There are worse ways to spend an hour than being surrounded by gigantic projections of Impressionist paintings while listening to the greatest hits of the Belle Époque, but don’t imagine that Monet & Friends – Life, Light and Colour is an art exhibition. This audio-visual extravaganza is a spectacle with one foot in the past, one in the future.
This event and last year’s Van Gogh Alive are direct descendants of the panoramas and spectacles of the Victorian era which invited customers to view a single gigantic painting, a vast photographic survey of some natural wonder, or another ingenious contrivance. An entrepreneur might buy a famous painting and take it on tour, recouping the purchase price and making a profit from ticket sales. The most famous example is Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World (1904), which was bought by a wealthy shipbuilder and sent on a hugely successful world tour in 1915-17. It was claimed, incredibly, that four-fifths of Australia’s population of 5 million turned out to see the work.
Grande Experiences, the company behind Monet & Friends, may not be hoping for quite the same level of success but these mega-projections have proved popular with audiences around the world. One suspects this has more to do with our inveterate love of light shows, from the New Year’s fireworks to the annual Vivid festival, than a fascination with art history.
Nevertheless the art history is crucial to the success of the package because Monet & Friends allows the viewer to believe that he or she is not merely enjoying a fabulous slide show but receiving an education. This is not so different from the way museums package their blockbusters, with much ‘educational’ material including childrens’ labels, introductory videos, guided tours and lecture programs.
The difference is that Monet & Friends is Art History Lite. We begin in the lobby, sampling a timeline of events and brief CVs of the featured artists. These summaries are amusingly formulaic, almost always telling us how the artist died, usually at a tragically early age. There is a pithy quotation and one or two random bits of biographical data. We are told, for instance, that Toulouse-Lautrec’s “walking cane was hollowed out and filled with liquor,” and that he was “also known to frequent prostitutes.” Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know?
The glitzy but gimcrack nature of the presentation is reflected in the name of the parent company. Unless there is someone called “Grande” involved, “Grande Experiences” is not quite English and not quite French. If it were English there would be no ‘e’ in “Grande”, if it were French the name would be: “(Les) Grandes Éxperiences”.
Monet & Friends offers us a more passive experience than that provided by the average museum blockbuster. It’s also more expensive, as an adult ticket to this event costs $40, as opposed to the National Gallery of Australia’s Botticelli to Van Gogh, which will set you back $28.55.
Instead of peering at paintings over the heads of other viewers in a crowded room, one is able to stroll around a cavernous hall or sit on a bench and let the artworks unfold on all sides. One views the pictures in a fast-moving sequence interspersed with quotations from the artists; archival photos; snatches of vintage film; freshly shot glimpses of landscapes, flowers, cities and trains; discreet animations, and the odd sentence of commentary. While all this is happening you are being bombarded by the music of composers such as Debussy, Offenbach and Tchiakovsky. There is even an olfactory component, with scents both woody and astringent being wafted into the room, although my nose wasn’t sufficiently sensitive to detect any of them.
Because we are looking at images rather than original paintings the organisers have been able to draw on the entire history of Impressionism, mingling the most famous works with relatively minor ones. When pictures appear in the form of four-metre high projections it’s difficult to distinguish the best from the most obscure. The same levelling occurs with the artists who are all rendered equivalent in the rapid montage that flashes before our eyes.
To some this may sound like a great feature, but it’s the reason why events such as Monet & Friends will never be a substitute for exhibitions such as the National Gallery of Victoria’s Monet’s Garden of 2013. The experience of art, if it is to be meaningful, requires a moment of silent communion between the viewer and the picture. It invites active contemplation, not simply the speedy consumption of hundreds of images.
The organisers of Monet & Friends would presumably argue they are encouraging art appreciation and helping steer audences towards the museums. This may well be true but it’s also conceivable that they are encouraging and exploiting the progressive decay of the public attention span and the growing need for instant experiences – “grande” or otherwise. This leads to one of the disturbing, possible side-effects of the pandemic year: an enhanced willingness to accept virtual experiences in lieu of first-hand, material ones. If you want to see just how big that difference is, visit Botticelli to Van Gogh in Canberra then check out the light show at Moore Park.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 26 March, 2021