Monday, 14 March 2016

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse - Royal Academy

Claude Monet, The Japanese Bridge, c1923-5
(The following review is published in Landscape Issues, Vol.15, Nos.1 & 2, May 2016)
Claude Monet is undoubtedly the star of this huge show – supported by a cast of some 40 other painters. Although the exhibition title signals a historical span bookended by Monet and Matisse, it is notable that the later giant of Modern art is represented by a paltry two paintings to Monet’s 35 or so.
It is, nevertheless, quite fitting that this should be so: given the premise of the exhibition, that many pioneers of modern painting were enthusiastic gardeners, and engaged in a productive dialogue between the possibilities of horticulture and painting, Monet is in a league of his own. Not only did his garden at Giverny become the exclusive subject of his painting, but the garden itself was a work of art. Monet was no mere Sunday-gardener, he was nothing less than a landscape architect. Over a period of 40 years, from 1890, he developed and extended a country garden into a 6-acre composition of foliage and flowers; eventually he was able to employ 6 gardeners and divert a local river to create the famous water garden with its iconic Japanese bridge. Monet declared that his garden was his studio.
The period spanned by the exhibition – roughly 1864 to 1928 – was, art historically, one of extraordinary invention and experiment. Modernism was forged in wave after wave of avant-gardism: Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism. Broadly, this is a story of escalating ‘difficulty’ in painting – difficulty for the viewer, that is, as what was seen in paintings became increasingly disconnected from what could be seen in the natural world and increasingly engaged with psychology, abstraction and provocation, to say nothing of revolutionary politics.
Understandably, there is little of that revolutionary ilk here – the section rather cornily labelled ‘avant-gardeners’ does present some of the major figures of that extraordinary period – Van Gogh, Klimt, Klee, Kandinsky, Nolde, Matisse – but, Nolde and Klimt, aside this fairly tame section feels like a distraction from the main business of supplying visual pleasure and, in particular, the pleasure of flowers.
The overriding aesthetic ethos of this exhibition is Impressionism. It is hard, now, to believe that Impressionism was ever shocking. Impressionism may have initially, and briefly, provoked a negative response – to a public and to critics weaned on polished, academic pictures, the brushy smudges of pure colour seemed unfinished and hard to ‘read’ – but, eventually, once the idea of a spontaneous response to the play of light on the natural world was grasped, the movement became, and remains, immensely popular. While more radical avant-gardism was intent on épater les bourgeois the Impressionists forged an art that was bourgeois to its core, intent principally on visual pleasure. Impressionism combined here with gardening is a cast-iron crowd pleaser.
The exhibition is, indeed, rich in visual pleasure for both the connoisseurs of painting and of horticulture – though, perhaps, less reliably so for the latter. The joy of Impressionism is that the painters played fast and loose with the visual sensations offered by the sunlit scenes before them so that flowers become sensuous smears of red, orange, white and blue rather than botanically accurate representations.
Overall, I think there is more to be learned here about the development of modern painting than about the ‘modern garden’ of the title. Highlights include marvellously ethereal paintings by Berthe Morisot (Woman and Child in a Meadow, 1882) and Edouard Manet (Young Woman among Flowers, 1879); Max Liebermann’s Flowering Bushes by the Garden Shed, 1928, rendered in thick, dense, glossy smears of paint; Joaquin Mir y Trinxet’s intense veils of colour in Garden of Mogoda, 1915-19; Emil Nolde’s slabs of deep blue, bright red, yellow and green forming a solid wall of blooms in Flower Garden (O), 1922; and Gustav Klimt’s cascade of flowers in Cottage Garden, 1905-07. Perhaps one of the oddest, yet most interesting, paintings is Henri Matisse’s The Rose Marble Table, 1917: the salmony-pink, octagonal table, stands against a predominantly brown ground relieved only by some dark green foliage; on the table’s perspectivally tilted surface is a small basket and three small green spheres of what might be fruit. The uncharacteristic gloom of this picture, by a typically joyful painter, is ascribed to then ongoing horrors of the Great War.
Finally, however, the show belongs to Monet. Three rooms are devoted to his paintings. In the first, situated in the middle of the exhibition, are paintings executed from around 1895 to 1905: some of his much reproduced paintings of the Japanese footbridge across the pond in his garden are so familiar that they seem like clichés; however, the paintings of water lilies and swathes of blossom are seductively subtle essays in colour and form. The other two rooms form the climax to the exhibition and are simply stunning. In the first of these The Japanese Bridge c1923-25 is a dense shimmer of deep, rich reds and greens dissolving the form of the bridge so that it is only just perceptible.
The final room is spectacular. On one side is the huge Water Lilies (after 1918) - a 4 metre-wide haze of pale yellow-greens within which occasional highlights of orange-red flowers glow. And opposite is the truly immense triptych, Water Lilies (Agapanthus), c1915-26, altogether some 12 metres wide: this stands not just as the apotheosis of Monet’s career as a painter but is pregnant with the then future possibilities of painting and abstraction. Magnificent.

Richard Salkeld.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
Edouard Manet, Young Woman Among Flowers, 1879
Gustav Klimt, Cottage Garden, 1905-07
Emil Nolde, Large Poppies, 1908
Emil Nolde, Flower Garden (O), 1922

Santiago Rusiñol, Glorieta VII, Aranjuez, 1919
Joaquin Mir y Trinxet, The Artist's Garden, c1922
Claude Monet, Water Lilies, after 1918
Claude Monet, Water Lilies (Agapanthus), c1915-26 (detail)
Claude Monet, Water Lilies (Agapanthus), c1915-26 (installation view)

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