Gardens, Monet and other Artists

Claude Monet, Lady in the Garden, 1867 Oil on canvas, 80 x 99 cm The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg Photo (c) The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin

The Royal Academy’s ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’, begins and ends with Monet; Matisse barely appears, perhaps included in the title purely for alliterative effect.  Monet provides the constant touchstone running through this beautiful exhibition, and it is a joy to see the development both of his painting style and his gardens from the 1860s – on the cusp of Impressionism – to the majestic waterlilies of his final years.  The RA has brought together a fascinating range of lesser known canvases (many from private collections and American museums) that are the more interesting for not all being ‘masterpieces’.  4409There is ‘Lady in the Garden’ (above, 1867), a smaller and simpler version of the Musee d’Orsay’s magisterial ‘Women in the Garden’; and then there is the comparatively garish scene of the artist’s children dwarfed by hordes of sunflowers of 1880. ‘The Artist’s Garden at Argenteuil’ (1873) and Renoir’s almost identical view with Monet at his easel (above right) contrast with the early flower studies by these artists and illustrate the rapid – and t0 many unsettling – development towards Impressionism.

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The gap between these two pairs of paintings was filled, in historical terms, by the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune.  Frederic Bazille, killed in this conflict, is an often forgotten contemporary of the early Impressionists.  The ghostly figure in his sunlit garden scene ‘Les Lauriers roses (The Terrace at Méric)’ (above, 1867) is a poignant reminder of a career cut short. nasturtiums-1.jpg!Blog It is also good to see more of Caillebotte, a more precise Impressionist whose passion for gardening is clear in the most believable of many painted nasturtiums (left, 1892), and in ‘The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres’ (below right), a view that would be chosen by none but a gardener.images

Then the exhibition opens out to embrace a host of international artists, including several I didn’t know such as Joaquin Sorolla and Laurits Tuxen, and others whose paintings of gardens were new to me.  Sorolla’s portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany (below right, 1911) surrounded by a an explosion of blooms is a floral highlight, while Singer Sargent is represented by numerous lilies from the same period as ‘Carnation Lily Lily Rose’ (though the absence of this piece is not quite compensated by ‘Garden Study of the Vickers Children’).84972034_Painting_the_Modern_Garden_Monet_to_Matisse__Royal_Academy_IMAGE_TO_PROMOTE_EXHIBITION-large_trans++eo_i_u9APj8RuoebjoAHt0k9u7HhRJvuo-ZLenGRumA

The RA must have relished the garden theme as an opportunity for a theatrical approach with the ‘atrium’ construction in the second gallery and the ‘greenhouse’ effect display cabinets.  The garden benches I could live with but for the rest I would have preferred the gallery walls to be used to their full glory, to see the painted geraniums tumbling from above, the lilies below, the canvases clustered as they would have been at a Paris Salon in very similar rooms to these in the late 19th century.

painting-the-modern-garden-monet-to-matisse-at-royal-academy-of-artsThe ‘Avant-Gardens’ gallery (I forgave the pun) is an odd mixture, though successful in highlighting the many diverse directions taken by artists in the early years of the 20th century.  Some could have been better represented – Matisse particularly, and from all Van Gogh’s sinuous irises and flowering cherry blossom a strangely static and formal Auvers garden scene has been chosen.  Nonetheless there was a glorious selection, with Klimt’s mosaic of leaves and flowers (above left), Kandinsky’s Murnau garden of 1910, Munch’s glowering, biblical apple tree in pure blue, green and yellow, and Emil Nolde’s thickly impasto poppies (below right, 1908).PaintintModernGarden_slide1

Meanwhile it was a pleasant surprise to find lesser known (and difficult to classify) artists such as Henri Le Sidaner and Santiago Rusinol represented so well, their canvases facing one another across the subsequent gallery, the one crepuscular (‘Steps, Gerberoy’, 1902, below), the other drenched in steps-gerberoy-by-henri-le-sidanierSpanish sunlight (‘Gardens of Monforte’, 1917, below).  Both artists had inherited the Impressionist interest in atmospheric light effects, but rejected other elements of the creed; Le Sidaner, if anything preferred the term ‘Intimiste’ while Rusinol rejected the broken brushstrokes of Impressionism, preferring to maintain the solidness of 2480objects.  Similarly, the Nabis painters Bonnard and Vuillard worked from memory and sketches rather than completing their work en plein air and adopted the Fauve technique that gives blank canvas a positive role in the composition. A whole gallery is given over to large scale works by these two artists, including Vuillard’s two panel  ‘The Garden of Le Relais at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne’ (1898).

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Then, swiftly, as if with relief, the narrative returned to Monet, with two rooms full of waterlilies and weeping willow (above, 1914-15), sensuous and contemplative, allowing the eye to melt into the deep pigments, the reflections and stillness.  The final Agapanthus triptych (part below, 1916-19) was a the culmination of this period and – reunited for the first time in Europe since it was painted – a suitably climactic finale.

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Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain

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This is one of those refreshing exhibitions where there is little need to read too much (though Hepworth’s was an interesting life).   Instead one can simply admire the incredible forms that she created, her truth to materials and the aesthetic perfection she achieved through a finely judged balance of volume and weight.  The toad (above, 1928) jumped out at me in the first gallery, for these very reasons: the onyx used is so supremely toad-coloured, and Hepworth’s sensitive carving gives such a strong suggestion of the languorous sliminess of the creature, working with the veins of the stone to delineate his slippery form.  He appears amid a menagerie of animals and birds by those who influenced Hepworth’s early career – Jacob Epstein’s architectural, almost mechanically geometric doves, Henry Moore’s knotted marble serpent, her first husband John Skeaping’s beautiful lapis buffalo and bronze fish, as well as equally sumptuous carvings by artists now virtually unknown such as Alan L. Durst and Elsie Marion Henderson.

Mother and Child 1934 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1993 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06676

The second gallery shows Hepworth’s work alongside Ben Nicholson’s, providing a narrative of their fruitful artistic interaction – as well as their domestic relationship, as Hepworth’s profile filters into Nicholson’s otherwise abstract compositions (echoed in her own experiments with photograms, and her touching sculpture ‘Two Heads’), and after giving birth to triplets Hepworth’s sculpture turns increasingly towards motherhood as a subject matter, as in ‘Mother and Child’ (1934, above).

Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster) 1935 Dame Barbara Hepworth 1903-1975 Presented by the executors of the artist's estate 1980 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T03131

Then the perspective is broadened as we are invited to consider Hepworth as a key figure in international modernism.  The pieces displayed are entirely abstract, the forms simplified to smooth rounded totems and spheres or geometric solids, placed in harmony (or tension) with one another – ‘Three Forms (Carving in Grey Alabaster)’ (above, 1935) is exemplary, each carefully juxtaposed element as coolly tactile as a wave-worn pebble yet as powerfully elemental as a monolith.

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‘Pelagos’ (above, 1946) marks another development in Hepworth’s oeuvre.  After all the horrors of the Second World War, she found the purist abstraction of Constructivism – inspired by friends such as Naum Gabo and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy – unfulfilling on a human and spiritual level.  Drawings, both abstract and figurative studies of surgeons at work, chart these changing attitudes, a mental process of adaptation.  Her post-war sculpture becomes more organic, evoking natural forms in warm-hued wood, in this case elm with a painted white interior.  Photographs of these sculptures displayed in the Cornish landscape were meticulously choreographed  by Hepworth, whose move to St. Ives at the outbreak of war had a clear impact on her work, made clear in the wave-like curves of ‘Pelagos’.

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This decisive attitude to the display of her work is explored further in archival photographs and film, before we return to her experimentation in wood with a gallery devoted to the monumental ‘Guarea’ works.  These enormous chunks of Nigerian tropical hardwood were a gift to Hepworth in the mid 1950s and encouraged her to work on a much bigger scale than she had attempted before.  Having just returned from a trip to Greece, each piece was named after a Greek location, such as ‘Corinthos’ (above, 1954-5). The scented reddish glow of the wood itself, as well as its size, imbue the sculptures with a primitive, religious or mystical aura.

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World | Tate Britain 24 June - 25 October 2015 to promote exhibition only ...  Barbara Hepworth Oval Form (Trezion) 1961-63 Bronze 940 x 1440 x 870 mm Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums Collections ©Bowness, Hepworth Estate

I was apprehensive in approaching the final gallery as Tate Britain has a tendency for ludicrous finales, with bizarre installations, multi-media displays or simply irrelevant/inferior contemporary art, in what must be a misguided attempt to make any exhibition ‘up-to-date’ or appealing to children… With Hepworth however we were safe; there was an installation of sorts, but it was relevant and fairly effective. From the 1950s Hepworth was exhibiting internationally and from the late fifties began using bronze which was more hard-wearing and allowed multiple editions; the final gallery recreates Gerrit Rietveld’s pavilion at the Kroller-Muller Museum gardens in the Netherlands where a retrospective of Hepworth’s work took place in 1965.  One of the sculptures displayed there – and now at the Tate – was ‘Oval Form (Trezion)’ (above, 1961-63).  As before, in Cornwall, Hepworth was delighted to see her work positioned within natural and architectural surroundings.  However, to get a real sense of the beauty of these late bronze pieces, one really must visit Hepworth’s garden in St. Ives.