National Gallery, Sainsbury Wing until 29 July 2018
Although efficient and to the point, the title of this exhibition conjures up a cold vision of graph paper and studies of buildings. This is not the case at all. In an interview in 1895, Claude Monet said, “Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat … I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat – the beauty of the light in which they exist.” This is the case, this is what the exhibition reveals, through a display of over 70 paintings spanning five decades of the artist’s career. About a quarter of the works exhibited comes from private collections and is seldom seen. It is a great opportunity to view less known masterpieces, and to rediscover the French artist in an overlooked, yet fascinating light.
Founding member of the Impressionist group, Monet is mostly known for his landscapes of the French countryside, rivers, gardens, coasts, often painted en plain air, with close attention to the effects of light and weather. Yet, buildings played a substantial and interesting role in his art.
'Monet & Architecture' is displayed in three sections – 'The Village and the Picturesque', 'The City and the Modern', and 'The Monument and the Mysterious'. Together with the ubiquitous audio-guides, the visitors are provided with an exhaustive free booklet, describing every single painting in the exhibition. This is very handy, if it doesn’t stop the observer from… observing. Even without booklets and audio guides, it is clear throughout that there is a very dynamic relationship between artist, architecture, landscape, light, and human absence or presence. Sometimes the structured architecture plays foil to the ragged landscape, sometimes buildings blend into, or inform the landscape. Other times, architecture is a symbol of human vulnerability to nature, a hazy small house under the snow, for instance, or grey city buildings engulfed by the fog.
This was a time of an expanding railway network, that allowed easier travel, and encouraged tourism, which was also aided by illustrated guide books, showing alluring landmarks. Although a tourist himself, who did not shun the odd snapshot with pigeons in St Mark’s Square, Monet was not overly impressed with tourists and with the increased busy-ness of cities. So, he happily removed human presence, for instance, in his Venice paintings.
Monet was often working on a number of paintings at the same time, each concentrating on a different light, time of day, weather. So, he needed to keep the wet canvasses repaired from the elements, and often worked indoors, from balconies or windows. These provided a fixed viewpoint, useful to compare the different interplay of building and light. But they also, perhaps, offered unusual angles, as in the cut-off palazzos on the Venetian canals. The composition, of course, may be deliberate, as it allows more space to the lagoon ad its light and reflections, but one wonders if they were not also partly inspired by a restricted viewpoint.
A 15-minute documentary is shown outside the exhibition’s entrance, that sets the scene of Monet’s architectural paintings within a historical and biographical frame. We learn more about the about the Venice, that marked the apogee and the ending of his architectural landscapes, and many other interesting churches’ spires as landmarks and markers of scale and travel times, we find out about his trip to facts. Well worth watching.
First published on the East Finchley Open Artists May 2018 Newsletter - Click HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.