There are many beautiful and surprising things to see at the National Gallery of Victoria’s winter show “Monet’s Garden”. It is a privilege to examine 63 paintings by arguably the most revolutionary French painter of the 19th Century. It is, however, not quite what is advertised. Of the 63 paintings by Monet exhibited perhaps 39 are particular to Monet’s garden at Giverny, located about 75km north-west of Paris. The rest is, frankly, a mixed bag. There is one of Monet’s superb views of Rouen cathedral’s facade as dusk is falling, and one of his views of the Palace of Westminster like it’s never been seen before (or since); at the other end are some rather dreary portraits, and clumsy views of Norwegian mountains. The pre-Giverny pictures do not quite add up to a survey of his work before he moved there and one is left wondering why the gallery didn’t have the courage of its convictions and stick to the big idea for the exhibition, namely, Monet’s garden, and focus solely on that. One does not, however, want to be churlish; we are unlikely to see as many examples of Monet’s work in Australia for a very long time and for that reason alone it is worth the price of admission. So what is there to say?
The first thing that dawns on the observer is the extent to which Monet, in the last third of his life, found refuge almost wholly in his interior life. He moved to Giverny in 1883 and rented a large house named Le Pressoir. By 1890 he had bought it and he stayed there, apart from a visit to London and Norway in the 1890s and Venice in 1908, until he died in 1926. There he redecorated the house and created one of the great gardens of France, a lush and, by the highly geometric standards of French garden design, a romantic landscape. But consider this: during the 36 years from 1890 until his death Paris witnessed , among other things, the rise and fall of the Belle Epoque, the carnage of the First World War, and, in terms of art, Matisse and the Fauves, Cubism, Synthetic Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and, bestriding it all, the towering genius of Picasso. And that’s before one throws in German Expressionism, Vorticism and Futurism all of which, further afield, came and went during this period. Yet, these events and art movements did not seem to impinge on Monet’s mind much at all (the metaphor, in the late paintings, of willows for France’s fallen is about as indirect as one could get). One notes this not to criticise him (what would be the point?) but to underline the extent to which Monet focussed on what was to become his greatest artistic achievement: Les Nymphéas, or Les Grandes Décorations, those sublime and vast essays in colour, beauty, wisdom, that today adorn the walls of the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris and stand comparison with anything produced in art history. They are the crowning achievement of French painting.
And that’s where we come to the second observation – Monet’s infatuation with colour. Any modern-day visitor to Giverny can not but be struck by the assertive use of colour not only in the garden but in the interior spaces: the kitchen is blue; the dining room, yellow. Similarly, the exterior decoration of Le Pressoir with its green shutters and rose coloured walls. What we see here is the application of a theory of colour elaborated by the great French polymath Michel Eugène Chevreul in a book that was published in 1839, a year before Monet’s birth, called (in a later English translation) The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours. This theory arranges the colour spectrum in a circle such that the complementary colours – red and green, blue and yellow – are opposite each other. It was diagrams, such as the one illustrated left, that informed the colour choices that Monet, as well as his contemporaries, such as Georges Surat and Vincent Van Gogh, made. Indeed, Monet took his obsession with complementarity even to the plates off which he ate his dinner; they featured concentric circles of blue and yellow.
Monet said, in an 1888 interview with The Artist, “primary colours look brightest when they are brought into contrast with their complementaries.” Such contrasts suffuse every picture in the exhibition, but especially the ones relating to Les Grandes Décorations – from the exquisite and highly wrought Waterlilies of 1903 and 1907 (respectively from Tokyo and, the tondo, from Saint-Étienne) which appear to be sources for the later Grandes Décorations – to the oil sketches from the major donor to the exhibition, the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris. Most of the paintings here of Giverny are ones which Monet almost certainly never intended for public display; few are signed. They resemble a man trying to get his ideas down; to work out how to capture the water, the lilies, reflection, and, above all, colour. They look to have been painted rapidly; and, he doesn’t attempt to cover the entire canvas, as he does with his finished canvases. Whether this failure to cover the canvas with paint places him on the great up-escalator of Modernism, as adherents of Clement Greenberg assert, is moot. One suspects he just took the canvas as far as it would go and that was short of a conclusion. A case in point is the quite extraordinary Waterlilies of 1917-18, a long oblong canvas, unfinished and dashed off in a frenzy of complementaries which prefigures Pollack in its writhing painterly surface. It is hard to know quite what we are seeing here: a manic study, or the underpainting/substructure of a work never pursued? It takes one’s breath away.