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A waltz through Monet’s Garden

Feature image:
Claude Monet
Field of yellow irises at Giverny (Champ d’iris jaunes à Giverny) 1887
oil on canvas
45.0 x 100.0 cm
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
Gift of Michel Monet, 1966
© Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, © Bridgeman-Giraudon / Presse

Words by: Geoff Ferres
Photography courtesy of NGV

The spirit of Claude Monet, the father of the French impressionist movement, has arrived at the NGV! The gallery’s flagship exhibit, Monet’s Garden is heralded to all that pass the NGV’s fountains by 10 metre banners of water lilies in massive copies. Centred around the artist’s famed garden at Giverny in Normandy, Monet’s Garden combines a stunning collection of impressionist works with late career pieces that trace Monet’s eventual journey towards abstraction. These later works, as Monet’s sight failed and he painted purely for his own creative interest in the garden he obsessed over, make this experience truly unique. Comprising half the standing collection of Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, Monet’s Garden is one of the NGV’s all-time most popular exhibitions and a one-time opportunity to be immersed in this garden wonderland.

Entering the gallery I’m presented with a modern installation piece of floating ceramic bowls, clinking like wind chimes in a shallow acqua pool. Moving past, the exhibition entrance is adjacent to the renovated gallery cafe, with potted orchards in pink, yellow and white beginning my introduction to the garden theme. Entering the gallery space I pass a black and white video of an older Monet in action, at his canvas with a lit cigarette drooping from his lips, and then the art itself is upon me.

Claude Monet
Taking a walk near Argenteuil (En promenade près d’Argenteuil) 1875
oil on canvas
60.0 x 81.0 cm
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
Gift of Mrs Nelly Sergeant-Duhem, 1985
© Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, © Bridgeman-Giraudon / Presse

Entering the first room I’m confronted immediately with Taking a walk near Argenteuil (1875). A couple stroll with a child in a field, light reflecting on clouds, flowers shining in the foreground and the tones of lavendar and sky replayed in the characters’ attire. This is exactly the type of piece that appeals to my taste for the bright and alive and my eye is already roving for the next treat. Standing before Vétheuil (1879), I’m struck by the movement of light and vivid reflection on water. In this simple but beautiful town scene, the village roof tops shine and hope abounds. Immediately next door, is the sister painting, Vétheuil in the fog (1879), a suppressed and teasing counter-point of the same villa in dense mist.

Claude MONET
Vétheuil (1879)
oil on canvas
60.0 x 81.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1937
406-4

Entering the second room I’m in a much larger space, open with high ceilings, hanging 13 large pieces. Rough weather at Étretat (1883) celebrates the violence of smashing waves on the coast. An immovable rock wall stands behind human characters in miniature, dwarfed by breaking waves – light flashing on frothy wave crests in unsettled majesty. In Houses of Parliament, reflections on the Thames (1905), the diffused and blinding light blends earth, built environment and sky in surreal and other worldly form.

Claude MONET
Rough weather at Étretat (1883)
(Gros Temps à Étretat)
oil on canvas
65.0 x 81.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1913

Approaching the third room, Waterlilies (1914–17) is featured on a middle island section, introducing the dominant waterlily theme. Pale and suppressed light, indiscernible as either dawn or dusk, illuminates both inverted water reflections and direct lines of sight. Looking to the right, I’m drawn to The bridge over the waterlily pond (1900) a richly textured piece with light falling as a backdrop. The surrounding vegetation is rich, rendering the bridge insubstantial in comparison.

Claude Monet
Waterlilies (Nymphéas)1914-17
oil on canvas
200 x 200 cm
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
© Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, © Bridgeman-Giraudon / Presse

The ultimate conclusion of the Monet’s Garden collection is found in the fourth and final display room of the exhibition. It is immediately apparent that this space is reserved for a very different set of works from the closing chapter of Monet’s life. Fighting against his progressive loss of sight, temporarily regained in part through three primitive cataract operations, Monet’s style approached an abstract form. Several of the pieces on display the the NGV were painted when the artist was rendered colour blind, painted from memory with tactile reliance on the layout of his colour palette. It is these works, so much more like 21st century paintings, that confound scholars and art historians alike. In solemn tribute, Monet’s paint-stained pallet and tinted spectacles are presented in the room’s centre. Two pieces capture my attention is particular. The path under the rose arches – L’Allée de rosiers (1920–22), is dense with colour and emotion but has little discernible detail, drawing me in to an unresolved end point. The theme is Autumn-like, with light falling on arches and the foreground path, stirring feelings of a journey nearly completed. Finally, Roses – Les Roses (1925–26), is one of Monet’s last paintings. Having regained the ability to discern red and blue following eye operations, and with the use of customised glasses, Monet presents clumps of roses in pink, red and white, held against a vibrant blue sky fading into the unfinished edges of the canvas. The presentation of this last painting, raggedly alive, speaks to me of determination in the face of mortality.

Claude Monet
Roses (Les Roses) (1925–26)
oil on canvas
130.0 x 200.0 cm
Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris
Gift of Michel Monet, 1966 (inv. 5096)
© Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris, © Bridgeman-Giraudon / Presse

Leaving the display rooms I’m guided into an interactive timeline room, with displays spanning Monet’s life and career.  And then, just as I expect to emerge back into the National Gallery’s cavernous hall, we come to the exhibition’s pièce de résistance – the panoramic ‘last day at Giverny’ film in a custom designed 180 degree group viewing room. This floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall cinematic experience is a beautiful conclusion to the experience of the exhibition. I’m transported to a perfect day in Normandy, following the play of light from dawn to dusk throughout Monet’s restored garden and house, seeing the world as Monet saw it nearly a century ago.

Monet’s Garden is a fine exhibition, well composed and presented. The NGV has secured an outstanding collection that offers Melbourne a unique and memorable opportunity to experience the glorious fruits of Monet’s late life and career.

Monet’s Garden is currently open and finishes on 8 September. More information about the exhibition and pricing can be found here.

Opening Hours:
Mon – Sun: 10am – 5pm
Friday nights: 5.30pm – 9:30 (from 5 July – 6 Sept)


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