For those of you in Melbourne, tonight is the last day of the Monet’s Garden Exhibition. The National Gallery of Victoria is open until midnight. I don’t usually write about non-Australian art on this blog, but as I’ll be writing about the influence of Impressionism on Australian art soon, I thought it was best I review this here, at the eleventh hour.
This video is of a documentary that plays as an installation at the end of the exhibit. It’s filmed in Monet’s actual garden where he painted some of his most famous works, and it’s open to the public in the present day.
The exhibition was wonderful. It covers the full scope of Monet’s work, including the impact of his marriages on his desire to paint (he gave up after the death of his second wife but was finally convinced to take up painting again by a friend). Some of Monet’s famous Water Lilies are showcased, as well as the weeping willow paintings Monet rendered in protest of World War I. One of his sons served in the war, but Monet was also moved by the French soldiers who returned to his home town with broken bodies and spirits.
My favourite part of the exhibition was Monet’s twilight series, of The Japanese Bridge (Le Pont Japonais, 1918–24) and The Path Under the Rose Arches (L’Allée de rosiers, 1920–22, above). These were painted as his eyesight dwindled. His familiar landscapes take on a dark overtones, with the colours swirling into a blurred fury. The famous Bridge, which features prominently in so many of his other works, and where he is said to have sat and painted some of Western art’s most famous scenes, became a haze to Monet towards the end of this career. I went to the exhibition with a dear friend who also paints. She said the Bridge paintings made her sad. I said I found them moving, but I loved them all the more because Monet continued to paint despite his loss of sight. Visual art is obviously dependent on vision, but Monet’s persistent commitment to his medium tells us much about his psyche. Without this series, his art may have petered off still in familiar scenes and glorious lush colours, but we would be denied a view into how Monet learned to see the world anew, through abstract colour and memory. The real bridge is below via Personal.Kent.edu).
I was also taken by the conversations people had as they glanced up at Monet’s paintings: “I like the pink in that one;” “This one is less Impressionistic than the others.” I liked seeing a couple of mothers who took pains to squat down beside their children explaining the significance of the colours and technique. One mother spoke in French and pointed at several areas of each canvas, while her young daughter asked questions.
Imbuing an appreciation of art is no easy task. It’s fine to look at something and decide that it matches the standard criteria of how a painting should look. It’s harder to appreciate the history of brush strokes and use of colour unless it’s carefully explained and put into cultural context. Impressionists were loathed when they first developed their art. They defied how people were used to looking at paintings, and the use of bold ephemeral colours was seen as a “perversion.” (More on how this impacted Australian art later.)
It took a lot of work for me to enjoy Impressionism as it was forced on us in art lessons while I was at school. I had a peculiar teacher who repeated phrases over and over in class trying to compel us to appreciate this art form (“en plein air,” “chiaroscuro,” “more texture, texture!”). It was a painful way to be taught, but the information has stayed with me, with his voice echoing in my head even today, as I look at all the famous and lesser known paintings he introduced to us.
Monet’s contribution to art is more than just pretty scenes of light and shade. He, Manet (his mentor), and their contemporaries revolutionised how artists approached their subjects, and they infused politics and philosophy into their work.
While Impressionist paintings were still influenced by upper class ideals, Monet and his cohort enticed the world to appreciate our connection to nature in new ways. No longer welded to using whites and blacks to evoke shadows, Monet’s use of colour allowed artists to draw on natural plays on light and movement. They paved the way for Expressionism and later art movements. As I’ll show later, Monet directly influenced some of Australia’s pioneer painters, for which we must remain eternally grateful.