The great partnership of Monet and money

Merchandise spin-offs catch the eye more than the art itself. Paul Vallely reports
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It was the fridge magnets that did it for me. Of course you can get the Beach at Trouville on a computer mouse-mat. And the Bathers at Grenouillere on a mini-jigsaw. And the Water Lilies on everything: ceramic cufflinks, resin jewellery, and "styled cotton tops" at pounds 40 a go. But you can get four Monet classics to add a bit of culture to the front of the Zanussi at just pounds 10 for the set.

Monet is back in town. Next Wednesday an exhibition of his work from 1864 to 1916 opens at the National Gallery in London. It will be a crowd- puller. The most famous of the French Impressionists always is. When the Royal Academy did its Monet in 1991 some 650,000 people passed through the doors in 94 days.

More recently, for the Monet blockbuster at the Chicago Art Institute the punters began queuing at 4am. And when they got inside to marvel at the technique of the artist whose ambition was to paint "the envelope of air" around his subjects they found that there was not enough of the stuff inside the gallery - people began collapsing because they could not breathe.

Monet is without a doubt the world's most popular painter. But why? "He appeals on many levels: they are pretty pictures with gorgeous, sumptuous colours and yet with a technique which is quite challenging," Sarah Greenberg, deputy editor of the Art Newspaper, said. "He is exciting but also quite reassuring." He also reminds us of holidays in France, which is perhaps why artists Gilbert and George described him as "very nice middle-class art".

But there may be something else. The level of merchandising is significant, the art critic Iain Gale says. Art which finds its way into people's homes has an iconic significance. "Most Victorian homes had a print of The Light of the World, Holman Hunt's painting of Christ; it told visitors this was a religious household. Today they have a Monet. It tells people you have the same taste as people who can pay millions for the most expensive paintings in the world." This Monet is the root of all consumerist evil. "Ninety per cent of people look at him on a very banal level. But art is not about prettiness, it's about the human condition, it's about pain and death."

Today, merchandising perhaps speaks most directly to that condition. The laminated Beach at Trouville placemats confirm us as people of good taste. The top prices which museum shops charge reinforce our sense of moral and aesthetic superiority.

The National Gallery's exhibition, being sponsored by Merrill Lynch, makes no admission charge. But then seeing the paintings may not be as important as buying the T-shirt. The Monet's free but the kicks you have to pay for. Would you want it any other way?