|The appearance and
position of objects in nature such as, trees, grass, water, flowers were in constant flux.
An artist could go out into the landscape to paint a clump of flowers in full bloom on
Sunday, and then the next day see them slumped over. When painting from the landscape
these frustrating experiences would often take place.
It was over a century ago in Giverny, a humble town in France, that Claude Monet
created a unique world that still exists today. For Monet and his garden at Giverny, the
landscape became an ideal setting to paint from. It would be managed to look beautiful on
a daily basis. In essence, the landscape was treated as a still life. Im sure Monet
once said to himself "Why not control what is outdoors?" Monet created a garden
that allowed him to create landscape paintings that were never before possible. The garden
at Giverny was Monets ideal landscape setting, and could be painted repeatedly. On a
daily basis Monet and his gardeners physically composed the colors, shapes, textures, and
positions of the flowers and waterlilies, just as apples and bottles could be arranged in
a still life. Each element of the garden was set in a way to recreate the vision of beauty
Monet had in his imagination. With the assistance of his hired helpers, the gardens at
Giverny were nourished in a manner that could only become ideal, and for Monet there was
to be no compromise. Monet often would call out to his gardeners "Could you please
push apart the cluster of waterlilies so that I can paint them later this afternoon
they are too clumped together right now the arrangement is awkward!"
The newly renovated Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New
York has bravely undertaken the task of organizing the final body of work that Monet
created at Giverny. On loan from the Musee Marmotten located in France are
twenty-two canvases from the end of Monets career depicting his garden paradise. M
and T Bank generously has provided funding for this exhibit.
The exhibition is well organized, both historically and
thematically. The paintings are arranged chronologically, beginning with the initial
impressions Monet painted of water lilies at Giverny and ending with the expressionistic
renditions of irises and roses that he painted during the last few years before his death
in 1926 when he was near blind.
The exhibition is presented well thematically in the
sense that paintings that deal with similar subjects and styles seem to be grouped
|This enables the viewer to make
logical comparisons between the phases in painting that Monet progressed through as he
aged. The wall texts present information concerning Monets life at different points
in time, which help explain the reasons behind the change in his painting style. The
beginning of the exhibition is dominated by water lily paintings that Monet created at
Giverny, thirteen years after he purchased the Giverny property in 1890. At this point in
his career, Monet was beginning to show the first signs of cataracts that caused his
eyesight to gradually diminish.
"The garden at
Giverny was Monets ideal landscape setting, and could be painted repeatedly"
The first work that one confronts in the exhibition is
titled Water lilies (Nympheas) and is a classic example of Impressionism. It is
painted in a soft palette of mauves and gray-blues, which heightens the romantic quality
of the subject. In fact the first six works possess that characteristic atmospheric
feeling that Monet is known for. Monet stated that he wanted to capture in paint the
"beauty of the air." There is no doubt that these initial water lily paintings
are atmospheric. This quality is achieved through color and the thin and soft application
of paint. It is also very evident in these initial works that Monet possessed a great
sensitivity for observing how light affected color and shadow. Water lilies and the
reflections of clouds on water were the only subject matter of these first few works,
lending to open, unencumbered compositions. Ones eyes move freely throughout the
paintings. The water lilies and reflections of sky were often painted with equal emphasis.
The intensity of the color, and texture of the paint was treated the same. The result was
an ambiguous relationship between what was considered the clouds and the water, causing
the clouds to appear as if they are connected to the water. Critics called these works
"upside down landscapes."
Included in the exhibition in the first gallery is a
small display of Monets paint palette and prescription eyeglasses. The text that
accompanies the display states that Monet had cataract surgery in 1923, and eyeglasses
were specially designed to compensate for differences in color saturation. This is a
clever curatorial touch.
|These objects are visually
intriguing, which provides the viewer with information that heightens ones
understanding of the show. Next to this display is a series of drawings that Monet created
of his teachers when he was a boy. These works show a different side of Monet; many of
them appear to be surreal, possessing distorted facial features and displaced body parts.
The remainder of the exhibition is disappointing. As soon as you
leave the initial gallery and proceed to the final two exhibition areas the paintings
become overworked, heavy, and morose. It is obvious that Monet was merely reacting to what
he knew from memory. The memory of what he observed at Giverny when he could see clearly.
At this point in his life he was not able to identify subtle changes in color and form.
The color and form become expressionistic. In the piece called Weeping Willow, the
subject of the tree is barely identifiable. The brushstrokes of paint merely replicate the
movement of the tree in the wind. Color does not capture the fleeting effects of light on
the tree, as in earlier works. The suggestion of form appears clumsy, lacking the
sensitive handling of earlier Monet works. As a whole, the paintings in this section share
close ties in many ways with the New York Abstract Expressionists, and many of the artists
who were part of this movement probably studied these works closely. The works seem to be
more concerned with the process, and effects of the paint on the canvas surface, rather
then the subject at hand.
Upon leaving the gallery I asked a women what she felt
about the exhibition and she stated, "The water lilies were beautiful." She
definitely was not referring to what she just saw in the second half of the exhibit.
Visitors seemed to feel comfortable with what was presented in the first half of the
exhibit, and had no words for what they saw at the end. The paintings that Monet created
of colorful and romantic water lilies could be considered an icon of French Impressionism.
They are what we know and love about Monet. They are the paintings that are presented in
art history books. It is incredible to realize that a painter as great as Claude Monet
still had the ability to make artwork of lesser quality. It is obvious that the works
towards the end of this exhibition were his weak ones. It is a shame that with all the
masterful Monet paintings throughout the world that a few of them couldnt have been
included in this exhibit. However, the Albright-Knox has been very generous and brave to
show us the works that Monet created during his love affair with his garden at Giverny.