A few months ago i encountered on Blouin.com a very interesting article on the importance of the “abstract” waterlilies paintings by Claude Monet. Because of this importance i will post the complete article in this blog and please know that www.ftn-books.com has some nice publications on Monet available.
As hard as it may be to believe today, Claude Monet’s beloved Water Lilies series received little admiration during the artist’s lifetime. regarded as too neo-classical, or too decorative, or confusing and messy — perhaps the product of the artist’s failing eyesight — more than 200 of the monumental compositions leaned against the walls of Monet’s Giverny studio for some 30 years, unsold. After his death, 22 “Water Lilies” panels out of some 250 he had produced were installed in the Musee del’Orangerie in Paris, a gift the artist bequeathed to the French state. but they were largely ignored.
“When it opened, it stayed nearly empty,” said Cecile Debray, the chief curator of the l’Orangerie. “Everyone had forgotten these works of art. I remember one writer saying that it was a place where lovers went to hide.” It wasn’t until the 1950s, nearly 30 years after Monet’s death, that the works began to find a popular following. The Museum of Modern Art’s founding director, Alfred J. Barr Jr., bought three for the New York museum in 1955 — at an absurdly cheap price— and hung them as a panorama.
Art critics such as Clement Greenberg were arguing that Monet’s late works were the precursors to the American abstract art movement, positioning his Water Lilies in relation to Jackson Pollock‘s paintings, such as “Autumn Rhythm (number 30),” 1950. Seen that way, the works resonated with American Abstract expression and the concept of something called “Abstract Impressionism” was forged.
The Orangerie, now one of the key art attractions in Paris, is mounting an exhibition that focuses on the precise moment when these works entered into dialogue with American post-war art. “The Water Lilies. American Abstract painting and the Last Monet” runs until August 20.
With a selection of 20 major paintings by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Joan Mitchell and other key figures of American abstraction, the show juxtaposes Monet’s late works with the artists he influenced, either directly or indirectly.
“The question of influence is very delicate,” said Debray, curator of the exhibition. “Some of the artists have visited the Orangerie and Giverny, such as Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly who were really influenced by Monet’s work. but some, like Pollock, were linked to Monet through Clement Greenberg, and not through themselves. It isn’t always just a simple question of influence, but how connections were made through art critics, the art market, and also museums.”
Monet embarked on the grand project of the Water Lilies series at the age of 73, and they consumed his attention for the last decades of his life from about 1914 to 1926, when he died. He intended some of them to be shown in series of three, alone in a single chamber, in what today we would call an installation, but others were standalone works.
At his home in Giverny, Monet built an enormous garden and tended to it with extreme care, expressly for the purpose of making these artworks and capturing water lilies and other scenes of nature in paint. “in French, you’d call it the aboutissement of his life’s work,” said Debray. “When you realize what you wanted to do your whole life.”
“These landscapes of water and reflection have become an obsession for me,” Monet wrote to a friend in 1909. “It is beyond my strength as an old man, and yet I want to render what I feel.”
In 1952, the Kunsthalle Zurich borrowed five Water Lilies paintings for a Monet retrospective, and the exhibition catalog lauded them as the precursors of Modern art. thereafter, they received more attention, and Barr’s purchase of the works led to the biggest wave of subsequent interest.
According to the MoMA’s book “Claude Monet’s Water Lilies,” the connection between the late Monet paintings and the Abstract Art Movement was mostly an intellectual construct: “In the wake of World War II, the artists that would come to be known as thNewew York school developed a form of art that was radically different from their predecessors in Europe or the United states.
Works that claimed to be fatherless… made room for a putative precedent. Monet’s Water Lilies, as free from polemic as the Americans’ work was a clarion call, would come to take on a prominent role.”
By October 1957, the New York Times critic David Sylvester called Monet “the art world’s most newly resurrected deity, the painter whose standing has risen more than that of any other, as a result of post-war movements in taste,” which he called “obviously a by-product of action painting, abstract expressionism, and other activities.”
In 1958, when a fire at the MoMA destroyed the museum’s original Water Lilies paintings, Barr had to replace them immediately with others from the same series because they were such a popular draw to the museum, Debray said.
“There came a time when just to have a Water Lilies work from this series became very important to every museum of Modern art,” said Debray.
It makes sense that the museum would explore the complex history of the paintings that were designed for the Orangerie, and how American abstraction, in a way, brought about the appreciation of Monet’s late works. debray said, however, that the show doesn’t try to make simple-sum comparisons or settle into an easy narrative — there are many strands to this story.
For example, the show looks at how the monumentality of Monet’s Water Lilies was linked to Modern art — which, following World War II, required larger and larger spaces to house it. While there are some Abstract works that clearly reflect a kind of homage or reference to Monet, others have a more theoretical or conceptual link.
Most important for the Color Field painters, perhaps, was the effect of Monet’s zooming into the surface of the water, removing all boundaries and borders and placing the viewer inside the subject itself. in an interview that the painter Ellsworth Kelly once gave to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he explained how his work was linked to the late works of Monet:
“Painting in the Renaissance and after was like a window, and your spacial view was always through the window,” he said. “With Monet, with Cezanne, they started messing up paint and started bringing attention to the surface of the painting and you had to go up to it and see how it was done and how they did it. I feel that, in my work, the space between the viewer and the painting is the area that I want to enliven.”
Among the works on display is a 1968 reductive pencil drawing on paper by Kelly of a single water lily, part of a series of plant drawings that the abstract artist worked on throughout his career. Another work is Kelly’s “Tableau Vert,” in which one can feel the ripples of Monet’s watery surfaces in the textured greens and blues of kelly’s palette.
Another element of the exhibition is an exploration of the term “Abstract Impressionism,” which was used by Elaine de Kooning, the artist, and art critic, to describe the early colorful painterly style of Philip Guston. Abstract impressionism was also employed as a catchall for two post-war American styles: the Action painting expressed by artists like Pollock and Willem de Kooning; and the Color Field painting practiced by Rothko and Noland.
Various artists throughout the post-war era looked into Monet’s watery gardens and didn’t see flowers and light and water and sky. they saw modernity or something like it.
And as for Monet? “ I think he was against abstraction because he was a man of the 19th century,” said Debray. “He knew that what he was doing was not fashionable and people were not at ease with his radicality. I think he did it because i think it was a necessity.”