Monet ex­hi­bi­tion re­view

Na­tional Gallery, Lon­don Show­ing un­til: 29 July 2018

Timeless Travels Magazine - - CONTENTS - Re­view by Theresa Thomp­son

It’s strange to think of Monet in terms of ar­chi­tec­ture. While build­ings fea­ture in many of his paint­ings, they’re not what we see – what we no­tice, tal­ly­ing with what we al­ready know of Claude Monet, is that he is a sub­lime painter of light. That tran­scen­dent abil­ity to cap­ture the ever chang­ing play of light on a sur­face and con­vey at­mos­phere is his, supremely.

The nat­u­ral world, land­scape, the sea, and later on, gar­dens es­pe­cially wa­tery ones re­splen­dent with wa­terlilies: these are Monet’s themes. It seems coun­ter­in­tu­itive to think in terms of build­ings. What, there­fore, to ex­pect from Monet & Ar­chi­tec­ture, the ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery, and the first ded­i­cated ex­hi­bi­tion to Monet to be seen in Lon­don for 20 years?

Like most peo­ple, I ex­pected to see works from his Rouen Cathe­dral se­ries painted in dif­fer­ent lights at dif­fer­ent times of day, some limpid vi­sions of the Venice wa­ter­front, the Houses of Par­lia­ment and bridges across a Thames shrouded in fog – fog that to Monet beau­ti­fied the oth­er­wise ugly city of Lon­don.

And they were there. But this ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes many paint­ings that most of us will never have seen be­fore, or know from re­pro­duc­tion – for out of the nearly 80 paint­ings on show, a quar­ter come from pri­vate col­lec­tions around the world, and are lit­tle-known and rarely ex­hib­ited.

Rep­re­sent­ing 50 years of work, from the early stages of his ca­reer in the mid-1860s and his ex­hibit­ing in the Im­pres­sion­ist shows, to his Venice paint­ings, the ex­hi­bi­tion is an out­stand­ing vis­ual feast.

The open­ing gal­leries show the young Monet (1840-1926) choos­ing ‘pic­turesque’ sub­jects for his paint­ings. Be­sides pic­tures of rus­tic lanes and vil­lage churches in Nor­mandy, Dutch wind­mills and gables, they show him be­gin­ning to use build­ings as com­po­si­tional aids: as “built struc­tures pro­vid­ing an­chor­age,” say the cu­ra­tors, or as “foils for the ir­reg­u­lar­ity of na­ture,” “screens for the re­flec­tion of light,” or to point to colour con­trasts.

Take for ex­am­ple, The Cus­toms Of­fi­cer’s Cot­tage, Varengeville (1882) perch­ing on the cliff edge: the strong an­gles of the dark roof of this mod­est dwelling jut out against the un­even forms of na­ture. From the top of the Cliffs, Dieppe (1882) shows the bright or­ange roofs of the mod­ern cliff-top houses mak­ing a strong con­trast with the green grass. Then, The Church at Vetheuil (1878) shows Monet fas­ci­nated by a com­plex jum­ble of me­dieval build­ings and the grand west Re­nais­sance façade.

Build­ings also serve as records of lo­ca­tions, iden­ti­fy­ing a vil­lage, for in­stance, by its church ( Église de Varengeville, ef­fet mati­nal, 1882), a city by its mon­u­ments such as Venice and San Gior­gio Mag­giore (1908), or Lon­don by Cleopa­tra’s Nee­dle. Or, they sug­gest moder­nity, as in the glass-roofed in­te­rior of the Gare Saint-Lazare (1877), or its op­po­site, the his­toric or pic­turesque, as in La Lieu­tenance de Hon­fleur (1864).

Nat­u­rally, as it’s Monet we are talk­ing about, they also serve as sur­faces, screens on which light plays. This is never more ap­par­ent than in the tex­tured sur­faces of his 1890's se­ries of Rouen Cathe­dral paint­ings – he would have sev­eral on the go at once, chang­ing can­vases as the light changed – or, those of Venice where fleet­ing re­flec­tions on wa­ter were set against solid struc­tural equiv­a­lents, no­tably in The Doge’s Palace (1908) where the broad sun­lit façade seems to float above and merge with the la­goon be­low.

Monet dis­tils what he sees. Never one to paint sim­ply what was in front of him he would scout around a new des­ti­na­tion, sketch­book in hand, be­fore tak­ing up brush and paint­ing in plein air.

Al­ways look­ing, al­ways in­vest­ing in what he saw be­fore him, and whether or not Monet was ‘fas­ci­nated’ by build­ings, as is the show’s premise, it is clear from this su­perb se­lec­tion of paint­ings that na­ture, weather and the gos­samer colours he used to por­tray it, and ar­chi­tec­ture were a con­stant source of in­spi­ra­tion.

Out of the nearly 80 paint­ings on show, a quar­ter come from pri­vate col­lec­tions around the world, and are lit­tle-known and rarely ex­hib­ited...the ex­hi­bi­tion is an out­stand­ing vis­ual feast

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