Monet show sheds new light, and lighting, on Impressionism

A vast Claude Monet retrospective in Paris sheds new light on the Impressionist megastar, vaunting a "difficult" artist and using ultra-modern LEDs to illuminate his work as never before.

While the 19th-century movement that arguably cleared the way for all modern art was about the artist's fleeting subjectivity, the show opening Wednesday also puts the viewer at the centre of a new experience.

Out goes the coffee table notoriety of a popular artist defined by water lilies and haystacks and in comes a painter troubled by his relationship with memory and the march of industrial progress.

"Monet's actually quite a difficult artist at times," says one of the show's curators, Richard Thomson, pointing to depictions of bourgeois social pastimes on vast canvasses previously reserved for momentous events such as battles.

"They're very ambitious, very tough things... so we've tried to show that he was a difficult painter as well as sometimes a more reassuring one," says the University of Edinburgh professor.

The cobalt blues of Monet's beloved skies and waters and the oranges of his sunsets jump out under bluish light-emitting diodes (LEDs), delicately blended with traditional yellow-tinted bulbs at the Grand Palais for the first time.

"The lighting is better, it's a little colder, using LED lamps which awaken the intensity of the colours," the exhibition's designer, Hubert Le Galle, told AFP.

Spanning over 60 years of Monet's prolific production, the show is being held at Paris' Grand Palais - just over the River Seine from the Musee d'Orsay which supplied around 50 of the 170 paintings from its permanent collection.

Organisers also dipped into dozens of public and private collections around the world, from Bucharest to Birmingham, to complete the picture in what is being billed as the biggest retrospective since 1980.

But in fact it's bigger, "by a few paintings", Thomson said.

"But we weren't going for size, what we wanted to do here was go for an exhibition that's comprehensive but also does it in a slightly different way."

Hence the structure, which is loosely chronological right up until Monet's death in 1926, but also groups paintings of similar scenes together though they may have been painted decades apart.

In this way Monet's works evoke questions of time and memory, in the style of Marcel Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past", much as Proust's novels evoke impressionism with their lengthy descriptions of such banal splendours as the northern French seaside.

The exhibit hangs next to each other Monet's depictions of London's houses of parliament he made in 1870-71, after fleeing the Prussian invasion of France, and those he painted of the same scene 30 years later

"There's this idea of going back, remembering being there with his first wife who had since died, and the sense of nostalgia," says Thomson.

The result is an exhibition composed rather of many "mini-retrospectives": Monet as a landscape painter, as a figure painter and as a still life painter.

The show was Guy Cogeval's brainchild and one of the first decisions he took after becoming director of Paris' Musee d'Orsay in 2008.

"Cogeval wanted to reassert the Musee d'Orsay as the world's leading impressionist exhibition, and he thought that the best way to do that was to have a major, major Monet exhibition," Thomson said.

Monet's "Impression, sunrise", from which Impressionism gets its name, is noticeably absent from such a comprehensive exhibition, however, despite its hanging at the nearby Marmottan Museum.

"We discussed loans with the Marmottan but then they decided they weren't going to lend," Thomson says, adding that he doesn't know if he will go to the rival museum's Monet exhibition, taking place at the same time.

Grand Palais spokeswoman Florence Le Moing told AFP that guided tours of the exhibition, which runs to January 24, 2011, have already sold out.

"If we get more than 500,000 visitors then it's an enormous success," she said.

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