Review: ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’ at the Royal Academy of Arts

At the entrance to Painting the Modern Garden, a Monet quotation reads: ‘Perhaps I owe it to flowers that I became a painter’. Using Monet as a springboard, the Royal Academy of Arts’ current exhibition explores and expands on the concept and aesthetics of gardens. The outcome is a triumph of joyfulness and colour, and an investigation into the fascinating relationship between man, nature, and beauty.

Curator Ann Dumas has chosen to group works both historically and conceptually, an approach that I found particularly successful. From a chronological perspective, the exhibition encompasses works from the early 1860s through to the 1920s. In the first rooms, we are presented with Impressionists such as Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro, for whom painting en plein air was inherent to their artistic practice. The exhibition moves on to later Impressionists and Expressionists, including some of the best-known painters working at the turn of the century: Van Gogh, Matisse, Nolde, Kandinsky, Klee, and Klimt, to name only a few.

Alongside the assortment of artistic movements represented, there are plenty of thematic recurrences. As Dumas explains of the artists exhibited, ‘gardens ignited their imaginations, sharpened their response to colour, and provided a fertile space in which to explore a broad range of painterly and thematic ideas’. Thus we see patterns of cultivated and wild gardens, inhabited and deserted, vibrant and mysterious.

Renoir’s Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil (1873), for instance, depicts the artist himself busy at work, afforded a prominent position in the painting. By contrast, in The Garden in the Rue Cortot (1876), Renoir relegates the work’s two male figures to the background, while the centre of the painting is dominated by red, yellow, and white dahlias. The exhibition blossoms with this phenomenal variety of perspective, inspired by nature’s own masterpieces.

As the undisputed star of the exhibition, Monet’s works are granted several rooms. His fascination for natural scenes started at Argenteuil, a village near Paris depicted in many of his earlier works, where he moved in 1871. In 1883, he purchased a property in Giverny and turned it into a landscaping project, with over 70 species of trees and flowers. He made no secret of his passion for nature and gardening; he allegedly once remarked, ‘I love compost as one loves a woman.’

At the heart of the exhibition, three of his Water Lilies paintings are displayed next to one other. In these works, Monet demonstrates an unprecedented control over his palette. The water consists of blue, purple, and green, with notes of yellow, coexisting in tension, without blending completely. As we admire the chromatic harmony, deep, boundless spaces open up. There is a tension here between the subtlest shifts of light from one moment to the next in the lilies, and the seemingly infinite transcendence of time and space beyond. This is the Impressionistic garden at its finest, immersing us in a world of meditation and calm.

Alongside the works of Monet and other famous Impressionists, we admire the works of less-known artists, including Joaquín Sorolla and Max Liebermann. A hidden gem awaits the visitor towards the end of the visit: two canvases by Jean-Édouard Vuillard. The Garden of Les Relais at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne (1898) condenses recurrent themes of the exhibition: a decorative approach to flowers; the presence of human figures in harmony with nature; and the chromatic enhancement of red and green, a pair of complementary colours.

Not only is Painting the Modern Garden a feast for the eyes and spirit, but it is also cleverly assembled. Visitors can enjoy the paintings whilst sitting on garden benches, and halfway through the exhibition a little greenhouse displays live plants and gardening magazines. Quotations are scattered across the walls, capturing the essence of the exhibition. The titles of the individual sections are witty and light-hearted in tone (‘Avant-Gardens’ was a personal favourite). At the end of the exhibition, after a series of photographs of the artists themselves portrayed as horticulturists, Monet’s later works are displayed as a sort of ‘coda’. This gives us a final moment of peace in the garden of Giverny, which the artist – and this exhibition – have so effectively managed to recreate.

Anna Zanetti

Painting the Modern Garden runs at the Royal Academy of Arts until 8 April. Tickets can be booked online here. More information about the exhibition can be found here.

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