Friday, July 27, 2018

The Water Lilies. American Abstract Painting and the last Monet @ l'Orangerie

Claude Monet, Nymphéas bleues, 1916-19
If you think that Monet’s paintings are the visual equivalent of piped music, best seen in mouse pads, on the side of coffee cups and on posters in the bathroom, think again! I have written before about the radicality of the final works in particular, and the experimentation that I am sure many who flock to judge his paintings don’t recognize.

Joan Mitchell, The Goodbye Door, 1980
For visitors who have not considered the similarities between Monet’s final paintings and the early days of American Abstract Expressionism, you won’t need Clement Greenberg (whose words are the inspiration for this exhibition at the Orangerie) to be convinced of the connections. The similarities and the resonances are not just visually evident, they are striking. At the entry to the exhibition is Joan Mitchell’s The Goodbye Door, 1980, a huge polyptych on long term loan to the Orangerie. The large and very loose blue, green and white brushstrokes unmistakeably echo the garden that so inspired Mitchell when she stayed at Giverny. And there is no question of her being influence by Monet’s colours, his capture of the shimmering light on the lily pads, the verticality and horizontality of the image in conversation on its surface, the confluence of paint and nature, and the list goes on.

Claude Monet, Le Pont Japonais, 1918-24
As we see in Mitchell’s painting, it’s not just the luscious natural landscapes born of Monet’s fertile overgrown gardens at Giverny that are reflected in the Abstract Expressionist works on exhibition. In addition to the conversation between verticality and horizontality, the dense and emotional expressiveness of paint of both Monet and the Abstract Expressionist works offer a playground for the eyes. The thick foliage becomes transferred to the materiality of paint until eventually, paint and plants become fused, conceptions of perspective, space and perception are challenged. And as it is illustrated in this small exhibition, the revolution begins with Monet.

Mark Rothko, Blue and Grey, 1962
The surface of the canvas, as the essential material of a work of art, was a constant focus for Monet as it was for the Abstract Expressionist artists. The inclusion of works such as Rothko’s Blue and Grey, 1962 and Morris Louis’s Vernal, 1960 are interesting for the connections they create in our minds that may not otherwise exist. Of course, like Monet before him, Rothko created dense coloured surfaces that appeared to be vaporous and luminescent. In addition, Monet was interested in surface in so far as he was interested in not filling the whole of the canvas, thus drawing attention to the representational nature of painting. Similar themes re-emerge in Morris Louis’s work of which Vernal, 1960 is here on display. But for Louis, it was about reduction of paint, removing rather than building paint up; Louis creates a stain, not a coagulated gesture. And then, down the line is, of course, Jackson Pollock’s attention to the all over surface, but the connection to Monet seems more remote.
Philip Guston, Dial, 1956
Indeed, the relationship between Monet and some of the works on display is not always convincing. Thus, while we note the vibrancy of some of Guston’s images, the pulsation of paint as light, and the use of colour to create rhythm through the movement of line and brushstroke as something shared with Monet, I wondered how much of the synchrony comes from the placement of the works side by side. Likewise, we could say that all these artists have a keen sense of colour, particularly as it reacts with other colours, but I am not sure that this inevitably begins with Monet as he represents the magnificence of his garden.

Ellsworth Kelly, Green Painting, 1952

At the end of the exhibition, visitors are directed upstairs for the final coup d’etat; Ellsworth Kelly’s glorious Green Painting, 1952 which literally shimmers and vibrates at the entry to the Waterlilies in their purpose built circular galleries.  There is something rare and magical about the Kelly painting that we don’t see everyday; it is a small abstract painting that is in constant motion, singing in the beautiful light, making it expand well beyond its frame to fill the circular space. It’s an unusual and incredible painting that is the perfect preface that leads us into the Waterlillies. 

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