Still Waters

Monet’s late works run surprisingly deep.

“Monet in the 20th Century”
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Sept. 20-Dec. 27, 1998

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Visitors to the “Monet in the 20th Century” exhibition in Boston are in for a surprise, especially if they arrive in one of the museum’s pastel shuttle buses decked with water lilies as if it had been dredged from a swamp. There are Monet-inspired munchies to sample and a gift shop crammed with the inevitable Giverny-ana–everything for the fantasy gardener except bulbs. All this soft-focus packaging conveys the popular image of Claude Monet (1840-1926) as the painter of weekend pleasures, puttering around in his aqueous garden and filling his canvases with sunlit lilies reflected in the pink and blue water–a rococo Fragonard or Boucher marooned in the early 20th century.

Then you enter the exhibition itself, and a different Monet takes over. This one is a bold experimentalist way ahead of his time. A huge blowup of a of the man in his garden towers over the entryway. Imperious Monet, his legs buried in the wisteria covering his Japanese bridge, looks like the proprietor of some tropical plantation. His eyes shaded by a Panama hat and a full white Walt Whitman beard pointing to the water, he seems to be saying, “This is my terrain. Enter at your own risk.”

The timing of this lavish show, which includes some paintings never before exhibited, could hardly be better. Just as the art world is revving up for the Jackson Pollock extravaganza at the Museum of Modern Art in November, it’s good to be reminded just how far along the line of abstraction and monumentality Monet had traveled by the end of his long life. As these late canvases wash over you with their great swaths of paint, you can immediately see why Clement Greenberg, writing during the late 1950s, spoke of the “rehabilitation” of Monet and why “the most advanced of advanced painters” (Greenberg names no names) “were enthusiastically rediscovering him.”

Actually, as Michael Leja points out in an interesting catalog essay, there’s little evidence that Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock and Mark Rothko had much interest in Monet. Nor did Monet need Pollock’s validation–or Greenberg’s, for that matter. But it’s true that by the 1950s, when MoMA purchased one of Monet’s boldest big panel paintings (which later burned in storage), Monet was no longer viewed as merely a safe painter of pretty suburban sights.

In a sense, Monet had been torn between pleasing the crowds and taking risks all his life. Born in 1840 into a family of modest means, he lacked the financial security net of aristocrats such as Degas, Manet, and Berthe Morisot. He always had one eye on the market, finding a motif–gardens, beaches, cathedrals–that would sell and making multiple versions of it. He pretended that he did all his work outside and on the spot, when actually he sketched rapidly in paint, then carefully finished his canvases in his studio. He even used photographs on occasion, furtively, and was furious when he was caught in the act in London while adding details to his series of pictures of the Houses of Parliament. Monet, ever respectful of his audience (and potential buyers), never indulged in the harsh jokes of his urbane contemporaries. He was happy to disguise his first wife as a geisha (in a painting hanging elsewhere at the Museum of Fine Arts), but there are no prostitutes dressed up as odalisques in his work, no probings into the murky secret lives of Parisians.

And yet Monet was, in his way, as unyielding and uncompromising as any of his contemporaries. Never much interested in the human figure, he kept the Impressionist faith of showing the effects of changing light on landscape. One of his early pictures, his Impression, Sunrise of 1874, gave the movement its name. (A couple of London views in the Boston show, with orange sun setting in the fog over the Thames, closely resemble that painting.)

Monet turned 60 in 1900, and he was finally his own man. Building on the huge success of his series paintings of the 1890s–the cathedrals and haystacks (now awkwardly renamed “grainstacks”) and rows of poplars–Monet could afford to paint for himself alone. He still kept track of the market, though. In the opening rooms, especially, there are highly finished paintings of London bridges (painted from Monet’s luxury suite at the Savoy) and–in a glorious sunlit corridor–views of Venice. An early cluster of smallish water lily paintings, two on circular canvases, that Monet exhibited in Paris in 1909 are almost saccharine in their placid beauty, visual equivalents of some of Debussy’s prettier preludes.

But shadows were beginning to intrude. In 1911, Monet’s second wife, Alice, died of leukemia; a year later, he learned that he had cataracts; in 1914, Monet’s son Jean died. Under the weight of these shocks, Monet took some time off from painting, then announced a bold new shift in his work, toward huge decorative panels. During the last decade of his life, working incessantly in the new white-walled and high-ceilinged at Giverny (resembling a SoHo loft) built specifically to house these enormous canvases, he turned out paintings by turns ominous, terrifying, sublime. In calligraphic studies such as (1916-19), we feel like we’ve plunged a few hundred feet below the surface, into a midnight realm of Medusas and colorful anemones. A strange human skull seems entangled in the reflected weeping willow branches scrawled at the lower left. Such paintings, which Monet never intended for exhibition, prefigure to a remarkable degree the work of the most gestural Abstract Expressionists, such as De Kooning.

The title of the Boston show has a double meaning: the work Monet created during the 20th century, and his work in relation to the various Modernist movements of the 20th century. While inviting comparison with New York art during the 1950s, the show also insists on Monet’s involvement with contemporary French history. Several years ago, the MFA devoted an exhibition to Monet’s series paintings of the 1890s. Paul Tucker, guest curator of that show and the current one, made a convincing argument that Monet was celebrating the great motifs of the French nation: her land, her agriculture, her religion, and her architecture.

Then came the Dreyfus Affair, and Monet’s faith in French nationalism was shattered. A passionate Dreyfusard, Monet supported his friend Zola in his defense of the French army officer falsely accused of passing secrets to the Germans. Henceforth, as Tucker sees it, Monet searched for a more private and less jingoistic tie to the French landscape and discovered it in the multiple layers of his own water garden. Like Melville’s Ishmael, who noted that “meditation and water are wedded for ever,” Monet found that all his moods found echoes in the reflected weeping willows and tangled lilies. During World War I, as he conveyed vegetables to the troops quartered nearby and refused to leave Giverny as the German line advanced, Monet’s panels took on some of the dark mood of war. At war’s end, he arranged to contribute some of his panels as a sort of victory monument to the nation–the gift that eventually became the glorious circular water lily chapel at the Orangerie in Paris.

“How terrible it is to reach the end of one’s life,” Monet had written in 1899, after the death of the landscapist Alfred Sisley. Intimations of his own mortality turned out to be premature. As his fellow Impressionists died one after the other–Pissarro in 1903, Cézanne in 1906, Degas in 1917, Renoir in 1919–Monet ended up, once again, like Ishmael, at the end of Moby-Dick: “Now I am the last survivor of the group,” he sighed. He was the last Impressionist, but he also traveled the farthest, pushing the limits of landscape until he broke right through them.