Painting The Modern Garden – Monet to Matisse – Royal Academy
One of the (very few) things about not working in London I regret is that my opportunities to visit the art galleries of the capital are limited. Ordinarily I would have seen an exhibition like this in its first week or so but here I was sneaking in with just a week to spare. Perhaps sneaking in is the wrong term as security has been tightened since my last visit with bag checks as you enter the court off the street.
Gardening is the new rock and roll, they say, and is the hobby, nay obsession, of many middle aged and more mature citizens. With the rise of wealth and the middle class, gardening changed during the 19th century horticulture moved from being an aid to survival to a leisure pursuit. With artists of the calibre of Monet, Renoir, Pisarro, Bonnard and Cezanne being gardeners and gardens featuring in their works, there is fertile ground for an exhibition of horticultural art.
On the whole this exhibition works well. The triptych of Monet’s water lilies, reunited for the first time in decades, and left until the final room, is breath-taking and worth the trouble of visiting on its own. It is a swirling profusion of water, flower, foliage, light, reflection and colour. Astonishing. And many of the old favourites are to be found here, a series of pictures of the Japanese bridge at Monet’s garden in Giverney – reproduced on many a biscuit tin – and water lilies galore, each painted at a different time of the day and showing the subtle changes in light and texture. Monet’s later pictures, painted when he was suffering from failing eyesight, are a mass of heavily daubed whirling colours.
But it is not just Monet on display. Van Gogh’s Daubigny’s garden in Auvers is wonderfully evocative and Caillebotte’s astonishing portrayal of nasturtiums from on high emphasises their spread, colour and fragility against a mauve background. And the exhibition opens with a reductio ad absurdum, Renoir’s famous painting of Monet painting his garden in 1873.
It is easy to see why gardens and flowers in particular captured the artists’ imagination. There is pattern and a plethora of vivid colours in surprising shapes and sizes. And, of course, apart from blowing gently in the wind, the subject matter doesn’t move so there are none of the draughtsmanship challenges presented by motion. But, in part, this is one of the problems with the exhibition. After a while, the paintings merge into each other, there is too much green, too little life and what might be masterpieces if viewed individually lose their impact in aggregation.
There are also some oddities. Quite why we need to see seed catalogues and frames is beyond me and inevitably there is a film of Monet painting in his garden. He approached the subject in just the way I imagined – sitting in front of an easel planted in a garden with brush in hand. Why did I need proof positive?
And there is also a very middle class perspective to the show. The depictions of gardens are stunning but there is little sense conveyed of the physical work involved in gardening, pace Pisarro and the wonderfully evocative painting of Gertrude Jeckyll’s gardening boots by William Nicholson. After all, these gardeners were gentlemen gardeners – we see Monet’s planting instructions to his gardeners – and beyond colour and shape they seemed little interested in the physicality of horticulture or, if the truth be told, in the actual form and individual characteristics of particular plants.
Nonetheless, these are minor quibbles and overall it is a worthwhile exercise.