For someone who claims to be kinda really into art and lives only a short train ride away, I haven’t spent very much time in art-mecca, a.k.a Paris. Until last August, I’d only spent a single day there (a Tuesday, the day when all the galleries are shut. I only discovered this after bounding up to the Louvre and gleefully quipping about the lack of queue). That day came as an afterthought to a wedding, and we spent just as much time wandering a single garden as we did that picturesque world city. The garden was Giverny, Monet’s backyard and inspiration for such Impressionist masterpieces as Water Lilies.
The above image is credited to the Royal Academy of Art and is of Joaquin Sorolla’s Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Perhaps I’m stating the obvious but it’s a breathtaking place, and akin, in a way, to walking around a familiar film set. You’ve seen the set a thousand times but the experience of being in it is… strange. But wonderful. It attracts thousands of visitors every day in the summer months, all hoping to put themselves in the shoes of this great artist. Busy as it may be, though, there’s a camaraderie of appreciation amongst the visitors.
The Royal Academy of Art opened its doors to Painting the Modern Garden: From Monet to Matisse on January 20th and, both parents in tow, I headed there on a Wednesday morning. The first thing to note is that I’m a Friend of the RA, meaning I get free entry with one other (as well as access to the member’s cafe, bar and restaurant). We were planning a relatively quick visit of 45 minutes or thereabouts, so thought paying one ticket wouldn’t be a problem. But hear this: it’s pushing £20 to get in if you’re not a Friend. I’m no socialist but bloody hell; talk about reinforcing elitism. Rather than pay this extortionate price, we sent my dad packing* after a quick coffee in the Friends’ lounge.
Firstly, I’ve got to say: the art itself was stunning. I was impressed by the team’s curatorial efforts as well; those Monet garden scenes positively emulated summer warmth with a choice palette (of course) and a commendable use of lighting in the galleries. Perhaps I can hire them to tone down my fluorescently-lit living quarters.
It’s a bumper collection and they’ve gone all out to source artworks from all corners of the earth (which might explain the hefty price tag) but the piece de resistance is in the last room. During and after the First World War, Monet began painting three monumental canvases intended for display as a panorama. To paraphrase the RA, Monet experienced a deeply felt need, following the trauma of the war, to restore the world to harmony and balance. To find beauty to counter ugliness. For joy to overcome death. This manifested in the featured panoramic triptych and in a patriotic gesture, Monet donated two of the three paintings to the French state. Almost unbelievably, this is the first time the three canvases have been reunited and displayed as intended in Europe. It was special, immersive, and as close to being back at Giverny as I think it’s possible to feel; so I was pleased that the room was relatively empty when I arrived.
To my chagrin, that serene experience and connection with the artwork was absolutely not representative of the rest of the exhibition. I have never seen a gallery as busy as this. It’s intensely ironic, particularly in the room dedicated to ‘gardens of serenity,’ in which there are no figures in the artworks.
As a country-bumpkin-turned-city-dweller, gardens, to me, represent quiet respite from urban life. I would have found more peace and serenity if I’d sat in the middle of the pavement on the gallery’s Piccadilly doorstep. I tripped once and saw others do it twice; I saw a school group of students sketching from Google Images as they couldn’t see the paintings, and on multiple occasions, I heard couples talking about how they weren’t able to actually see the artworks. The last time I saw crowds like this was at the Mona Lisa; but even that’s just madness over one painting as opposed to an entire exhibition.
Far be it from me to pontificate on the popularity of an artist whom I, too, love. Monet is quoted to have said “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece,” and ipso facto, this exhibition has certainly drawn the crowds. Personally, I think that the egregious management of the exhibition comes as a disservice to the art and until the crowds die down, book yourself a consolatory visit to the real deal at Giverny.
Note: I went on a Wednesday morning at 10:30am. I hear the crowds died down by 4pm so perhaps try visiting late one Tuesday afternoon at the end of March.