‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’

Last night I visited the newly opened exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts: Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse.  I had originally thought about going last weekend, but tickets had been sold out well in advance. I’m sure this is the case for this weekend as well, as there was a line up out the gallery door when we arrived for our allotted entry time. The exhibition was, of course, quite busy, and it was quite difficult at times to manoeuvre through the galleries, or to properly view the artworks. While I completely understand that this is a popular exhibition (as the Impressionists tend to be…), I feel that there could be more done to help alleviate the pressure during blockbuster exhibitions. Extended hours, along with more allotted entry times (every 15 minutes instead of every half hour- but not extra tickets), would go a great deal to help the overcrowding. (maybe. or maybe not that much. but I’d like to hope so).

Overall, the exhibition was a delight. It was fantastic to see so many of Monet’s garden paintings together in one place, including many of his water lily paintings. (Disclosure: Monet is really one of my favourite painters. I am just drawn to his works. Give me a room full of Impressionist paintings with no labels, I will undoubtedly be drawn to the Monet.) Several of these works had also not been exhibited in England before.

There were also many other fantastic pieces by various other artists, many of whom, as we discovered, corresponded with Monet about their gardens. Some of these letters were on display, and there were also several paintings or photographs of the artists, by and of each other in their gardens. Two in particular stand out- one of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and one of Monet in his garden, by Renoir, hung beside the painting Monet had been working on at the time- fantastic.

However, while the exhibition was a visual delight- a riot of gorgeous colours- it wasn’t intellectually challenging or stimulating in any great way.  There was information to give some context to the works, of course, such as contemporary photographs of the artists and their gardens, and information about how Monet designed and planned his gardens, including letters and receipts, but it didn’t necessarily give a lot of additional information  beyond that, or what didn’t seem as sort of just incidental facts- like that Monet stayed in France and kept painting through the war, or a brief intro talking about how gardening became a hobby of the middle class. I don’t know what else I would have added, or what could have been added, but I suppose in that sense, the exhibition is a bit superficial, in that it does boil down to, really, a lot of really pretty garden pictures. Of course that is oversimplification. You can also make your own comparisons going through about use of colours, comparing styles of different artists, etc, as many visitors, including myself and my partner, did, conversing with those around them about a particular painting, or flower represented (one woman there is really not a fan of nasturtiums). Maybe I’ve just come to expect too much, and I need to start buying the catalogue to delve into the material further… because it really wasn’t a poor exhibition in any way. Although I would only recommend the audio tour to visitors who would rather listen to information rather than read the labels- for the selections I made, the audio did not seem to provide much, if any, additional information than what was on the labels.

Towards the end of the exhibition there was a room filled with garden furniture in which to stop and rest, take a look at the catalogue, and watch archival video footage of some of the artists painting in their gardens. There were also large photos of many of the artists reproduced, including Monet in his garden, and in his studio surrounded by some of the water lily canvases. I thought this was a good as it gave a nice place to sit and rest, and converse about the exhibition so far. It also seems like a good idea on the part of the RA, as many visitors were leafing through the catalogues placed around the room- I’m sure this inspired a few purchases.

Overall, I really did enjoy the exhibition, and it was interesting to see not only how various painters represented their gardens, but also how Monet’s painting style in particular changed over time. Of course, it was also amazing to see so many of his water lily canvases in one place, and I think the exhibition is probably worth this alone.

Have you seen the exhibition? What did you think?

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