Magazine article The Spectator

Scraping the Barrel

Magazine article The Spectator

Scraping the Barrel

Article excerpt

The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings Royal Academy, until 10 June Sponsored by Bank of America Renoir Landscapes 1865-83 National Gallery, until 20 May Sponsored by Ernst & Young Here are two of the big hitters of Impressionism, both represented by shows which only investigate very particular aspects of their work. Monet and Renoir are names guaranteed to provide good boxoffice returns, but will the public be satisfied by the choice of work attached to their brand labels? Of course the RA and NG need to generate income from exhibitions in these increasingly expensive times, though both have managed to secure sponsors to help defray the costs of their shows.

The RA exhibition comes with a vast doorstop of a catalogue, stuffed full of worthy scholarship, making the art-historical case for the importance of Monet's hitherto largely unknown pastels and drawings. But the show itself is a thin one, and the public would be forgiven for feeling disappointed at the limited riches on display for the £8 admission. The Renoir is a more blatant attempt at populism, but is equally questionable in terms of raison d'être. Are these exhibitions a cynical exploitation of the public's urge to see work it thinks it will like? Or are they simply a mark of the desperation rife among the governing bodies of our great art institutions?

The Monet show begins quietly with a surprising (but not very interesting) group of caricatures, done by the young artist in a popular style of the day, thankfully juxtaposed with pleasant pencil drawings of trees and a watermill. From the first, this exhibition seems to be scraping the barrel.

It's not, as it suggests, a show of drawings and pastels, but of oil paintings interspersed with drawings and pastels. And there is so little actually on show that one gallery has to be filled up with lithographs by William Thornley done after Monet, with a section given over to computer screens (always a giveaway), where you can pretend you are looking at Monet's sketchbooks. The Sackler Wing at the RA is not large, consisting of three rooms, but this is the problem when you have galleries of a fixed size (and we see it again and again at the Tate) -- the temptation is to fill them regardless. This exhibition would have made far more impact if concentrated into two rooms; spread out as it is, it entirely lacks punch.

And that's a pity, for there are some beautiful and unexpected things here. The pastels are the most exciting exhibits, though they scarcely deserve the hype surrounding them. There are some lush green open-air studies -- one of an orchard, another of three cows in a pasture and the most splendid of the Seine Estuary (c.1864-70) -- and there's a stunning one called 'Nightfall'. The most memorable grouping is a series of pictures of Etretat: a painting followed by three pastels and then another painting. The oils make the pastels look pretty dull, except for one, 'Etretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d'Aval' (c.1885). Quite simply the paintings are in a completely different league, and although it's interesting to see them paired with drawings, such as the 'View of Rouen' oil with a later black crayon drawing of the same scene, it's rather an academic exercise. Of the lithographs by William Thornley (who, incidentally, gave watercolour lessons in 1920 to the budding Surrealist Eileen Agar), I particularly liked a blue and green ex-catalogue view of Cap d'Antibes, and enjoyed the way Monet's subtle crayon drawing of grainstacks showed up the deficiencies of Thornley's print of the subject. …

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