Art Review Archives:
In Monet's Garden:
with essays by Joe Houston, Dominique H. Vassuer
The now-famous gardens were laid out by Jean-Claude Monet at his country home toward the end of his career, when travel to remote sites to paint en plein air was less appealing to the artist's older bones and ultimately fading eyesight, and when his status as a man of wealth and standing could be expressed by the means of a fine house, manicured grounds, and the diversion of a nearby river into his own private lagoon. The gardens are now lavishly kept for the benefit of tourists, who are able to see them flowering in continuous, artificially nurtured profusion independent of the shift of seasons from spring toward autumn. And, as seen in In Monet's Garden: Artists and the Lure of Giverny, the former country home of the celebrated artist has become a plum of an artistic residency. What is overlooked in this survey of twenty-three artists, half of them contemporary recipients of said Giverny residencies, is the fact that the garden itself has less to do with the art being produced than Monet's own sensibilities -- and that to do art in Giverny yet bypass such sensibilities is a puzzling exercise altogether.
Companion to an exhibition of the same name, In Monet's Garden attempts to bridge past and present with a focus on both historic and present-day artists influenced by Monet and his garden. On the side of historic interest it opens with the wellspring himself, with late paintings by Monet illustrating the loose, often frenetic brushstrokes with which he captured the effects of light and abundant vegetation in his final years. Paintings by Monet's contemporaries follow: works by friends, family and fellow-painters, from stepdaughter Blanche Hoschedé-Monet to John Singer Sargent, and including paintings by Theodore Butler, the Columbus, Ohio native who became Monet's son-in-law by marrying one of the Hoschedé girls, and who forms the link between Giverny and Columbus, Ohio, where the exhibition for which this is the catalogue is being mounted. Paintings such as Frederick Friseke's The Garden Umbrella (oil on canvas: 32-5/16 x 32 5/16 in.: 1910) and John Leslie Breck's Garden at Giverny (oil on canvas: 18 x 21-7/8 in.: between 1887-91) illustrate Monet's direct influence on the artists around him and their efforts to incorporate his methods and perceptions into their own works. Artists in this section, which comprises the first half of the book, include Willard Metcalf, Lilia Cabot Perry, Louis Ritman, and Theodore Robinson. Good art study is not all highlights and valentines, and the inclusion of such less well-known artists provides an opportunity for a thoughtful comparison of contemporaneous works. As Monet is one of the most-represented painters in publication, however, it is doubtful that these add significantly to the canon of already available material. An essay by Charles Stuckey discusses this period in which the fascination with the grand old man and the environment of lagoons and lavish foliage he created lasted until shortly after his death in 1926.
The nearer end of the spectrum of In Monet's Garden treats nine contemporary artists whose artwork represents the fruit of their Giverny residencies. A congratulatory essay by Chicago art critic James Yood holds them up as new, modern, and hence, desirable, whether they are deconstructing Monet's garden into "video disintegration", as in the TV-like paintings of Dan Hays; defrocking its myths by exposing backstage manipulations, as in the photographs of Miranda Lichtenstein; or finding representations of it so far removed as to have little apparent connection, as in the organic masses portrayed in oil or graphite by Alexander Ross. It is that removal, thematically and philosophically, that is the crux of the problem with the 21st-century offerings of In Monet's Garden, and Yood's essay which exemplifies the seeds of that problem. Why are these artists going to Giverny in the first place, and what do they do once they are there?
Yood proffers the idea of Giverny as a place to cultivate inspiration "for someone who is formed artistically, but is still flexible and seeking opportunities to experience something new", those who feel that "some environment or context with particular connotations might be of special advantage." Such a statement identifies the particularly gratuitous side of contemporary academic art education: the need to cast about for subjects on which to apply one's artistic training, rather than the drive which presses the urgent need to draw, paint, express outward from within. Da Vinci, it is said, could find endless inspiration in the fissures of a cracked plaster wall; one need not roam far to find it. As if there is, further, no middle ground between a slavish interpretation of the past and a modernity which tosses the baby out with the bathwater, Yood's essay contrasts "historicist artists" with "more contemporary spirits" who "attempt to employ Monet as a way of thinking about current concerns, be they of nature, culture, celebrity. Monet and Giverny become signs, flexible phenomena to be admired and questioned, tools to be put wherever possible to new uses." This is cannibalism, not inspiration. The movement to siphon from the achievements of the past, to simply recapitulate, is a very limited enactment of the creative impulse. Overarching these two points are a sense of willful disconnect. "These artists all respond to the challenges of Giverny and Monet in their own way and arrived there with fundamentally different agendas than did the artists of a century and more ago," Yood notes. They "remain aloof from its status as hallowed art historical ground, unless, as a few do, they employ irony or psychological distance subtly to undercut it." And if that is the case, why go to Giverny at all?
Butler and those of his time worked with Monet's ideas, used them for exploration and experimentation. They built. Even Ellsworth Kelly, here the brief nod granted to the mid-20th-century with his 1951 painting Tableau Vert (inspired by an afternoon spend at Giverny), found an exploratory affinity not out of keeping with Monet's example, a minimalist meditation on color that might have represented Monet at some distant juncture, had he lived a decade longer. To sit at the feet of the masters is a valid exercise. But to usefully imbibe their wisdom requires one to suspend the urge for willfulness or the easy tearing-apart of deconstruction. The contemporary artists, coming with "fundamentally different agendas", with the need to do something tied in to Giverny and hence, justify their residency, yet at the same time radical, to assert independent identities, are missing the point. Their art reflects it. In Monet's Garden shows contemporary artists shooting wide of the mark. They seem driven to force innovation rather than learn anything from Monet's own style. In that case, why Monet's garden in particular? They could be anywhere.
--Katherine R. Lieber
Editorial Note: In Monet's Garden: Artists and the Lure of Giverny and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through ArtScope.net's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above. In Monet's Garden is the companion volume to the exhibition of the same name, at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, Oct 12, 2007 - Jan 20, 2008 and at the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, Feb 12 - May 11, 2008.