There is always so much of Monet. Like Picasso (or the tide), he never stops coming.
In this country, he is adored. His works have visited London in great quantity in recent years. In 1997, a retrospective had eager art lovers queuing through the night to get into the Royal Academy of Arts, as if "brand Monet" were the newest and the tastiest thing under the sun.
He painted, feverishly, throughout his life, often outdoors, in the most inclement of weathers, sometimes wearing three pairs of gloves. In his last decade, he embarked upon a cycle of grands décorations (as he rather modestly called them) which usually adorn the walls, in a great double ellipsis, of the Orangerie in Paris's Tuileries Gardens. The subject is lilies, but his sight was failing badly by then, so they are painted as much with the inward eye as with the outer. Jackson Pollock adored their extraordinarily experimental blend of the figurative and the abstract, the sheer daring of his use of colour.
This great cycle will be represented at the Grand Palais retrospective which is just about to open. Any lingering doubts about enthusiasm for his work in France subside in the light of 80,000 pre-sold tickets. But the important questions remain: why do we flock to see the paintings of Claude Monet? And does he deserve so much attention?
The first question is relatively easy to answer. Monet is everyone's favourite experimentalist. He drew nature, and the effects of light, as we had never seen it, but his paintings were neither jarring nor jagged. He was never an affront to the eye. He didn't challenge us to dislike him as many other experimentalists have done. He didn't conjure into being unrecognisable worlds, violently at odds with our dreams. His paintings are almost always sweet to look at.
But the worst – and he completed many bad paintings because who, frankly, could not who chooses to paint so much? – are very bad indeed. They look drippingly nostalgic, almost saccharine in their use of colour. They never challenge you to rethink or to refashion your life.
When French critics have been sceptical, it is perhaps this work they are thinking of. But France loves him, in part, for his celebration of rural France, the sequestered France profonde of the imagination which we all love to believe in. You could describe him as passionately nationalistic. And France, in return, is bound to weep for joy as this great retrospective comes steaming into town.Reuse content