NOW ON (AND soon leaving the RA) is a fascinating exhibition on the art of the impressionists (from Monet to Matisse) that features their gardens. It’s called Painting the Modern Garden. Although you probably don’t associate Monet, Renoir et al. with being avid gardeners, they were part of a vast horticultural movement that took place in the late nineteenth century, fuelled by peace and prosperity. Many of the Impressionists seemed to spend as much time in their gardens (finding many deep-rooted sources of inspiration) as in their studios. Who knew that Monet was a talented horticulturalist, experimenting with flower and plant hybrids as much as he was experimenting with new ways of seeing the world. Indeed, at one time he employed over six gardeners to tend to his vast garden in Giverny with its more than seventy species of plants.
These large canvases of small, flower-rich enclosures often feature the ethereal figures of women (the garden – almost exclusively painted by men – was strongly associated with femininity and fecundity), gliding as delicately as the flowers that framed them, as well as hints of houses proprietorially peeking over the blooms. They stand in stark and deliberate contrast to the earlier art of the Romantic landscape. For the Romantics, the wild untamed vastness of open fields or, better yet, deep, dark gorges, was a powerful spiritual image of the sublime.
For Ruskin, landscape painting was, at its best, a manifestation of the “strength and depth of the soul”. God was present in every leaf.
And if the landscape wasn’t a display of the hand of God, it was at least the sylvan setting for mythology and a demonstration of classical knowledge.
By the 1890s, as if to deliberately distance themselves from such overwrought sentiment, the Impressionists offered the world the decidedly secular (there were precious few attempts to link gardens with THE garden), seemingly everyday prettiness of their gardens. The exhibition and the stunning art on display is not about prettiness, however. Here, there is no less “strength and depth of the soul”. Monet said what mattered to him was not the subject per se but the space between the subject and the artist. And it is the ‘measurement’ of this space that makes this such a tremendous exhibition.
Let’s for a minute imagine the typical ‘Sunday’ garden painter. Call him Thomas. He paints extremely well; his friends and the collectors who snap up his offerings from the village gallery all admire his craft…the delicacy with which he seems to conjure the brilliance of buds with a few deft strokes, the accuracy of his colours, the fluffiness of his clouds, the texture of light and shade that give his images warmth and depth.
But here’s the difference between Thomas and Monet. Thomas’ art is only ever about its subject. There’s no depth beyond the painterliness of the image. That ‘space’ is missing. For what this exhibition brings to the fore isn’t how accurate Monet’s chrysanthemums were, or how beautiful Pissarro’s garden was (he incidentally preferred to paint his allotment or vegetable patch to flowery enclosures); rather, it celebrates the extent to which the garden was an idea, a signifier of so much more.
The garden, in reality as in art, was the place that offered a moment of escape, an oasis against the rapidly encroaching concrete aridity of the modern world. It was a place of silence and contemplation. It was a place where colour wasn’t a description but had its own raison d’être, its own abstractness (Van Gogh said he only really understood colour after studying the flowers in his garden). Indeed, this man-made creation (unlike ‘nature’ or the wild Romantic landscape), created to encourage visitors to pause and contemplate, to re-jigger their viewpoints, to express its creator’s whimsy and style, was, in its ambition, no less than the ambition of art itself.
Let’s take this Japanese bridge by Monet.
It’s a scene he painted twelve times, interested as he was not so much in the bridge or the stream running below but, like all Impressionists, in the fluctuations of light. The Impressionists painted light; and each fluctuation revealed a different scene, a different mood and different perspective on life as you can see from the two examples shown here.
In the one, the light is bright and summery; the reflecting pond is cool and inviting; the greenish hue of the bridge makes it an integral part of the scene.
In the other, the bluish bridge feels like an outsider; makes the whole scene feel colder, less jolly, more sombre and lonely.
Monet wasn’t the first painter to repaint scenes, hoping to observe and pin down how light alters your viewpoint. For it’s the viewpoint, not the subject that matters. Like poetry, the aim of (the) painting is to wrench the viewer away from him/her self to see the world through the sensibility of the artist, through his internal world. Thomas, our Sunday painter is only really interested in showing you how pretty the scene is.
And is this scene ‘pretty’? It is; and maybe it isn’t. The paintings are bisected by the empty bridge, the only obviously artificial element in this – slightly less artificial – wilderness. It is also the closest the scene has to a horizon point. Monet has filled the canvas with the greenery of the stream, the trees, the bushes, etc. It’s heavingly busy, enveloping the viewer – creating an entire world apart – as it must have done the artist. The bridge (it was Monet’s copy of a Japanese bridge as imagined by the Japanese woodcut printmaker, Hiroshige…an artist’s ‘representation’ of an artist’s representation) emerges from the greenery and disappears into more greenery. Where is it coming from? Going to? In the summer painting, the bridge offers an inviting place to lean on and escape from everything else. But the blue winter bridge seems to be an intrusion in the scene. Far from being an invitation to escape and contemplate, this version feels claustrophobic as if the artist were feeling trapped, overwhelmed; the garden as antidote has become the garden as an expression of angst.
For these painters of the open air, the garden was also a studio. In this painting by Renoir of Monet, standing commandingly in his ‘studio’, note the multiple planes that make up the picture shorn of distance and perspective: of the urban world of just visible houses coloured by a monochromatic yellowish sky, almost screened out (from sight and from interfering) by the other plane of an abundance of flowers and colour… the world of the garden, of leisure and ease. And yet, the fence that bisects the painting, almost acting as a brake against the wild, seems to suggest two separate ontologies: house and garden v artist and studio. In the foreground is the artist, surveying all before him, just as the painter of the scene is surveying him. He is discretely placed on the right hand side (and the same colour palette as the blue house – his house?). Perhaps the suggestion is the futility (never recognized by Thomas) of attempting to observe all this, to record all this on a tiny canvas – here described by a single off-white line. Perhaps this is the artist’s essential everyday Herculean task: To turn all this – the sky, the houses, the wild explosion of natural abundance – into a pattern that offers meaning and regeneration
This is a painting called The Lady in the Garden. The image is perfectly balanced: notice the centrality of the tree, how its branches are echoed by an almost mirror image of the flower bed beneath. It is the woman in white (just what is she looking at? Is she in a state of reverie, or is her face deliberately, coyly, turned away from her observer?) that completely upsets the balance. Despite the solid calm and gravity of the greenery, all eyes turn only to her. She almost renders the garden a mere context to her commanding presence…there is an incredible tension between her and the central tree with its verdant bursts of flowering fertility. They echo each other. Her white dress, like a bride, a virgin, a ghost, is in stark contrast to everything else. Compare how she shines out with the muted blues of Monet’s figure in his garden. She was apparently not the painter’s lover… but this is not a study of a picturesque garden with an ornamental lady around, I think it’s a study in longing; an unambiguous study in, perhaps a never satisfied, but absolute adoration.
Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need”. He would have loved this show.