Approaching the National Gallery of Victoria for Monet’s Garden, I expected to find the moat festooned in water lilies, and enter through an archway covered in climbing roses. The reality was slightly different: the same old bluestone façade, with red and blue Mazdas parked by the doors. After so many years of sponsorship, I’m conditioned to think of the Mazda as the car-of-choice for the great Impressionists, but this display still strikes a slightly incongruous note.
Inside, the NGV has ramped up the Gallic associations. The cafeteria is decked out with blue-and-white check table-cloths, and lightweight wooden chairs painted yellow, in emulation of Monet’s own taste in interior decoration. The entrance to the exhibition is lined with photo-reproductions of old stone walls, catering to some vague concept of Frenchness.
The final flourish comes at the end of the show, with a multi-channel, wraparound video shot on the last day of the season at Giverny, as the garden closed to visitors for another year. This is an impressive piece of ambient filmmaking, although the background music suggests the last episode of a soap opera.
So much for the packaging, which is an inevitable part of the blockbuster experience nowadays, as if the art were not sufficient. The vital news is that Monet’s Garden is an outstanding exhibition. If I sound slightly surprised, it is because Claude Monet (1840-1926) has become the gold standard for art museums across the globe. He is one of the very few artists whose name guarantees big attendances.
So when the NGV announces yet another Monet show, with the vast majority of works drawn from the collection of the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, it sounds like a soft project. Where the gallery and Art Exhibitions Australia deserve credit is for not treating this as a simple fund-raising exercise. Monet’s Garden may sound like a comfortable, bourgeois affair but it is one of the most powerful displays of painting ever to be seen in an Australian art museum.
The show is intelligently selected and beautifully hung. In contrast to so many recent Australian blockbusters, which have come with catalogues that are nothing more than picture books, the publication contains five original, well-written essays. It should be noted this is also the case with the travelling Turner exhibition, which closes tomorrow in Adelaide, and will open on Canberra on 1 June.
It is extremely important these shows have catalogues that display some original scholarship because this conveys an impression that outlasts the exhibitions. If we appear to be satisfied with a hasty, tokenistic catalogue, we will always be offered hasty, tokenistic shows.
One of the boldest aspects of the presentation of Monet’s Garden is that it is confined to only four rooms, along with an education room and the video space. The first room sets the scene with a portrait of a 33-year-old Monet by Renoir, and the artist’s own portraits of his first wife, Camille, and his sons, Jean and Michel. There is also a selection of landscapes from the years before Monet and his family settled in their final home, including such places of former residence as Argenteuil and Vétheuil.
In the second room we see paintings from Monet’s travels, many of them dating from the years immediately following the 1883 move to Giverny, a small town on the banks of the Seine, some 80 kilometres from Paris. As he waited for his garden to grow, Monet travelled extensively at the behest of his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, who recognised a market for more exotic scenery.
With the exception of one superb painting of Rouen Cathedral, this room includes works from three locations: London, Norway, and the coast of Normandy. A number of pictures date from later trips but this doesn’t detract from the coherence of the hang. The NGV is to be congratulated for somehow resisting the inclusion ofPort-Goulphar, Belle-Ile (1887), from the Art Gallery of NSW, which has been wedged into almost every travelling exhibition for the past decade.
It is in the large, third room that the show springs to life, as Monet settles into the task of painting the garden he had been cultivating so diligently. By this stage his home life had taken on a complex appearance. When one of his best collectors, Ernest Hoschedé, was declared bankrupt and fled the country, Monet took on the care of Hoschedé’s wife, Alice, and her six children.
Alice helped nurse Camille through a final illness, but by this time she and Monet had already formed a relationship. Alice and the children would remain with Monet at Giverny even after her husband had returned to France, although her Catholic scruples did not permit her to marry the artist until 1892, when Ernest died.
If the first half of Monet’s career was coloured by his desperation to sell pictures and pay debts, the second was one of relative affluence. Even in those early days, when every letter the artist wrote lamented his own poverty, Monet often kept a servant and drank good bottles of wine. His attitude might be seen as egocentric and manipulative. One of his biographers, Paul Hayes Tucker, writes that Monet “was not necessarily the kind of person one would want as a friend.”
Monet had always enjoyed a taste for bourgeois comforts, and at Giverny he indulged these predilections. He played the stockmarket, and would come to employ as many as six gardeners. His close friends included Octave Mirbeau, the radical writer; and Georges Clémenceau, Prime Minister of France, and one of the architects of the notorious Treaty of Versailles at the end of the First World War.
One may trace the progress of Monet’s career through the development of his garden. In November 1890 he was able to purchase the house in which the family was living. In February 1893 he acquired an adjoining block of land and set about planning his waterlily pond. The only setback came from the staunch resistance of the neighbours, who believed his exotic plants would foul the waterways.
Monet did not begin to paint his waterlilies until 1897, when the plants had established themselves. The earliest example in this show, Waterlilies, evening effect (1897), is a relatively conservative picture, showing two white flowers floating on a field of lavender-grey.
As he warms to the subject Monet grows more adventurous. He returns to the same motif at different times of day with a radically different palette, as in three vertical pictures from 1907. His handling becomes more loose and free, while his colour starts to seem symbolic rather than naturalistic.
Virginia Spate has written a catologue essay on Monet’s relationship to Symbolism, which remains ambiguous. As a lifelong atheist Monet was devoted to observable reality and had no interest in the mystical indulgences of the Symbolists. Yet the colours he used veered a long way from the norm, becoming resplendent, almost apocalyptic, in this show’s fourth and final room.
Much of this must be attributed to the problems Monet was having with cataracts in both eyes. By 1922 he had completely lost the sight in his right eye, and had only ten percent vision in his left. This meant that a long-delayed operation became a necessity. That operation restored the sight to his right eye, but left him with impaired colour perceptions that had to be corrected with glasses.
Having regained his sight, Monet was amazed to see the works he had been painting. He might have destroyed these pictures, but instead he accepted them as a truthful record of the way he viewed the world at that time. They range from the dense, congested surface of paintings such as Waterlilies, reflections of weeping willows (1916-19), to the sparseness of a large, horizontal Waterlilies (1917-19), which one assumes to be unfinished.
These are the kind of canvases that would establish Monet’s later reputation as a precursor of Abstract Expressionism. They are astonishingly raw for paintings made in the early decades of the twentieth century.
It would be wrong, however, to characterise these pictures as abstractions. Monet never relinquishes his ties to the motif, even when his brushwork becomes so busy it is difficult to distinguish paintings of the Japanese bridge from those of the Allée des rosiers. What one feels so strongly is that quality Monet’s descendent, the art historian Philippe Piguet, describes as the “revolutionary replacement of physical space with a form of space proper to painting itself.”
Although painting in Monet’s hands had not quite severed its ties with the natural world, it was left hanging by a thread. As he continued to work on the grand decorations that would become his legacy to France and to the world, the boundaries between the eye, mind and hand became blurred. It may have been the contempt for convention that is one of the privileges of old age. It may have been sheer momentum. At the end, we see an artist painting from pure instinct, immersed in an earthly paradise of his own creation.
Monet’s Garden: The Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
National Gallery of Victoria, May 10 – September 8, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, May 18, 2013