Saturday, 20 February 2016

Painted gardens prove a peaceful tonic to modern life

Water Lillies (1916-26) Monet
Picasso observed that “art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” so what better way to start a weekend than to spend time in a gallery?

And even more than that, how therapeutic would that art be if it was to be about gardens?
The announcement of London’s first art blockbuster of 2016 was met by much muttering that the Royal Academy was merely chasing after the money of a sort of art show dilettante.

There seemed to be a suggestion that Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse was not quite ‘serious,’ as art goes.

The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres, Caillebotte
Even the Daily Mail got in on the act with a sneery piece about ‘Monet mania’.

But none of that was going to put off someone who has, in recent years, experienced Damascene moments when it comes to both of those named artists.

So a week ago, after work, The Other Half and I toddled along to Piccadilly.

It must be said that, in terms of the Matisse element of the exhibition, it’s a bit of a disappointment.

Organised in conjunction with the Cleveland Museum of Art, some paintings are being seen in London but not in the States and visa versa.

Woman and Child in a Meadow at Bougival, Morisot
In the US, according to the catalogue (which is rather poorly printed in terms of colour reproduction, by the way), there will be three Matisse’s on view that are not to be found in London.

The two here are not his finest, although Rose Marble Table (1917), on a second look, does generate light, even though, by Matisse’s standards, the background is downright muddy. Bloody geniuses.

But that’s being picky. There are fascinating works here by myriad other painters – some of whom were new or little-known to us – and then there are the works by Monet.

The exhibition opens with two fascinating pairings: first, of flower pictures by Renoir and Monet and then, Renoir’s Monet Painting In His Garden At Argenteuil together with the painting that Monet is shown working on, The Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil (A Corner of the Garden with Dahlias), from 1873.

View of a Garden, Linköping, Johan Fredrick Krouthén
The first duo are highly conventional still life paintings; the second sees both artists moving toward what we recognise today as an Impressionist approach.

The exhibition makes much of the rise of recreational gardening among the growing middle class and its influence on artists, although some painters continued to be inspired by their own preference for rather more traditional vegetable gardening – a group that included Camille Pissarro, who painted his kitchen garden.

And indeed, Gustave Caillebotte did the same, with The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres (1877) proving a rare pastel work in such exhibitions, and very modern, with its stark geometry.

The Terrace at Méric, Bazille
In making sure that the link between recreational gardening and painting is clear, there are exhibits of seed catalogues, magazines and other gardening materials, plus a rather marvelous film of Monet painting.

There are painters represented from around the world, including the likes of Joaquin Sorolla, with his Spanish courtyard gardens dripping in heat and the cool of shade.

In such terms, Frédéric Bazille’s The Terrace at Méric (1867), though unfinished, reeks of the warmth and light of the south.

The Birch Avenue in the Garden of Wannsee ... Libermann
We have the chance to meet up again with other artists, including Berthe Morisot, whose beautiful Woman and Child in a Meadow at Bougival from 1882 is on display, while there are the joys on a single Manet in Young Women Among Flowers from 1879.

There are several fine works by John Singer Sargent, and then there are the Scandinavians, Karl Nordström, Laurits Tuxen and Peder Krøyer.

For me, Johan Fredrik Krouthén’s View of a Garden, Linköping (1887-88), stood out from these works.

Murnau II, Kandinsky
Light-dappled paths leading through tree-filled gardens are a particularly successful recurring theme – Max Libermann’s The Birch Avenue in the Garden of Wannsee Looking West (1918) is just one excellent example.  

Setting aside the fact that whoever named the next part of the exhibition ‘Avant Gardens’ (hohoho) should be given a serious seeing to (fnar fnar), we then move into an explosion of colour. 

And what is very clear is that the artistic leap forward from red and white borders to riots of colour was made possible, in part at least, by improvements in botanical science. 

Emil Nolde’s canvases of flowers bring extra vivacity to the exhibition, as does Kandinsky’s wonderful Murnau II. 

Munch’s Apple Tree in a Garden (1932-42) is a revelation if one is primarily only familiar with The Scream. 

Rose Marble Table, Matisse
We are even treated to three fascinating small pieces by Klee, while Klimt’s Cottage Garden from 1905-07 is unmistakable and Santiago Rusiñol’s Gardens of Monforte (1917) has wonderful light.

But then, as throughout this exhibition, is Monet – taking an extraordinary artistic journey in one lifetime.

And the three vast Water Lillies canvases, from 1915-26, 1916-26 and 1915-26 (left to right as they are hung) are staggering. Now all hanging in different US galleries, they are reunited here, in Europe, for the first time in the best part of a century.

Like the paintings at the Orangerie in Paris, they have the power to evoke a sublime, almost spiritual response. Their apparent simplicity belies their power and their beauty.

So forget the cynics and the snide snobs. Quite simply, time spent contemplating these works is worth the admission price alone.

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