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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Culture & Anarchy

On Wednesday I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum.  I began at the end, with British Modernism.  With the voices of Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant still chattering in my head, I admired the small bronze figures of Frank Dobson, and rather less so the Epstein busts which manage to look scarily emaciated and overly sentimental at the same time.  And Stephen said to Cecil:  “I’m so glad Dobson wants to do us – what excruciating fun it’ll be!! – visiting each other’s bust & commenting cattily, – I want to be a voluptuous skeleton, – just cheekbones & a navel really … My “Epstein” bust is at the London Group show now.”  I want to be a muse.  Where are the sculptors?

I like the Sickerts – especially the Mornington Crescent Nude – and the Vuillards – especially one of a woman reading among the reeds, and another in which a large round dining table dominates the small canvas, with a rotund grandmother trapped on one side of this expanse, and a toddler on the other, its head only just peering over the edge and a small fist outstretched; the tea cups and the biscuits are neatly arranged in the middle, appearing beyond the reach of either.  One can only imagine the frustration of posing for that one.  I would rather model for Degas, ensconced in a Paris cafe with a glass of absinthe.

There was a balcony encircling the third room, high up, which looked tantalisingly unreachable.  A door opened onto a tight spiral staircase and led up to an intriguing display of small canvases hung in a line all the way round at eye level.  It started at Brueghel (school of) with some curling being played in a dark blue wintry landscape, and a gathering of tiny birds who were considering the bird trap with contempt.  It continued round to some portraits and self-portraits of British modernist luminaries such as Lytton Strachey by Henry Lamb (he has such a funny long, bearded, melancholic face.  Why was Dora so in love with him? It must have been his mind.)  Then I came across this extraordinary picture of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints by Edmond Dulac, whom I knew only as the creator of such ethereal and bewitching illustrations as the Ice Maiden, accompanied by polar bears and carrying a human heart in her delicate hands – a highlight of the Age of Enchantment exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery a few years ago.

Ricketts and Shannon were artistic and personal partners throughout their adult lives, the Fitz website helpfully informs me.  They look and sound strikingly like a previous incarnation of Gilbert & George, although – thankfully – did not consider themselves ‘living sculptures’, and produced some really rather beautiful work.  Shannon (on the left) looks rather maudlin, caught perhaps at the very moment that he discovers his kingfisher has a terminal illness; Ricketts, meanwhile, with his neat pointed beard and self-satisfied hint of a smile, looks as if he is hatching some furtive scheme.  Having illustrated Wilde’s The Sphinx and designed the first British production of Salome, his reverently held peacock feather perhaps suggests that he holds a flame for Oscar, to his partner’s deep distress…  What gossip and scandal.  Must find out more.

The anarchy broke out as darkness fell and I returned to a London populated by diminutive demons wielding plastic buckets.  And then this appeared in our sitting room….

I’m sure Matthew Arnold would never have predicted an anarchy such as this.