Monet exhibition review
National Gallery, London Showing until: 29 July 2018
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