Oh, but it shows such a lack of ambition. And greed. Enormous greed. And a poverty of imagination.
No, not the BBC’s Wimbledon highlights show with Clare Balding. This is the response to the news that the Royal Academy is (once again) putting on a show with Monet in the title. Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, which thunders into London next January, is apparently condescending to the public. And might make us vulnerable to something called “Monet fatigue”.
I don’t think so. Sixteen years ago, I interviewed Norman Rosenthal, the Academy’s famous former Exhibitions Secretary, before the opening of Monet in the 20th Century. This was a vast show around which hundreds of thousands of us indeed duly traipsed.
Strangely, Rosenthal refused to be photographed alongside a green fluffy frog, which had been produced (alongside lily pad notepads, pencils, badges, mugs etc) to market the exhibition. He was clearly embarrassed to do so, although he shouldn’t have been. That show, and all subsequent Monet exhibitions at the Academy, have been colossal successes, frogs and all. One was so popular that it ended up having all-nighters to satisfy the crowds.
This is because people love looking at Monet. In bringing us Monet again, the Academy is not risking “Monet fatigue”, if such a silly thing were to exist. It is simply revealing it knows what the public actually wants to go and see. Furthermore, the curators should be praised for finding another angle on the artist. Gardens? With Matisse? Bring it on.
Only cultural snobs would suggest people should wilfully ignore art they actually like, and instead be compelled to spend their cash on looking at work by someone they have never heard of, for fear of seeming stupid. Yesterday, a newspaper suggested that instead of being fiscally prudent and showing Monet, the unsubsidised Royal Academy (which relies almost wholly on ticket sales for income), ought to put on a show by William Daniell. No, me neither.
It is not the Royal Academy’s job to instruct the public about what it ought to go and see. It has beautiful galleries and invites the world to come and see great art hanging in them. Claude Monet is incontestably a great artist. His canvases hang in all the key galleries of the world, and several bespoke ones. There is no such thing as “too much Monet”. To suggest to the distinguished art historian Tim Marlow, the Academy’s current Director of Programmes, that the sole motivation for his exhibition is ticket sales, is impertinence indeed.
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
1/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'Blue Nude (I)' 1952
Bildpunkt AG, Robert Bayer
2/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'The Horse, the Rider, and the Clown' 1943-4
3/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'Red Interior: Still Life on a Blue Table' 1947
4/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'The Snail' 1953
© Succession Henri Matisse / DACS 2012
5/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'The Fall of Icarus' 1947
6/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'Maquette for red chasuble' 1950-2
7/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
8/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'Small Dancer on a Red Background' 1937-8
9/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'The Lagoon' (I) 1943
10/10 Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs
'Large Composition with Masks' 1953
It would be like telling the LSO that it ought not to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, because we can all hum it. Indeed, a few months ago I went to a concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Hull’s City Hall. The main programme was straightforward. Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto followed by his Fifth Symphony. Well-known, but also works which are challenging, complex, profound and moving. That is why they are popular. They are on Classic FM all the time because people love to hear them.
Introducing new work to the public is a key role for many arts institutions. But alongside that is the less fashionable, but no less critical, duty to present what is sometimes called “the basic repertoire”; in other words, the world’s playlist of Great Stuff. Not just once or twice in a lifetime, either, but regularly and in different ways, so we can build a relationship with it, and introduce our children to it, and greet it with familiarity and love.
This means that libraries should always stock David Copperfield, and opera companies regularly present The Marriage of Figaro, and theatres put on Hamlet and Waiting for Godot. The Open Air Theatre in Regents Park has been criticised for mounting A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream too many times. What complete nonsense. It is part of the world’s cultural DNA, as is the Mahabharata, or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.
If these stalwarts leave the terrain of the arts world, they will not die; but they will mutate into something else. It should not be the role of banking adverts, lift music, clever slogans, or commerce to introduce us to Shakespeare, Bach, Picasso, Dvorak and the rest. Do we want to see Monet’s Water Lilies solely in the context of a mouse mat?
Monet fatigue? The proposition is mutually exclusive.
If I lived in Paris I would go and stand in front of Water Lilies in their permanent home at the Orangerie every week, for as (that dangerously popular poet) John Keats once stated, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”.
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