• Art, Past & Present: Part 2 of 3 - 'Monet & Architecture'

    By chance, three different art exhibitions in London currently all engage with the same subject – how particular artists considered the old and the new. Specifically, shows looking at Auguste Rodin, Claude Monet and Thomas Cole explore how they each viewed societal developments in their own times, wondered what their work should look like in the context of that and whether they followed, built on or reacted against those practitioners who came before. Fittingly all three finish on the same date, so you have about five weeks to experience all of them. My own encounters continued with the National Gallery’s Monet & Architecture.

    Forget, if you can, Monet’s water lilies. This exhibition is about his response to the built environment around him, in Normandy, Rouen, Paris, London and Venice, whether featuring incidentally or as the principal – sometimes only – subject. It looks at how painted architecture directly, and at how he used it as counterpoint to the natural world for which he is best known. It considers his selection of structures old and new, and it looks at repetition – how the same topic could be painted again and again yet be different each time.

    Beginning with Monet’s love for the traditional aesthetic of the picturesque allows simple scenes of village and harbour life to impress with their dancing light, bright colours and clever effects, such as the apparent blurring of grasses in the foreground of The Hut at Sainte-Adresse, although the captions are curiously silent occasionally on obvious points, such as the dramatically vertiginous viewpoint down a winding lane cutting through the centre of one picture of the same location even as its vertical orientation – surely designed to enhance this exact effect – is noted. A developing mastery of colour and composition is also seen, with the former employed to suggest weather effects (a View of Amsterdam appears as though seen through a rain-spattered window) and the latter starting to use architecture as a highlight or framing device. Both skills come together in the superb The Cliff at Varengeville, which is almost Pre-Raphaelite with its keen atmosphere, and the warmly coastal The Church at Vethéuil.

    Already the variation in Monet’s approach is apparent, and this is not always to the viewer’s advantage in my view. Many of his works are aggressively naïve or pointillistic, these last effective only at a distance. The exhibition is silent on this, disappointingly. Even when he takes this road however other sides of his technique impress, such as the almost monochrome Snow Effect at Giverney which nevertheless drew me in through its complex textures and implied motion, both of which reminded me of Rothko.

    The modern city was a touchstone for many late 19th century artists, including the Impressionists, but this show presents Monet as ambivalent to its charms. It appears that the cost of living an urban life – plus ça change – along with a lack of great interest from buyers in the works he produced eventually dissuaded him. The heavier, darker colours of his images of the Gare St-Lazare are an effective contrast with the earlier rural works and show a solid artistic response to a change of scene, but Monet’s true sympathies seem to lie in the quieter moments along quaysides, near bridges and – in one soft, subtle masterpiece – with a distant View of Rouen, where a row of slim trees is echoed by the tall mast of a barge and a chimney, and barely-there clouds and a slight pink sunset radiate evening calm.

    All three subjects include water, with Monet’s talent for reflection also well to the fore. His ability to differentiate one form of light from another in variant circumstances is seen in the spectacular The Boulevard des Capucines, where two men in top hats stand on a balcony (they are almost pushed off the edge of the canvas) and watch a teeming crowd of several hundred individually-painted figures on the street below with half the scene bathed in winter sunlight and half in shadow.

    Monet’s astonishing ultra-grainy close ups of Rouen cathedral done from slightly different angles and at very different times of day and his heavily atmospheric scenes painted from London bridges close this section. The first is perhaps the most powerful room of the show, with half a dozen frames reading as massively enlarged photographs from further away. The artist often had several canvases on the go simultaneously in Britain’s capital, storing them in rented or gifted rooms and adjusting each in turn at the relevant time of day to properly capture the shifts of light, colour and time, effectively caught with a trio of works featuring the Houses of Parliament from across the river in fog, a storm and at sunset.

    Late-period portraits of Venice’s palazzos and more – the term must be correct, since no people feature – close this excellent show. It is well-curated and superbly hung. The number and choice of canvasses and their considered disposition is a perfect fit for the basement Sainsbury galleries, working with their variety and the clever theming to ensure that things never become overwhelming. As something of a Monet sceptic, I am – just about – convinced...

    The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture continues at the National Gallery, London WC2 until 29 July 2018

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

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Chris is one of more than a dozen specialists whose essays fill this fresh examination of the charms of Paris, which is edited by John Flower. Looking at the French capital's history, culture and districts, each item can be read in just half a minute and is beautifully illustrated with its own full-colour collage-style spread.

The Ivy Press, 2018

Hardback, 160 pages | ISBN 9781782405443

£14.99

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