The first adjective that springs to mind when I think of Monet’s works is ‘beautiful’. In fact, it is such an easy association that I often struggle to define his works any other way – waterlilies? Beautiful; bridge at Giverny? Beautiful; blossom on trees? Beautiful. I mean, such is Monet’s commitment to beauty that this was an artist who made the choking London fog of the 19th century seem beautiful.
So, it’s going to be a challenge for me to get through this review using other, more useful, descriptive words and phrases.
The first place to start, therefore, should be the overarching ambition of this exhibition itself. Of course it’s going to be IMMENSELY popular – and when I visited (mid-afternoon on a weekday) it is fair to say that half the galleries in this show were pretty packed – and that is because Monet isn’t just such a recognisable and famous artist; it’s also because his paintings appeal to so many as they are, well, umm, wonderful to look at. (Phew, *wipes brow and pats self on back for use of other adjective*.)
Given this mainstream popularity and recognition, it can be easy (and lazy) to package Monet up as twee and conventional but this would be grossly unfair – and a gross misrepresentation of this man’s talents – for this show (remarkably the first solo Monet exhibition in twenty years in the UK) demonstrates emphatically the man’s radicalism and commitment to his own interests.
This exhibition is called ‘Monet & Architecture’ because the National Gallery is seeking to challenge our perception of Monet as a painter of ponds and gardens with a huge display of 100 paintings (almost all of which are individually superb) that contain buildings, people, boats, beach huts, houses, cities, trains… Basically, the footprint of mankind.
And that is, as a fact, true. Each painting here does contain architecture in some form. And certainly, Monet includes that architecture in a clever form but, as with all things Monet, his true focus is actually light. And, more than this, his utter commitment to capturing light in all its variances, movement and effects is remarkable. And radical.
And, my, the light in these paintings is WONDROUS. It’s so extraordinary: the glisten of morning light on the water with sailing boats bobbing on the tide, the brilliance of the light as it bounces sharply off idyllic snow scenes. The shimmer of sunlight across mighty cliffs and beach fronts. The bursts of rays through branches and spring blossom, the cast of the long shadows of the afternoon sun on a Parisian boulevard, the flickering reflections of the Doge’s Palace in the Venice lagoon… Even the effects of smog and steam on the faint light over the Thames and train stations.
And I will always be in love with Monet’s brushstrokes. His short strokes are actually so gentle rather than hurried and brutal, yet they make as much a perfect fit for creating the hustle and bustle of city life as they do for the variances in the colours of the Venetian canals where sweeps of purple and green mix with pale blues to evoke the depths of the waters.
And Monet accentuates his love for exploring the effects of light with interesting cropping of compositions and framing of subject matter. Horizons are either exaggeratedly high or severely low, allowing the artist to explore and accentuate the effects of light in the sky or on the waters or cityscapes.
Highlights are many in this show, but I especially enjoyed the collection of paintings of Rouen Cathedral, especially when they are hung together such as here where you can map the move from shadow to light across the face of the Cathedral painted at different times of the day.
And the final gallery closes with Monet’s collection of paintings of Venice, some of the last paintings Monet completed before he retreated to Giverny to nurse his ill health, poor eyesight and allow space to grieve following the death of his wife.
This is a hugely enjoyable and illuminating show. However, there has been much comment already at the admission price – like Picasso 1932 at the Tate, we have now passed the £20 admission price mark for blockbuster exhibitions. And that is a concern.
However, unlike the Tate, the National Gallery has not mitigated this somewhat with low admission/free admission evenings to encourage and enable access. And that’s such a shame as it is so important that such innovative, critical and – yes – beautiful works deserve to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
National Gallery, London, to 29 July, 2018.
Admission: £20 weekdays/£22 weekends (concessions available)
1. The Grand Canal (Le Grand Canal), Claude Monet, 1908. Nahmad Collection, Monaco © Photo courtesy of the owner
2. From the Top of the Cliffs at Dieppe or The Cliff at Dieppe (Du haut des falaises à Dieppe ou La falaise à Dieppe), Claude Monet, 1882. © Kunsthaus Zürich. All rights reserved.
3. The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris (Le Boulevard des Capucines, Paris), Claude Monet, 1873. © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow
4. Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Morning Effect) (Cathédrale de Rouen: Le Portail (Effet du matin)), Claude Monet, 1894. © Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel, Beyeler Collection / photo Robert Bayer