EXHIBITION REVIEW: Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

By: Deborah Nash | Date 10.02.2016
Plum trees in spring time, young girls in dahlias, apple trees, chrysanthemums and vegetable gardens are among the delights in this sunny Royal Academy exhibition, but the prize blooms are Claude Monet’s water lilies.
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse - Joaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany,
As London crouches in the teeth of Storm Imogen, and 50 mph winds flatten the early daffodils there is one spot where it is eternal summer. The RA’s exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden’ is a paean to the earth’s most versatile artist, Mother Nature, and her depiction in the garden paintings of the Impressionists, Post Impressionists and Avant Garde artists of the 20th century.

During the 19th century Europe experienced a period of energetic social change fueled by technological and scientific innovation that extended to the field of horticulture. New plant species were imported from Asia and the Americas (the Chrysanthemum and the dahlia among them) advances were made in botanical science and plant nurseries and gardening magazines proliferated. ‘Plein air’ painting was in fashion, and what better place to start than one’s own back yard.

Monet was the artist gardener par excellence. His commitment to the mercurial nature of light as it spills on to water, lawn, white silk dresses, curling leaves and rose petals is already well known. Perhaps not so well known is his absorbing interest in gardening and the shopping list that accompanied it.

The display of Monet’s collection of books and catalogues on chrysanthemum, iris and lily support the view of his contemporary Guillemot: ‘He (Monet) reads more catalogues and horticultural price lists than articles on aesthetics.’

At home in Giverny Monet arranged his front garden into alley ways of climbing roses and flower beds of gladioli, larkspur, aster and big daisies with borders of iris. ‘Giverny is Monet’s harem of nature,’ wrote the art historian, Kirk Varndoe. When the painter saw a water lily garden at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889 he decided it was a must-have.

Monet was not adverse to his own kind of guerilla gardening. The water lily garden at Giverny was created by diverting water from a nearby tributary of the Seine, the river Ru, which the authorities tried to prevent fearing local farmers would suffer a water shortage. In the end Monet got permission and the pond was soon filled with a new hybrid species of pink and red lilies, and spanned by an arched bridge inspired by the Japanese prints you can still see in the house.

Robert Hughes has described Monet’s lily pond as ‘…a slice of infinity’. If you feel you’ve seen too many water lilies in reproduction and have no particular desire to look at them anew, you will miss one of the undoubted beauties of this show.

We meet early versions in the fifth room. Here the eyebrow of the bridge divides the square canvas in two but as we progress, this architecture is dissolved until all that remains is a haze of powdered lilac and midnight blue deepening beneath the water’s surface, while a constellation of white and pink lily pads float away as if blown by a breeze. These are no longer pictures of flowers or water garden; they have become a philosophical investigation into being and non-being, presence and absence, existence and nothingness, breath and stillness.

‘I want to paint the air,’ Monet once said. ‘…in which one finds the bridge, the house, the boat. The beauty of the air where they are, and this is nothing other than impossible.’
The outbreak of the First World War caused many in Giverny to flee, including members of Monet’s own family. The painter remained behind and stoically continued his water lily series, infected by a sense of melancholia and his own impending blindness and death. In the Royal Academy’s final room, a triptych ‘Water Lilies (Agapanthus)’ 1915-26 from three museums in the States are temporarily reunited; the feeling of flux and fragility is powerfully present in the transient nature of the hang.

Monet lived until he was 86. Not so his close friend Jean Frédéric Bazille whose death at 28 in the Franco-Prussian war left his oil ‘Les Lauriers Roses’ (1867) incomplete. This poignant canvas shows the ghostly outline of a woman as she sits on the spindly beginnings of a bench, both frail phantoms beside the bursts of pink and white oleander. Bazille’s painting is forever suspended in its incompleteness: the flowers in full bloom, the woman sketched in, waiting for an eternity on a garden bench.

I wonder what the ghosts of Bazille, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Bonnard, Nolde and the rest would make of Abraham Cruzvillegas Empty Lot were they to float across the river to Tate Modern this month. This is gardening of another kind, a guerilla garden wholly lacking in the ‘orgy of roses’ at the Royal Academy. Perhaps Cruzvillegas’ triangular planters would appeal to the ordered structured mindset of the German painter Max Liebermann, while the uneven and etiolated whimsical growth from stray seeds blown in and bombed might tickle the fancy of an artist like Paul Klee. Perhaps a second exhibition on painting the post-modern garden is required.


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