Hat's off to Larry Gagosian for this one. This is a show of 27 paintings from museums and private collections all over the world, that must have cost a fortune to insure, being shown in a commercial art gallery where not a single painting is for sale. That's a rarity. It's also a great show. I know that sounds like it should go without saying since it's Monet, but since he lived to such a ripe old age, and was so prolific, not to mention commercially successful, he did tend to occasionally crank out some half hearted, conveyor belt work. None of that can be seen in this show.
Monet is one of those painters that everyone likes, or at least anyone with a heartbeat should. Today his work is very accessible. Every 16 year old suburban white girl has a poster of one of his paintings in her room, probably next to her collection of beanie babies. This makes it kind of hard to imagine that throughout most of his lifetime his work was seen as radical and difficult to appreciate, but it was. This show concentrates on his late work. After he became wealthy and established he bought his home in Giverny, and painted the large luxurious garden he had built around him. If this sounds decadent or bourgeois, it was. Get over it.
The show covers the years 1904-1924, and is divided up into four galleries. The first three consist entirely of images of water lilies. These make up only a fraction of the water lily paintings he created over these years, a subject that obsessed him so much you'd think he was Kermit the frog. The thing that struck me when I walked into the first of the four galleries was that this work seems to have foreseen, and in some ways laid the groundwork for non-representational art. The way he translated light into paint using a few simple color choices, and in such a physical and tactile way suggests that he was recognizing the surface of the image, and the painting as a literal object. The contrast between the thick impasto of the pigment, and the bare primed canvas is undeniably viscerally beautiful. You can see the influence of these paintings in the work of Joan Mitchell, Hans Hofman, and the early paintings of Philip Guston. Some people have suggested that this was because he was loosing his eyesight, and he needed some tactile clues to construct his images. Who knows? Another thing that suggests a move toward abstraction is the unusual compositions of these late paintings. They lack a clear focal point, or a visual anchoring structure that's used in almost all figurative pictures. Because of this, and the way they're oddly cropped some of them look almost like details of larger images. Also, it's not always clear where the viewer is in relationship to the picture plane, or the imagery inside it. One could see these as early prototypes of the non-hierachtical, all over paintings of Jackson Pollock, or William deKooning.
Something else occurred to me as I entered the third gallery of the show. These are some pretty complicated images. We're not just looking at the water lilies floating on the surface of the water. We're seeing the sky and trees, and clouds reflected off of it. We're also seeing the light passing through the water. And, in some cases we're seeing flowers growing out of the lilie pads, and branches and vines hanging in front of the water. So we're seeing the surface of the water, the sky above it, the water below it, and the things on and in front of it. The whole image is about how light conveys information. It's the furthest thing in the world from being non representational. In fact it's ultra representational. It's much more about representing what he saw than most typical representational painting at the time was. Maybe the reason his compositions were so unconventional was that he was losing interest in making pictures, and becoming more interested in studying nature and the effects of light in it. Maybe he wasn't defying the conventional relationship between the viewer and the picture plane, but simply ignoring it. Or, that the unpainted areas on his canvases were there because he didn't feel the need to complete the picture. Maybe after decades of painting from nature, he'd become more interested in studying it than in making art. His interest in natural light was possibly greater than his interest in picture making. I know these are two totally contradictory interpretations of his work, but I think both are equally valid.
The last gallery (1918-24) is the only one that departs from the water lily subject matter. Here we see paths, and bridges from his garden that are painted in a flurry of spontaneous brushstrokes. The colors are almost violent in their richness and intensity. One painting of a Japanese bridge is so impassionately rendered that it makes Van Gogh look like Thomas Gainsborough in comparison. But, I think the thing that makes these late paintings so important in retrospect is the unusual place Monet positions himself as an early modernist pioneer. Usually toward the end of an artists career (particularly such an established, and commercially successful one) the work can get complacent. The fact that this work is both so very figurative and so very literal at the same time shows the brilliance, curiosity and balls-out ambition of Monet to have the audacity to end his career with a question mark.