A Thoroughly Modern Monet
Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion
When I first heard about plans for a show examining the work of Claude Monet in the twentieth century, I wondered why it was being done. Hadn't we seen an awful lot of Monet in the last few years? Special exhibitions, that is--not just the many examples of his work in this country's museums thanks to the hearty appetite of American collectors for Impressionist paintings. There was the Art Institute of Chicago's wide-ranging retrospective in 1994 and the Brooklyn Museum's "Monet and the Mediterranean" last fall. Earlier this year, there was the reunion of all eleven of Monet's vaporous 1877 images of glass-roofed sheds, engines, and clouds of steam in the absorbing exhibition "Manet, Monet, and the Gare Saint-Lazare" at the National Gallery, Washington. Two years ago, Monet's paintings of the 1870s and 1880s had a starring role in the Phillips Collection's "Impressionists on the Seine" while in the fall of 1995, the Metropolitan's "Origins of Impressionism" provided an illuminating context for his work of the 1860s, and about eight years back, a wonderful show at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts examined Monet's series of the 1890s--the stacks of grain, the poplars, and the facades of Rouen cathedral.(1) Cynics might say that Impressionist shows are always good box office, guaranteed crowdpleasers that assure a welcome boost to any museum's income. Aesthetes could retort that it's always a pleasure to see a good Monet and more of a pleasure to see a lot of good ones. But I kept wondering. Did we need another full scale Monet exhibition just now? Was there anything new to be said about this widely known and much loved painter?
As it turns out, "Monet in the 20th Century," the most recent of the seemingly endless celebrations of the master of Giverny, organized by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Royal Academy of Arts, London, made it clear that the answer is an unqualified yes, on all counts.(2) Casual and habitual museum-goers alike will be enchanted by shimmering views of London and Venice, opalescent canvases of the lily pond in Monet's garden at Giverny, gnarled "portraits" of his Japanese bridge, and immense, loosely scrawled, lyrical dialogues between water lilies and reflections. (Other institutions take note: the show was installed with more than customary generosity, which not only gave the pictures room to breathe, but diminished the impact of the crowds.) As a gathering of frankly beautiful pictures, the show was exhilarating, but what was perhaps more important, it made you approach Monet in a new way--not as the grand old man of plein air painting, but as a vigorous twentieth-century innovator. It was useful to be reminded that this quintessential Impressionist--the only member of the group whose work conforms to textbook definitions of Impressionism from start to finish in a long career--was not solely a man of the nineteenth century. Monet lived and worked for twenty-six years of the twentieth century. When he died, aged eighty-six, the first exhibitions of Fauvism and Cubism were almost twenty years in the past, the First World War had been over for nearly a decade, and the first Surrealist manifesto had been circulating for two years.
That "Monet in the 20th Century" met with an enthusiastic response from the museum-going public was hardly surprising given the charisma of its subject and the numbers of unabashedly gorgeous and accessible, albeit audacious, pictures included in the show. What was really remarkable was that even specialists were deeply engaged. Despite Monet's popularity, despite the steady stream of exhibitions devoted to him in recent years, despite the fact that many of the paintings at the MFA were utterly familiar, the Boston show's thoughtful selection managed to include some real surprises: a picture not seen outside of Russia since it was bought from Monet's 1904 exhibition at Durand-Ruel, another last on public view in 1909, and still another, remarkably enough, never before exhibited. …