin:

rejects all illusionistic effects, even atmospheric ones, simplifies and exaggerates lines

giving the areas created by the outlines vibrant, often non-naturalistic colouring. – Breton Calvary, the Green Christ (1889).

During the late 1880s a young painter named Paul Sérusier, studying at the Academie Julian, had gathered a number of devotees who called themselves the ‘Nabis’ or prophets, and they decided that Gauguin was the vanguard of a new painting and set off to Brittany to meet and copy the Master.

Gauguin was also at the core of an essay written by the painter and critic Maurice Denis – ‘Definition of Neo-Traditionism’ – which claimed that:

  • Gauguin was a master of a new style which emphasised that a painting is first and foremost an arrangement of colour on a flat surface
  • therefore, it is futile trying to achieve illusionistic naturalism
  • and that the neo-traditionists (as he called them), having realised this, were returning to the function of art before the High Renaissance misled it, namely to create an art which is essentially decorative – which doesn’t pretend to be anything other than it is

The Fourth Le Barc de Boutteville Exhibition of Impressionists and Symbolists (1893)

This exhibition featured 146 works by 24 artists and displayed a bewildering variety, including as it did Impressionists like Pissarro, neo-Impressionists like Signac, the independent Toulouse-Lautrec, ‘school of Pont-Aven’ followers of Gauguin, and ‘Nabis’ like Bonnard and Vuillard. If it sounds confusing, that’s because it is confusing.

The explanation for it being such a rag-tag of different artists and styles is that it was one of a series put together by the thrusting new art dealer, Le Barc de Boutteville. The main beneficiaries were the ‘Nabis’ who fitted in well with the contemporary literary movement of symbolism. – Nabi landscape by Paul Ranson (1890).

Thompson brings out the political differences between the pointillists – generally left-wing anarchists – and the Nabis – from generally well-off background and quickly popular with established symbolist poets and critics.

The Cézanne One-Man Show (1895)

Cézanne acquired the reputation of being a difficult curmudgeon. In the early 1880s he abandoned the Paris art world and went back to self-imposed exile in his home town of Aix-en-Provence. When his rich father died in 1886, Cézanne married his long-standing partner, Hortense, moving into his father’s large house and estate. To young artists back in Paris he became a legendary figure, a demanding perfectionist who never exhibited his work.

The 1895 show was the first ever devoted to Cézanne, organised by the up-and-coming gallery owner and dealer, Ambroise Vollard. The 150 works on display highlighted Cézanne’s mature technique of:

  • creating a painting by deploying blocks of heavily hatched colour built up with numerous parallel brushstrokes
  • his experiments with perspective i.e. incorporating multiple perspectives, messing with the picture plane
  • his obsessive reworkings of the same subject (countless still lives of apples and oranges or the view of nearby Mont Sainte-Victoire)

The one-man show marked a major revaluation of Cézanne’s entire career and even prompted some critics to rethink Gauguin’s previously dominant position, demoting him as leader of the post-Impressionists and repositioning him as the heir to a ‘tradition’ of Cézanne, placing the latter now as a kind of source of the new style.

You can certainly see in this Vollard portrait something of the mask-like faces of early Matisse, and the angular browns of Cubism (Picasso was to paint Vollard’s portrait in cubist style just 11 years later), even (maybe) the angularities of Futurism. It all seems to be here in embryonic form.

Thompson’s analysis of these four exhibitions (chosen from many) provides snapshots of the changing tastes of the period, but also underlines the sheer diversity of artists working in the 1880s and 1890s, and even the way ‘traditions’ and allegiances kept shifting and being redefined (she quotes several artists – Bernard, Denis – who started the 1890s revering Gauguin and ended it claiming that Cézanne had always been their master).

Themes and topics

In the second half of the book Thompson looks in more detail at specific themes and ideas of the two decades in question.

From Naturalism to Symbolism

If one overarching trend marks the shifting aesthetic outlooks from 1880 to 1900 it is a move from Naturalism to Symbolism. In 1880 artists and critics alike still spoke about capturing the natural world. Symbolism was launched as a formal movement in 1886 with its emphasis on the mysterious and obscure. By the end of the 1880s and the early 1890s artists and critics were talking about capturing ‘hidden meanings’, ‘subtle harmonies’, ‘penetrating the veils of nature’ to something more meaningful beneath.

Thus although Monet and Cézanne continued in their different ways to investigate the human perception of nature, the way their works were interpreted – by critics and fellow artists – shifted around them, influenced by the rise of an increasing flock of new art movements.

Thompson vividly demonstrates this shift – the evolution in worldviews from Naturalism to Symbolism – by the juxtaposition of Women Gleaning (1889)  by Camille Pissarro and Avril (1892) by Maurice Denis just a few years later.

The difference is obviously one of vision, style and technique, but it is also not unconnected with their political differences. Pissarro was a life-long left-winger with a strong feel for working people: his oeuvre from start to finish has a rugged ‘honesty’ of subject and technique. Denis, by contrast, was a committed Catholic mystic who spent his career working out a private system of religious symbols, a personal way of depicting the great ‘mysteries’ of the Catholic religion.

Politically, thematically, stylistically, they epitomise the shifting currents, especially of the 1890s.

‘Synthesis’

Synthesis/synthetism was a common buzzword of the Symbolists. It means the conscious simplification of drawing, of composition and the harmonisation of colour. Included in this general trend were the taste for Japanese art (liked by everyone from the 1870s onwards), the symbolist fashion for ancient art e.g. from Egypt, and for ‘primitive’ European art i.e. the Italian 14th century.

(This growing taste for exotica and the non-European obviously sets the scene for the taste for Oceanic and African art which was to come in in the early years of the 20th century.)

Interestingly, Thompson shows how this same line of interpretation – simplification, strong outline, unmediated colour – can be applied both to Seurat’s highly academic pointillist paintings and, in a different way, to the violently subjective works of Gauguin. On the face of it completely different, they can be interpreted as following the same, very basic, movement in perception.

Portraiture

Cézanne’s portrait of Achille Emperaire (1868) was contemptuously rejected by the judges at the Salon. 20 years later, hung at the back of the collector Père Tanguy’s shop, it was a subject of pilgrimage and inspiration to the new generation – to the likes of Gauguin, van Gogh, Bernard and Denis.

Thompson explores the differing approach to portraits of more marginal figures like Redon, van Rysselberghe and Laval, but the centre of the chapter compares and contrasts Gauguin’s virile ‘synthetic’ self-portraits with van Gogh’s quite stunning self-portraits.

The examples Thompson chooses show both artists as head and shoulders above their peers, with van Gogh achieving a kind of god-like transcendence.

Gay Paree

Thompson makes the interesting point that ‘Gay Paree’ was largely a PR, press and tourist office invention of the last decades of the 19th century, capitalising on the proliferation of bars, circuses and cabarets, epitomised by the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889, and marketed through the expanding medium of posters and adverts in new, large-format newspapers and magazines.

Yet by the 1890s this had become a darker vision, a night-time vision. Thompson compares the lovely sun-dappled idylls of Renoir, who painted working class revellers at the Moulin de Galette cafe in Montmartre in the 1870s – with the much darker, sometimes elegant-sometimes grotesque visions of the dwarfish aristocrat, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec – At the Moulin Rouge (1892). The 1890s were a darker decade.

Politics

In the last few chapters Thompson brings in an increasing amount of politics. The chapter on Gay Paree had already brought out how life for the average working class Parisian, despite the tourist posters, still involved harsh, long hours at poor pay (and she throws emphasis in particular on the exploitation of women – as laundry women, washerwomen, shop assistants, and the huge army of prostitutes).

This is all set against the increasing political turmoil in Paris, which saw a number of anarchist bombings in the 1880s and 1890s leading up to the assassination of President Carnot in 1894, who was stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist. In the backlash, some art critics were arrested for their left-wing sympathies and left-wing artists (Pissarro and most of the pointillists) kept their heads down.

Later the same year – 1894 – saw the beginning of the long, scandalous Dreyfus Affair, which started with the arrest of a Jewish army captain for supposedly leaking military secrets to the Germans. He was tried and found guilty on very shaky evidence then, after a long campaign to free him, another trial was held, which found him guilty again and sentenced him to hard labour on Devil’s Island.

(Although it’s a fiction book, Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy gives the most detailed account of the evidence and the successive trials which I’ve read.)

The affair dragged on for over a decade, driving a great wedge between supporters of the Establishment, of the law and justice system, of la patrie and of Catholicism – and liberal and left-wing politicians and sympathisers, who saw the whole thing as an embarrassing stitch-up, as the symbol of a fossilised reactionary order which needed to be overthrown.

The Affair also brought out a virulent strain of anti-Semiticism among anti-Dreyfusards, who used his supposed guilt to implicate the whole world of cosmopolitan culture, corruption, decadent art, sexual perversion and all the usual suspects for right-wing ire.

And the Affair divided the art world. Degas, in particular, comes off very badly. As a conservative anti-Dreyfusard, he severed ties with all Jews of his acquaintance (including his old Impressionist colleague, Pissarro). Shameful.

The Dreyfus Affair brought into focus a movement on the right, known as le Ralliement, which attempted to bring all the forces of ‘order’ into one unified movement in order to combat the perceived growth of working class and socialist movements.

Suffice to say that the artistic developments of the 1890s took place against a darker, more intense social background than that of the 1880s.

Thompson shows how this shifting political backdrop can be read into the art of the 1890s, with Catholic artists like Denis producing works full of Christian imagery, while the perfectly balanced and idealised visions of the neo-Impressionists (given that most of them were well-known left-wingers) can be interpreted as the depiction of a perfect socialist world of justice and equality.

In this more heavily politicised setting, the apparently carefree caricatures of Toulouse-Lautrec gain a harsher significance, gain force as biting satire against a polarised society. (Certainly, the grotesqueness of some of the faces in some of the examples given here reminded me of the bitter satirical paintings of post-war Weimar Germany, found in Otto Dix and George Grosz.)

Meanwhile, many other artists ‘took refuge in’ or were seeking, more personal and individual kinds of spirituality.

This is the sense in which to understand Thompson’s notion that if there is one overarching movement or direction of travel in the art of the period it is out of Naturalism and into Symbolism.

At its simplest Symbolism can be defined as a search for the idea and the ideal beneath appearances. Appearances alone made up more than enough of a subject for the Impressionists. But the post-Impressionists were searching for something more, some kind of meaning.

In their wildly different ways, this sense of a personal quest – which generated all kinds of personal symbols and imagery – can be used to describe Cézanne (with his obsessive visions of Mont Sainte-Victoire), Gauguin’s odyssey to the South Seas where he found a treasure trove of imagery, Van Gogh’s development of a very personal symbolism (sunflowers, stars) and even use of colours (his favourite colour was yellow, colour of the sun and of life), as well as the journeys of other fin-de-siecle artists such as the deeply symbolic Edvard Munch from Norway – who Thompson brings in towards the end of the book.

Landscape

In the chapter on landscapes Thompson is led (once again) back to the masterpieces by those two very different artists, van Gogh and Gauguin. Deploying the new, politicised frame of reference which she has explained so well, Thompson judges the success or failure of various artists of the day to get back to nature, specifically to live with peasants and express peasant life.

Judged from this point of view, Gauguin comes in for criticism as a poseur, who didn’t really share the peasant superstitions of the people he lived among in Brittany any more than he really assimilated the non-European beliefs of the peoples of Tahiti where he went to live in 1895.

He is contrasted with the more modest lifestyle of Pissarro, who lived in relative poverty among farmers outside Paris more or less as one of them, keeping his own village plot, growing vegetables, keeping chickens.

Or with van Gogh, who had a self-appointed mission to convey, and so somehow redeem, the life of the poor.

Conclusion

This is an excellent introduction to a complicated and potentially confusing period of art history. Not only does it give a good chronological feel for events, but the chapters on themes and topics then explore in some detail the way the various movements, artists, styles and approaches played out across a range of subjects and themes.

Paradoxically, the book is given strength by what Thompson leaves out. She doesn’t mention the Vienna Secession of 1897, doesn’t really explore the Decadence (the deliberately corrupt and elitist art of drugs and sexual perversion which flourished in the boudoirs and private editions of the rich), she mentions Art Nouveau (named after an art gallery founded in 1895) once or twice, but doesn’t explore it in any detail.

Mention of these other movements makes you realise that post-Impressionism, narrowly defined as the reaction of leading French artists of the 1880s and 1890s to the Impressionist legacy, was itself only part of a great swirl and explosion of new styles and looks in the 1890s.

It may be pretty dubious as an art history phrase, but ‘post-Impressionism’ will probably endure, in all its unsatisfactoriness, because it helps mark out the three or four main lines of descent from Impressionism in France – neo-Impressionism, neo-Traditionism, and specifically the work of Cézanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and Seurat – from the host of other, related but distinct, movements of the day.

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin

Self-portrait with portrait of Bernard (1888) by Paul Gauguin


Related links

Related book reviews

Reviews of Impressionist exhibitions

An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris (2013)

At some point I seem to have ceased to be an army officer and become a detective. I pound pavements. I interview witnesses. I collect evidence. (p.185)

The Dreyfus Affair

In December 1894 the French Jewish army officer, Captain Alfred Dreyfus, was tried and found guilty of passing French military secrets to the Germans and packed off to Devil’s Island, where he served five years penal servitude in gruelling conditions. But in 1896 evidence began to come to light suggesting the real spy was someone else, and implying that Dreyfus was the victim of a shabby kangaroo court, a victim of the widespread anti-Semitic and anti-German mood of the army. (Not only was he a Jew, he was a rich Jew, moreover his family came from the eastern province of Alsace, which France had lost to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and had stayed there instead of fleeing the enemy, as ‘good patriots’ had done.)

Slowly pressure mounted for a retrial and the Dreyfus case became a lightning rod for the divisions which had divided France since the 1789 revolution – with right-wing, pro-Army and generally Catholic forces on one side, convinced there was some German, Jewish conspiracy to undermine France and her patriotic virtues – opposed to liberal, freethinking, anti-militarists on the other side, equally convinced the whole thing was a travesty of justice, an example of military high-handedness, a blatant cover-up of incompetence at the highest levels.

The whole affair dragged on for over a decade, with Dreyfus released from Devil’s Island and accepting a pardon in 1899 but battling on to establish his innocence, securing a re-investigation in 1903, then a retrial in 1904, which led to his complete exoneration and his restoration to the army with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in 1906.

Harris has written a long, detailed and gripping recreation of the affair. It opens dramatically with Dreyfus being paraded in front of a baying mob of 20,000 Parisians and several army divisions, having his conviction publicly read out, his epaulettes torn off, his sword smashed in two, then dragged off to prison and a long sea voyage to his incarceration in the hellhole of Devil’s Island.

Georges Picquart

Harris has soaked himself in the history of the affair and the culture of the period – as the Afterword listing the works of reference he used amply indicates – and he manages to involve us in the convoluted series of conspiracies and investigations, which helps to make this book itself his longest (at 478 pages).

I was daunted by this sheer size and by the notorious complexity of the subject matter, but ended up being so gripped by Harris’s treatment that I read it late into the night and ended up wondering if it might be his best, and most gripping, novel – which is saying a lot after the compelling thrills of Fatherland, Archangel and Enigma.

It is a minor miracle (partly indebted to the historical facts, partly to Harris’s grasp of its complexity) that he has managed to identify and use the consciousness of just one first-person narrator to take us through the elaborate events and legal processes which is what the affair consists of.

This central character is Major (soon to be promoted Colonel) Georges Picquart, a bachelor of 40, who was a real historical figure right at the heart of the affair – present at Dreyfus’s arrest, tasked with reporting the first, secret, trial directly to the Minister for War, as a result promoted to head the Statistical Section (a secret intelligence section of the army’s intelligence division, the Deuxième Bureau) which had in fact gathered much of the evidence used against Dreyfus.

Here he slowly assembles the documents, the forgeries, the testimony from witnesses, which gradually cohere to suggest that Dreyfus was not guilty, that the real spy passing secrets to the German military attaché, von Schwartzkoppen, was an arrogant, loose-living officer named Major Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, and that Dreyfus was elaborately framed by a cabal of officers and their superiors who wanted to find a scapegoat and hush up the initial spying allegations quickly with oh what dire and unintended consequences.

Thus we witness all the key opening scenes through Picquart’s eyes – Dreyfus’s arrest, trial, and his big set piece humiliation in front of baying crowds. Because of Picquart’s position he also reads the pitiful correspondence between Dreyfus – with its harrowing descriptions of his solitary confinement in the tiny rocky islet in the Atlantic – and his poor wife, Lucie, left looking after their two young children. Picquart’s superiors are the Head of the Deuxième Bureau, of the General Staff and the War Minister himself, who we get to observe close up on numerous occasions, just a few among the cast of scores and scores of historical personages that Harris brings to life with astonishing attention to detail and verisimilitude.

And then we follow Picquart into the minutiae of the various investigations and surveillances he runs, and experience with him the sense of doubt, then suspicion, and then horrified certainty as he realises the French Army has convicted the wrong man and let the real spy go free. We follow his attempts to alert his superiors to what he has discovered, only to find them cold and unresponsive – either because they were directly involved in the original frame-up or because they realise that admitting it will expose the army to ridicule, and that the most senior figures – the head of the General Staff, the war minister himself – will be compromised.

After refusing to obey direct orders to close his investigations, after refusing to stop gathering evidence against Esterhazy, Picquart is finally unceremoniously shipped to a remote dumping ground in colonial Tunisia, transferred to an infantry brigade, and, when the result of his investigations start to leak into the newspapers, becomes an outcast among his brother officers, a traitor, a Jew-lover.

After putting up with the Tunisian heat and boredom for 6 months he makes a momentous decision, returns to Paris incognito, and hands over a detailed dossier of all the evidence to an old family friend, seasoned lawyer Louis Leblois, who himself hands it over to the Vice President of the French Senate, Auguste Scheurer-Kestner.

Back in Tunisia, Picquart watches from afar as a big political and press campaign begins to roll to get the Dreyfus case reopened.

But his superiors are almost certain he is responsible for the leak and soon he is himself subject to crude intimidation and then cunningly framed by the very staff in the Statistical Section who he used to manage. He is summoned back to Paris and tried using evidence – letters and telegrams – which have all been concocted to make it seem like he himself is a dangerous spy, and spends a long time in various prisons in and around Paris, trying, like Dreyfus, not to go mad.

Meanwhile the army ransacks his apartment, exposes his affair with a married woman – thus ruining her life – sets up another stage-managed trial to incriminate him, and generally abuses its power in every way conceivable to frame another innocent man.

In the final section Picquart loses all illusions about  his enemy, and openly collaborates with a committee of the Dreyfus supporters who now call themselves ‘Dreyfusards’, including the left-wing politician and future French Prime Minister George Clemenceau and the novelist Émile Zola. It is in January 1898 that Zola publishes his famous front-page article J’Accuse, for the first time naming all the guilty men Picquart has assembled information about, minutely detailing their roles in the various fabrications and cover-ups – a historic publication which only manages to get him arrested and tried for libel.

Right to the end of these tortuous proceedings, investigations, trials, retrials, conspiracies and incarcerations, Harris keeps up the totally addictive grip of his fast-moving, factual but beautifully paced narrative. I couldn’t put it down.

Pace and empathy

Why are Harris’s novels so compulsively readable? It’s a long book – 484 pages in the Arrow paperback – but it flies by, even with its freight of historical, legal and cultural complexity.

It’s due to at least two things: Harris’s clear, readable and attractive prose, and his very canny pacing of the way the central ‘secret’ – Dreyfus’s innocence, the identity of the real spy – is revealed.

In fact, this central structure of the ‘slow reveal’ is identical to the ones he used in his earlier thrillers: Fatherland where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation of the Holocaust, Archangel where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence which leads to the revelation that Stalin had a son and heir who is still alive, Enigma where the hero slowly pieces together the evidence that there is a traitor at the Bletchley Park code-breaking centre.

The fundamental journey is the same but the pleasure is in Harris’s tremendous skill at surprising the reader with carefully placed clues and insights. Somehow Harris takes you completely into the mind of his protagonists so that, although the reader knows in advance that there was a Holocaust and that Dreyfus was innocent, we still share the same growing suspicion, shock and horror as the central figure.

Even when, by half way through, the ‘secret’ is out and Picquart is fully convinced of Dreyfus’s innocence, he still manages to grip the reader by having us so fully on the side of his hero: as he anxiously waits in his Tunisian exile for events to develop, as he journeys alone and scared to Paris, as he has secret meetings with his lawyer friend, and then through all the rigours of his own arrest, imprisonment, rigged impeachment and further incarceration.

By this stage we are nearly as angry as Picquart, not only with the injustice of Dreyfus’s imprisonment, but with the combination of crude blundering and blackmail masterminded by his craven army superiors and their pawns and agents. And this anger, and an anxiety to see how and when the truth prevails, become the driving force of the reader’s involvement.

Style

I’ve noted in my reviews of other Harris’s other thrillers, that he varies his style to suit the subject matter and period: Enigma used a prose style just slightly tinged with 1940s slang and phraseology; The Ghost skillfully captures the middle-brow, humorous, self-deprecation of an easygoing modern-day jobbing author; The Fear Index is rich with terminology from the computer science and financial markets which are its setting.

Similarly, An Officer and A Spy mostly functions with what you could call Basic Thriller Style, a curt clipped statement of the facts.

We take a taxi across the river and I pay off the driver just south of the École Militaire. The remainder of the journey we complete on foot. The section of the rue de Sèvres in which the hotel stands is narrow and poorly lit; the Manche is easy to miss. It occupies a narrow, tumbledown house, hemmed in between a butcher’s shop and a bar: the sort of place where commercial travellers might lay their heads for a night and assignations can no doubt be paid for by the hour. Desvernines goes in first: I follow. The concierge is not at his desk. Through a curtain of beads I can see people eating supper in the little dining room. There is no escalator. The narrow stairs creak with every tread. (p.403)

After a while I realised that the very fact that he is a soldier adds a slight but detectable extra amount of curtness and clippedness. He is a military man used to thinking in terms of fact, figures, orders and instructions, and a Frenchman trained in clarity and logic.

But this is combined with Harris’s marvellous gift for selecting just the right detail to convey a scene or character. There is a tremendous economy to his writing and an impressive tact: just so much, just what is needed to paint a scene, and no more.

The following Thursday evening, at seven precisely, I sit in a corner of the cavernous yellow gloom of the platform café of the gare Saint-Lazare, sipping an Alsace beer. The place is packed; the double-hinged door swings back and forth with a squeak of springs. The roar of chat and movement inside and the whistles and shouts and percussive bursts of steam from the locomotives outside make it a perfect place not to be overheard. I have managed to save a table with two seats that gives me a clear view of the entrance. (p.109)

The present

Another very distinctive aspect of the narrative is that it is all in the present tense.

It was a considerable risk to do it this, as a narrative told in the continuous present can appear pretentious or stilted in the wrong hands. But Harris really is such a brilliant and intelligent writer that it works entirely as he intends it to, by creating a permanent present in which the narrator – like the reader – has no idea what is going to happen next. It adds tremendously to the tension and anxiety of the book, continually driving you on every page to experience the hero’s doubts and anxieties.

For several minutes I sit motionless, holding the photograph. I might be made of marble, a sculpture by Rodin: The Reader. What really freezes me, even more than the matching hand-writing, is the content – the obsession with artillery, the offer to have a manual copied out verbatim, the obsequious salesman’s tone – it is Esterhazy to the life. (p.162)

We sit with him. We are holding the new evidence, transfigured by its implications. 479 is a lot of pages to keep up this balancing act, but Harris does it brilliantly.

The hero as modern man

Coming to this novel after reading a series of Alan Furst’s historical spy novels prompts the thought that what Furst’s and Harris’s novels share is the essential amiability of the central characters.

Compare Georges Picquart with Fredric Stahl, the protagonist of Furst’s 2012 novel, Mission To Paris. They are both good eggs. Furst’s hero is as immune to the prejudices of his time (the 1930s) as Georges Picquart is to those of his (the 1890s).

For example, both of them are repelled by anti-Semitism. This was an extremely common prejudice throughout Europe, at all levels of society until well past the Second World War. Harris’s and Furst’s novels testify to this, the Harris novel tracking the rise of virulent anti-Semitism as the Dreyfus case drags on. And yet both these heroes don’t have a prejudiced bone in their body. They never give in to even the slightest racist thought for even a second. Not even in their darkest moments. In this respect, they are whiter than white, politically correct. Their instinctive revulsion from and contempt for the anti-Semitism of those around them withstands the toughest scrutiny of the modern liberal reader.

Similarly, both of them are immensely respectful of women; never let slip a sexist comment, don’t belittle women in word or deed; indeed, they both have the same kind of sensuous, smoochy affairs with women that require or imply that the women in their lives are themselves highly sexually aware, ‘modern’ and ‘liberated’ ie surprisingly anticipating modern attitudes.

Furst and Harris heroes are, in other words, modern men who reflect very accurately the most advanced, enlightened thinking of the 21st century – transplanted back into the clothes of a man in 1938 and 1895, respectively. If you actually read novelists from 1938 (Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene) let alone 1895 (Thomas Hardy, Henry James) you quickly discover they:

a) thought and wrote in a much more convoluted and less factual style than we do
b) were casually racist and sexist, not to mention snobbish, elitist and intolerant, without realising they’d said anything wrong – because those were the common values of the time
c) were very tight-lipped about sex, if mentioned at all

Not only that, but Picquart is winningly cultured and civilised. Harris goes out of his way to make him a man of culture, who knows a particular Paris church is famous because Saint-Saens plays the organ there, and who attends a performance of Claude Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune conducted by the composer himself, a man who whiles away boring journeys translating Dostoyevsky novels from the original Russian.

A mark of his urbanity and his ability to rise above petty mindedness (unlike so many of those around him) is his sense of humour.

Outwardly, I hope, I wear my usual mask of detachment, even irony, for there has never been a situation, however dire, even this one, that did not strike me as containing at least some element of the human comedy. (p.355)

Finally, and – crucially – these heroes are much the same at the end of the book as they were at the start. This is what keeps thrillers, by and large, from being considered ‘literature’. The characters undergo little real change. Picquart sees a lot, and tells us he experiences a lot, but he still uses the same snappy, confident, urbane tone at the end of the book as at the start. He’s learned a lot but is still essentially the same guy.

An indication of this lack of development comes right at the end of the novel. The payoff, the epilogue, the conclusion could have drawn a number of wide-ranging points from Dreyfus’s story: for example, what it tells us about the divided nature of French society, about French defeatism before the Great War (and indeed the Second World War), about the widespread presence of anti-Semitism in even an ‘enlightened’ Western nation, and so on.

Instead of opening up into historical perspectives, though, Harris deliberately and, I think, a little disappointingly, focuses the story right down to a Spielbergesque final moment.

In the epilogue (and, amazingly, this is true) the shamed Picquart, once a complete outcast from the French army has himself ended up becoming French Minister for War, and is asked for an interview by the newly restored Lieutenant Colonel Dreyfus. Both men are embarrassed as Dreyfus, finally, after their long odyssey together, says thank you. Picquart says shucks I could never have done it without you. Dreyfus replies, ‘No, my general, you did it because it was your duty.’ (p.479)

In other words, this final scene, for all the brilliance of the preceding pages, I think emphasises the essentially simple psychology, the innocence and apple pie goodness, of Harris’s hero. He and the reader have been on an extraordinary journey of investigation and understanding – but he is as solid, noble and conscientious at the bitter end as he had been at the innocent start.

What the thriller can tell us

Thus, lack of character development is one of the most obvious drawbacks of ‘the thriller’ as a genre, even very good thrillers like Harris’s.

But that said, thriller can do lots of things which more ‘serious literature’ can’t. They can have more breadth of character, range of incident, more extreme situations. Above all the thriller is interested in violence, fear, paranoia, surveillance, suspicion, enemies and the mindset which copes with constant threat, continual alertness and planning. It exercises ‘the predator mind’. And these, regrettably, are situations a lot of ordinary literature-reading people found themselves suddenly thrown into throughout the terrible 20th century.

So many of the thrillers I’ve read over the past two years self-consciously refer to the fact that this or that situation could be straight out of a shilling shocker, or cheap thriller or Hollywood movie – as if by confronting the fact that they’re using conventional thriller clichés and stereotypes they can somehow overcome it. Harris says something more interesting. As the narrator gives his lawyer a letter to be opened by the president of France ‘in the event of my death’, he is aware of how silly the situation is.

I suppose he considers it melodramatic, the sort of device one might encounter in a railway ‘thriller’. I would have felt the same a year ago. Now I have come to see that thrillers may contain more truths than all Monsieur Zola’s social realism put together. (p.303)

Thrillers deal with people plunged into extreme situations and, for all their obvious shortcomings, people are in fact plunged into extreme situations every day, and thrillers do tell some kinds of truths, not subtle truths about human nature, maybe; but truths about the human mind and the desperate measures it sometimes has to resort to.

Implications

As referred to, Harris is a writer of great intelligence and forensic ability, a lawyer or journalist’s ability to grasp the detail of a very complex subject and rewrite it in an orderly, comprehensible and indeed gripping way.

I mentioned the economy and tact of his style, above. But there is also the economy and tact of his entire approach. Although I don’t quite like the sentimental ending when Dreyfus and Picquart finally shake hands, I do like what Harris doesn’t do: he doesn’t preach. He doesn’t draw the umpteen conclusions he could have about Dreyfus being one of the first political prisoners, or a victim of a state cover-up, or about the ineptness of spy agencies or the stupidity of so much military ‘intelligence’, or the broader historical echoes: Dreyfus was a kind of proto-martyr for what would become a flood of state-sponsored show trials in totalitarian Germany and Russian in the 1930s and in other authoritarian countries since.

Instead the eerie anticipations of later regimes are left entirely to the reader to pick up. He compliments his reader’s intelligence with his restraint. Just the use of the word ‘dossier’ to refer to all the made-up evidence against Dreyfus is enough to remind the reader of the ‘dodgy dossier’ containing the ‘sexed-up intelligence’ which helped take the UK into America’s invasion of Iraq. This and other fleeting pre-echoes and premonitions are left entirely for the reader to detect, or not.

Subtlety. Tact. Discretion. These are just some among Harris’s many wonderful gifts as an unmatched writer of intelligent historical thrillers.

Dramatis personae

  • Alfred Dreyfus, captain in the French army, Jewish, wealthy, aloof, when some documents which imply that someone is passing French military secrets to the German military attaché are discovered by the French Deuxième Bureau, he is framed, evidence is twisted and handwriting experts are suborned to blame the entirely guiltless Dreyfus, who is tried in a secret military trial, convicted to life imprisonment, ritually stripped of military honours in front of a vast Paris crowd, and shipped to a tiny rock off the South American coast where a tiny prison and contingent of guards is kept solely to keep him in solitary confinement, with no letters or books, for five years.
  • Lucie Dreyfus, his wife, Pierre his son, Jeanne his daughter
  • Mathieu Dreyfus, his brother who leads the campaign for his release
  • Bernard Lazare, Jewish journalist the
  • Major then Colonel Georges Picquart
  • Anna, his older sister
  • Pauline Romazotti, grew up near the Picquart family, now married to Philippe Monnier, official at the Foreign Ministry, with whom Georges is having an affair
  • Louis Leblois, old schoolfriend and lawyer
  • Aimery de Comminges, baron de Saint-Lary
  • Blanche de Commanges, one of Picquart’s lovers
  • General Charles-Arthur Gonse, 56, Chief of French Military Intelligence (p.29)
  • General Mercier, Minister of War, to whom Picquart reports back an eye witness account of the Dreyfus kangaroo court
  • President Casimir-Perier, president of France
  • Major Henry, official in the Statistical Section of the Deuxième Bureau, a red-faced often drunk man who, it emerges, played a key role in framing Dreyfus
  • Captain Lauth of the Statistical Section
  • Monsieur Gribelin, the spidery archivist of the Statistical Section
  • Colonel Sandherr, Picquart’s predecessor as head of the Statistical Section ie he oversaw the faking of the evidence which framed Dreyfus
  • Jean-Alfred Desverine, young Sûreté officer Picquart gets seconded to his Statistical Section
  • Ducasse, young officer Picquart sets up in a rented flat opposite the German embassy in Paris to record comings and goings
  • Moises Lehmann, forger Picquart uses
  • Guénée, Statistical Section operative who has been assigned to surveil the Dreyfus family
  • General Foucault, French military attaché to Berlin
  • Armand du Paty de Clam, instrumental in forging evidence implicating Dreyfus
  • Operation Benefactor, the surveillance operation on Esterhazy instigate by Picquart
  • General Billot
  • General Boisdeffre, Chief of the French General Staff
  • von Schwartzkoppen, German military attaché in Paris
  • Alessandro Panizzardi, Italian military attaché in Paris
  • General Leclerc, Picquart’s commanding officer in Tunisia after he is transferred to the 4th Tunisian Rifles
  • Senator Auguste Scheurer-Kestner, Vice President of the Senate to whom Picquart’s friend, the lawyer Leblois, gives Picquart’s dossier proving that Esterhazy is the spy and Dreyfus innocent
  • Colonel Armand Mercier-Milon, old friend of Picquart’s who is tasked with escorting him from Marseilles to Paris and there keeping him under guard
  • General de Pellieux, tough soldier leading the investigation into Picquart’s alleged treason and alleged fabrication of evidence against Esterhazy

Credit

An Officer and A Spy by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2012 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

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