The French renaissance of Claude Monet
For much of the world he's the poster boy of Impressionism, but back home he's widely derided as banal. Now a Paris exhibition hopes to change all that
Tuesday 21 September 2010
One of the world's favourite Frenchmen is coming home after 30 years of official neglect. The largest ever exhibition of the works of the Impressionist master Claude Monet opens in Paris tomorrow. The almost 200 paintings – including some never shown in France before – will be the first large Monet retrospective in his home country since 1980.
If you live in Paris, it is a rule that you never visit the Eiffel Tower. The French art establishment used, similarly, to have little time for Claude Monet (1840-1926), regarded as a pretty but simplistic painter for American billionaires and Japanese tourists.
The exhibition at the Grand Palais, just off the Champs Elysées, should put an end to all that. Over 80,000 advance tickets have been sold. The organisers hope that at least 700,000 people will visit the show before it closes on 24 January.
The exhibition has been accompanied by an avalanche of critical books, reclaiming Monet as not just a painter of poppies and haystacks but a profound and revolutionary artist. He was also a legendary gourmet. The literary outpourings include a reproduction of his favourite recipes collected in a notebook by his second wife, Alice.
The Monet exhibition is the idea of Guy Cogeval, director of the Musée d'Orsay, who believes that France has become too blasé about its extraordinary heritage of late 19th-century art. While working for eight years in the United States, he said, he was confronted with enormous public interest and critical respect for the art that France takes for granted.
"We are a little like spoilt children," he said. "In north America, Claude Monet is considered a living god. The same in Japan and Latin America. I was astonished when I returned to France to find that there is a kind of disaffection for Monet."
Almost all the important works on the artist in the last 30 years have been written by American and British art scholars, he pointed out. One of them, Professor Richard Thomson of Edinburgh University, is a co-curator of the exhibition.
He has organised the show around the fulcrum of the year 1890, when Monet began his celebrated "series" paintings of Rouen cathedral or haystacks or, later, water lilies. Interest in Monet as a painter of the outdoors, light and ephemeral beauty has, Professor Thomson says, distracted from his importance as a subtle and perfectionist painter of moods or emotional "interiors". The exhibition is therefore entitled Monet: L'Aventure Intérieure.
About a third of the 170 canvasses and 20-odd drawings in the Grand Palais exhibition come from the collection in the Musée d'Orsay. They include favourites like the field of poppies near Argenteuil, west of Paris, painted in 1873, or the sun breaking through a mauve London pea-souper fog over the Houses of Parliament, painted in 1904.
Two thirds of the paintings have been loaned from galleries and private collections in the United States, Japan, Russia, Britain and Australia. A handful were sold almost directly by the painter to collectors abroad and have never been exhibited before in France.
One institution which refused to co-operate, however, was just over two kilometres away from the Grand Palais. The Musée Marmottan-Monet in western Paris has the largest collection of Monet paintings in the world: over 100 canvasses left by the painter's son Michel Monet in 1966.
The curators of the large Monet exhibition at the Grand Palais asked the Marmottan for a number of paintings including the iconic Impression Sunrise (1872), a view of the port of Le Havre which helped to give the Impressionist movement its name. The rival museum refused.
If 2010 was going to be the year of a great Monet revival in Paris, the logic presumably went, why should the Marmottan be stripped of its best Monets? The museum, near the Ranelagh gardens in the 16th arrondissement, is therefore organising its own "retrospective". It will put its entire collection of 135 paintings, sketches and notebooks on display for the first time from 6 October to 20 February. These were works that Monet chose not to sell and bequeathed to his son. The exhibition is therefore called La Collection Intime.
In the 14 weeks when the two shows overlap, art lovers will be able to view over 300 Monet canvasses in the rival exhibitions (plus those that remain in the Musée d'Orsay, plus the giant murals of water lillies permanently affixed to the walls of the Musée de l'Orangerie).
You wait for 30 years for a big Monet exhibition and two come along at the same time. On the other hand, the advance sales for the Grand Palais exhibition suggest that – whatever the French art establishment once thought – you can't have too much Monet.
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