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Monet behind the scenes

Review by Corinna Lotz

Monet: Étretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d'Aval
Étretat, the Needle Rock and Porte d'Aval, c. 1885
Pastel on tan paper 400 x 235 mm
Private collection
Photo courtesy Lefevre Fine Art , London

Claude Monet himself might have been anxious about this exhibition because it delves behind the public image he took such pains to foster. Throughout his life he promoted himself as an artist who painted spontaneously from nature without the need for preliminary studies, inspired solely by his motif.

But now James Ganz and Richard Kendall of the Clark Institute in Massachusetts have tracked down scattered works on paper and pieced together the complex jigsaw puzzle of Monet’s life and work.  The result is a new understanding of the best-known of the Impressionist group which allows us to probe more deeply into Monet’s creative process.

Around 500 Monet drawings and  pastels are known to have survived, but they have not been seen or studied in detail until now except by a few art historians. Most of them are in private hands, apart from those held by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris.

The image we have had of Monet, reinforced by the term Impressionism itself,  evokes only the immediacy of his style.  Here is a quite different artist – more conscious, more deliberate, more conceptual. Sometimes, like a beast of prey, he would stalk up on his motif, prowling around to steal the most expressive vantage point for a composition. When he moved on to something new, he would again search out the essential lines, the underlying structure within a landscape, and then shape it and modulate it, finding new viewpoints and angles. His sketches and drawings reveal this process. Quite the opposite of simply recording empirically what he happened to find before his eyes, Monet’s artistic development, both in the short and long terms, followed a contradictory and highly deliberate path.

Monet: Boats on the Beach in Normandy

Boats on the Beach in Normandy (recto), c. 1864
Black chalk on off-white laid paper 135 x 305 mm
Private collection, courtesy Elrick-Manly Fine Art Inc., New York

This is immediately clear in the first space at the Royal Academy. Here are juvenilia, bizarre early drawings, “big-head” caricatures, in a style which was popular in France at that time and practised by social critics like Daumier. But although Monet was talented at lampooning the local bourgeoisie, he was no child prodigy, nor was he particularly brilliant at drawing the human figure. Perhaps he realised this when he turned towards landscapes and seascapes in the mid 1860s.

His black chalk drawing Cliff and Sea, Sainte-Addresse, for example, achieves an almost photographic reduction into light and shade with a harsh, sloping contrast of near boulder and distant sea, with a signature squiggle of smoke. We can enjoy it as an exploration and aesthetic experience in itself.

By the age of 24, Monet began to strike out on his own, with increasingly bold brushwork and sparkling seascapes. A group of pastels from the 1860s show how he tried out new ways of capturing light effects, changing weather and times of day. The Seine Estuary has a freshness and newly liberated feeling of colour and movement defining a flat Normandy valley punctuated only by the spire of Harfleur church. Lightly-applied yellow wisps in the foreground cast irregular shadows, deep green on bright lime, contrasting with purple fields and a snaking white road. The movement of the clouds chasing over the warm brown paper enlivens the scene. It is not yet what we would recognise as a typical Monet, but his ability to capture a vibrant sense of nature in change is already there.

Monet: Nightfall

Nightfall, c. 1865-70
Pastel on gray paper 212 x 379 mm
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes
Gift of the Société des amies du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes

He carried tiny sketchbooks with him when he went on his long walks. His summary drawings of places like Bennecourt, Rouen and Le Havre are like freeze frames, a sequence of snapshots, a zoom lens homing in on an object. We can see these locations through Monet’s eyes as he focuses on a particular group of trees, buildings or coastline.

The famous cliffs at Étretat, Normandy, so much like those in Dorset, had been captured by great French artists like Delacroix, Boudin and Courbet over the 19th century. Monet saw finding dramatic new viewpoints as a challenge. His sketchbooks show him outlining the cliffs and seafront as though feeling his way around the coast. The classic horizontal-vertical artistic divisions, often based on the Golden Section, between the sea and the land begins to shift  until in the 1880s, he zooms in on a particular cliff or splits the painting between left and right rather than top and bottom. In his 1886 painting of The Cote Sauvage, the cliffs at Belle-Isle, which he himself rendered into black chalk for popular reproduction by the new Gillotage technique, the horizon is pushed right up, so that the sea and coast dominate.

The greatest revelation in The Unknown Monet is the digital presentation of the eight sketchbooks left by the artist’s son Michel to the Musée Marmottan in 1996. Until now they were only accessible to a handful of specialists, since they are very fragile. But now they have been beautifully reproduced and can be easily viewed on computer banks within the gallery. Touch screens allow people to browse and leaf through each of  the 300 drawings, closing in on details and flipping around the pages at will.

Monet: screenshot of sketches system
Screenshot of the system that allows browsing of the
sketchbooks. This shows a zoom-in of Monet's son Michel

The sketchbooks include an intimate pencil study of Monet’s son Michel and the Hoschedé children poring over their own drawings by lamplight. The children are depicted stretching across the spine of the sketchbook, as the scene before the artist’s eyes propels his pencil beyond the edge of each sheet of paper. Their deeply personal quality is touching as we discover that the mischievous young Michel added a tiny smiley face to his father’s drawing. Another leaf has a scrawled list of the artist’s travelling expenses, tips and hotel bills.

As though secretly peering over Monet’s shoulder, we follow him pushing forward in new directions, redefining and perfecting his compositions.  But it also requires an extensive knowledge to work out the relation between drawing and painting. Even for the experts it can be guesswork and speculation at times. At present, only visitors to the exhibition, the Clark Institute and to the Marmottan will have access to this stunning digital project.  But now, for the first time in history, precious drawings like these can – potentially - become the intellectual and aesthetic property of large numbers of people. The curators and web developer David Keiser-Clark, who created the interactive database, are anxious to make the sketchbooks available to the general public as quickly as possible.

The final space is devoted to works made at the turn of the last century. Anyone who saw Monet in the 20th Century at the Royal Academy in 1999 will remember the dazzling sequence of his London riverscapes of Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, captured at different times of day. In this show, there only nine scenes from this series.

Monet: Waterloo Bridge

Waterloo Bridge, c. 1901
Pastel 305 x 480 mm
Triton Foundation, The Netherlands

Forced to make a virtue out of necessity as he waited at the Savoy Hotel for his canvases and oil paints to arrive, Monet reached for his box of pastels. He made 26 drawings which he described as being “like exercises”. Their delicacy and freshness reveals how Monet achieved a floating touch and the growing freedom of his abstraction.

The arches of the bridges become an armature to hold the most evanescent moments as the bridge disappears almost completely into the fog. Time passes as the light and the weather changes. The bridge, the flow of the river Thames, the smoky chimneys on the far shore all move in and out of space and time, in hazy violets, mauves, and turquoise. It is Monet’s view of the river and of London as we could never see it today.

Monet: Study of Water Lillies
Study of Water Lillies, c. 1914-19
Crayon drawing in sketchbook 235 x 315 mm
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

In these pastels and paintings, the horizon sometime vanishes, lost in an iridescent miasma. Our sense of location, of up and down is destabilised. The sky and river become the same substance as the arches of the bridge are sculpted out of the surrounding mass of fog, sky and water. This reduction of different elements – air, sky, light and water -  to one mass - leads on to  Monet’s final huge cycle, the Nympheas, or Water Lilies.

Two meditative waterlily paintings complete the display. They are not impressions at all,  prepared as they were by almost abstract studies on paper. The Water Lilies and Reflections of Weeping Willows are freed from specific location. Are they the plants themselves or their reflection? The things imaged and their reflections are merged into one sensuous and conceptual field. Rhythmic sequencing and weaving into depth is what really counts, as Monet establishes structures for his compositions with the loosest of pencil doodles.

Monet: Water Lillies

Water Lillies, 1916-19
Oil on canvas 200 x 180 mm
Foundation Beyeler, Basel Riehen

Translated into oil paint, colour and line are no longer separated as one becomes the other, thus opening the eye and the mind to yet another way of grasping the world in reflection, movement and change.

21 March 2007

The Unknown Monet is at the Royal Academy of Arts until June 10. Admission is £8, £7/£6 concessions. Open daily 10am-6pm. Late openings Fridays.

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