Reassessing a Master

Landscapes of Reflection offers Monet on an intimate scale


onet in Giverny: Landscapes of Reflection at the Cincinnati Art Museum is a stunning collection of 12 works — many painted after 1910 — that offers something for art lovers of all stripes. Your granny will be happy to gaze at utterly inoffensive subject matter, while aficionados can sink their teeth into the artist’s assertive paint handling. The pictures on view through May 13 rank among Monet’s most cutting-edge and they find him, according to curator Benedict Leca, “groping at the limits of the medium.”  

Given the industry’s penchant for churning out “radical” artists with the speed and insignificance of a Kardashian marriage, it may be hard to believe that these quintessentially “nice” paintings offer a truly revolutionary way of depicting the world. The dazzling color combinations that so effectively evoke fleeting sensations of light and atmosphere are in fact a frontal assault on the ossified conventions of 19th century French painting.

While officially sanctioned artists were content illustrating maudlin tales of gods and men, Monet’s early canvases deliberately opposed prevailing standards of taste. By capitalizing upon sensations sparked by a physical engagement with the world around him, Monet’s work is also a challenge to the dominance of lens-based media as the supreme authority on reality.

By the early 20th century, the loose, gestural brush strokes that comprise his pictures’ subject matter revel in their identity as a plastic material, posing questions about the nature of painting and its role in an industrialized society. According to Leca, the current show positions Monet’s late work as “an important alternative to the traditional narrative of early 20th century Modernism.” While the art-world was awash with wannabe Picassos, Monet was blazing a trail straight into the heart of painting’s future. Not until decades after his death, with the ascendance of Abstract Expressionism in the United States, would the full ramifications of his accomplishments be felt.

This is perhaps best illustrated by Reflection’s inclusion of two spectacular canvases both executed in 1919 — the large two-panel “Wisteria 1 and 2” and its companion “Wisteria (Glycines).” 

“Glycines” has a deep cerulean blue field and hanging blooms, which are punctuated by ebullient strokes of vermillion and red madder. “Wisteria 1 and 2” uses subtle violet hues to craft an ambiguous, all-encompassing haze. With only the barest hints of the water’s surface to act as a point of reference, the picture transports the viewer into a dream-like world, replete with warm summer breezes, chirping birds and the distant sound of laughing children.

These pieces anticipate the expansive formats and metaphysical subject matter favored by mid-century pioneers such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. The looping, calligraphic brushstrokes featured in both presage Joan Mitchell and Willem de Kooning’s straight-from-the-gut gestures by at least 30 years. As Leca says, “both works are an object lesson in the materiality of paint.”

Next to these heavyweights, spectral green hues radiate an eerie light in the copiously brushed “Weeping Willow.” Part of the collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, this is the first time this remarkable painting has been loaned. Evoking the scene of a gothic tale, the frenetic work is a psychologically charged intimation of nature’s dark side.

Monet’s genius wasn’t limited to his art. Contrary to the popular image of the artist as financially brain-dead, Monet was a sophisticated businessman. The press releases that clog up my inbox every month can be credited in part to his polished ability to deal with the public. Rather than patiently waiting for good press, Monet, along with a cabal of dealers, friends and journalists, often arraigned to have favorable stories about him and his work appear in print before a show opened. In today’s art-world, this type of PR is par for the course.

Monet’s series paintings, several examples of which are on view in Reflection, were as financially lucrative as they are visually stunning. When Camille Pissarro — a fellow Impressionist — first got wind that Monet was working in this manner, he accused him of selling out. But as the four “Water Lilies” and two ‘”Footbridge” paintings on view attest, rather than rest on his laurels Monet was relentlessly pursuing an advanced pictorial vision.

In the 30 years that separate the two versions of the “Japanese Footbridge,” Monet evolved into a different artist. The first is executed in classic Impressionist style: Soft, pastel green and yellow strokes flicker gently across the picture’s surface. The second — completed shortly before his death in 1926 — is the polar opposite. Thick, muscular swipes of paint, heavy impasto and a deep — almost foreboding — green hue entirely obliterate the legibility of the image. This riveting work crosses over into a near-total color abstraction.

Like the “Footbridges,” the four “Water Lilies” executed between 1903 and 1919 offer a guided tour of the artist’s evolution. The tender daubs of paint that characterize earlier versions slowly give way to a more aggressive, painterly touch, while the pervasive deep space is progressively flattened until we are at last confronted by lilies afloat in an infinite sea.

Monet in Giverny: Landscapes of Reflection is a focused exhibition that, by emphasizing seldom seen late work, establishes Monet as an important 20th century artist. The show also affords the unconverted an opportunity to reassess the past master’s accomplishments on an intimate scale. Upon his return from the exhibition of Monet’s paintings that he previously criticized as being made for the market, Pissarro wrote in a letter to his son, “That the effect is both luminous and masterly is uncontestable. The colors are at once attractive and strong. It is the work of a very great artist.” I’ll second that. 


MONET IN GIVERNY: LANDSCAPES OF REFLECTION, presented by Cincinnati Art Museum, is on display through May 13.