Exhibitions: Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse

By Gayford, Martin | The Spectator, January 30, 2016 | Go to article overview

Exhibitions: Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse


Gayford, Martin, The Spectator


Philip Larkin once remarked that Art Tatum, a jazz musician given to ornate, multi-noted flourishes on the keyboard, reminded him of 'a dressmaker, who having seen how pretty one frill looks, makes a dress bearing ninety-nine'. If you substitute paintings of flower-beds and dappled sunlight for chromatic keyboard runs, something similar is true of the new blockbuster at the Royal Academy, Painting the Modern Garden .

That, however, is only half the verdict on this curious affair. It is a show that feels a bit overblown -- like a visit to an enormous Victorian conservatory -- but contained inside it is another, triumphantly successful exhibition that is inspiring, exalting and almost entirely about Claude Monet. Indeed, for those who attended the hugely successful Monet in the 20th Century at the RA a decade and a half ago, parts of this feel like an encore, more compressed and even more powerful.

The early rooms contain rather too many stylistically samey depictions of dahlias, rose arbours, fruit trees in blossom and ornamental ponds. The problem with this -- a lurking danger for any exhibition that focuses on a particular genre -- is that the exhibits, separately delightful, tend in aggregate to cancel each other out.

One early impressionist study of billowing banks of foliage and blooms is ravishing. That's certainly the case with Manet's 'Young Woman Among Flowers' (1879), Pissarro's 'Spring, Plum Trees in Blossom' (1877) or Monet's 'The Artist's Garden at Vétheuil' (1880). These are pictures of a Victorian paradise: domestic, comfortable, filled with light and colour. But multiplying examples of this charming genre tends to subtract from the overall effect.

The feeling of an enormous banquet made up of rather interminable similar courses gets stronger when you enter a gallery devoted to 'International Gardens', which is crammed with yet more bouquets, blooms, flowerpots and trellises by non-French impressionists from Britain, Germany, Spain and America. None of these -- including John Singer Sargent -- benefits from the comparison. These, and a cache of works by the fin-de-siècle Spaniards Santiago Rusiñol and Joaquín Mir y Trinxet, which nastily combine luridness and glossiness, could well have been omitted altogether.

Of course, a lot of painters did paint their gardens, and some -- Monet included -- were keen gardeners. In a similar way, several major artists of the period were enthusiastic amateur cooks, Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec among them. Indeed, you could probably put together an exhibition entitled Painting the Modern Dinner -- and that, too, might turn out to be a bit indigestible. The reason why so many painters took an interest in seedlings and shrubs was more to do with colour, light and texture than with secateurs and compost.

Here Monet comes into focus: his garden at Giverny slowly became the whole subject of his art. …

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