Saturday, 19 September 2020


National Gallery, London

(...continuing our look at Impressionism, via it’s best-known exponent)

More Paintings About Buildings And Trees

’...and Architecture’, I’m not sure I came across one single review which enthused over the chosen theme for this show. Intent on the pretence this wasn’t really called ‘Hey, More Monet’ they took to hang it on which sounded a but more convincing than ‘Trees And Things’ or ‘Those Times Monet Painted Stuff With an R In It’.

On the other hand, it’s less of a shoehorn than the theme Tate Britain came up with at the same time. All we really need is for something to be built somewhere in the frame for the picture to be admissible, which at times is about as dominant as a ‘Where’s Wally’ game. So it’s not that surprising that pretty much every review I came across to ‘Hey, More Monet’ said “Hey, more Monet!” Who cares if crowdbait is going on? We are, after all, talking about the man who named and did so much to define Impressionism.

Nevertheless, when the show comments how he’d use architecture as “foils for the irregularity of nature and screens for the reflections of light” - let’s test that out, just to see where it takes us.

To recap a little from last time, he was interested in capturing what he called “effects” - the way the light made a scene look at one particular moment. So with ‘Snow Effect at Giverney’ (1893, above) there’s no way he spied those buildings and decided to paint them. At the title spells out it’s the snowy haze itself which interests him, which makes up the picture. (Other works also have “effect” in their title.) 

The work is given so minimal a chromatic range it’s remarkably close to the old gag painting of a glass of milk and a sugar cube lost in a snowstorm. His challenge becomes to give us just enough information to discern the objects within it. And, as so often with Monet, the composition looks casual while being carefully arranged. Those snow-capped roofs, for example, are only visible because of the faint tones lent to the trees behind them.

Conversely ’Le Pont de l’Europe, Gare St. Lazare’ (1873, above) does create a contrast between the sharp diagonal of the station roof and those puffs of steam, to the point where it could be called a foil. (Further emphasised by all the verticals, including the funnels who create that steam.) Monet was remarkably consistent in his aims over time, but not necessarily narrow in them.

But the drawback of the “foils and screens” theory isn’t that it’s wrong so much as inadequate. Zola said of Monet: “Everywhere he likes to find the mark of man. Nature seem to lose it’s appeal… as soon as it does not bear the stamp of our mores”. But the mark of man is not the same as man himself. There’s a Romantic trope of sticking a human figure into a nature scene, to show him dwarfed by his surroundings. Monet will often do this with buildings, such as 'Customs House, Varengeville’ (1882, below, actually shown in ‘Inventing Impressionism’, but it makes the point best.)

So many of his paintings contain water in some form, it really would have made for a better theme than that other thing. And why would this be? There’s a Manet painting of Monet painting (if you follow!), aboard a boat he bought and specially adapted for the purpose. Why go to so much trouble? Brought up in coastal Normandy, there’s tales of how from a young age hewas transfixed by the sea. But there’s more...

When it was Turner’s turn, I noted his “recurring elements are water, mist and steam”. Whereas Monet’s are water, water and water. And it’s his element because of its fluidity, its suggestion of motion even when it’s still. When present, which it normally is, it seems to affect everything around it. In the painting above the downward diagonal of that verdant green seems to continue into the sea, in a work which seems to shimmer throughout.

Seeking to convey how shocking his work first appeared, Norbert Lynton mentions how “the coarse, unblended brushstrokes used, defensibly possibly as a way of rendering water or foliage were given also to firm objects such as buildings and people”. (‘The Story of Modern Art’) Phoebe Pool has pointed out “he enjoyed flux and all that was indeterminate and amorphous in nature” ’Impressionism’, Thames & Hudson). Anne Rice, in (yes, really) ’Interview With the Vampire’ said “the colours seemed to blaze with such intensity they destroyed the old lines, the old solidity”.

And as an example, we might pick customs houses which don’t look just dwarfed by their environment but made subject to the surrounding laws of motion. The rules of nature rule all. For all our steam trains and our iron bridges, we are still within it.

Though, again, we can find a contrast. 'Customs Officer Cottage, Varengeville’ (1882, above) offers us a variant where the house is larger and more dominant, an obstinate vertical in the face of the broad sea. Yet the hut’s colours (purples and browns) are similar to the earth around it. The show tells us the cottage is Napoleonic so it was almost certainly built from local stone, a part of the environment as much as an intrusion onto it. Its existence is less a statement of man’s dominance and more just a temporary rearrangement of things.

’Hut at Sainte-Adresse’ (1867) might look at first glance a still greater counterpoint, with it’s more rigid sectional divisions between sky, sea and land. And the tide, rather than presented as an incoming force, divides the sea further into horizontal bands. Yet if the parallels are less strong they’re still there, the dappled strokes which make up the shimmering sea echoed in the uneven vegetation. Even without that puff of steam on the horizon there’d be an implicit sense of movement.

Turner can portray the industrial and nature as opponents interlocked in a struggle, two mighty giants clashing while we can only watch. With Monet there’s a far less dramatic interplay, where one is never quite distinct from the other.

’Antibes, Morning’, (1888, above) shows us the titular town as viewed from nature, as if the city were the unfamiliar thing. It’s so far away that details can’t be made out, just a soft shimmer on the horizon, described by the show as “like a vision across the sunlit waters”. It’s an arrangement which, minus the intervening body of water, he also uses in ’The Church at Varengeville’ (1882, below).

Spectral Cathedrals

Impressionism necessitated painting in situ, which itself necessitated quick brush strokes, the better to capture your subject. Which became a style in its own right. But the weather could still change faster. Monet’s solution became, whenever the light changed on him, to put aside one canvas for another. And only return to it if similar conditions returned. He could end up with as many as ninety canvases, all of which needed to be kept on hand, even if not all would see completion. The result of which was his series works. This show features examples from three of these – London’s Houses of Parliament, Rouen Cathedral and Venice. We’re going for the last two.

Made from the same vantage point, they can look so similar it’s as if the same painting was just subject to different Photoshop filters. But he wasn’t continually trying to capture something, hoping to one day strike lucky. The recurring elements are really just there to accentuate the differences. Despite working in the very early days of the camera, he was aware the shutter was no approximation for memory. We don’t file a single ‘decisive moment’ in our minds, for later recall, clicking our eyes and mentally pressing ‘save’. With places we regularly revisit we gain an overall sense impression, each successive image overlaying rather than replacing the last.

So the crucial thing to understand here is that the series is the work. Alas artists require an income, and they were often sold separately. But when you see them even partially reunited this becomes unmissable. (Alas blogging constraints limit me to inadequate single examples.) Phoebe Pool calls them, correctly in my view, “the very essence of Impressionism”.

Remember the show’s thesis from earlier, that architecture is being used as “screens for the reflections of light”? In fact he’s doing something far more radical. Look at the image above of Rouen Cathedral, from 1893. Cathedrals are normally painted in situ, after all they’re the cathedral to a town, like a priest being shown before his congregations. And they’re also shown to be crowned by the spire, pointing to heaven. Monet shows his in tight-cropped close-up, sans spire.

And when that light falls upon it, it does something to the supposed “screen”. To the point it no longer looks like its made of solid stone, like a building you could walk inside. The Romantics were forever painting ruins, as a kind of liminal point between this world and the next. And, despite clearly not being of a ruin this feels much the same, a spectral image. It’s simultaneously monumental and translucent. You could image it vanishing at night, then reforming in the growing morning light.

Mark Hudson, in the Telegraph, wrote of “the gothic façade dissolving into pure light and colour”. And Laura Cumming in the Guardian takes the point further: “The buildings are just a pretext for painting the sublime.”

Not Built On Solid Ground

Google image Venice and what do you see? Streets of water, often narrow, bustling with boats, often crossed by pedestrian bridges. Then turn to Monet’s Venice, such as ’The Doge’s Palace’, (1908, below).

If he was rigorous about always painting what he saw, he wasn’t adverse to setting up the scene a little when it suited. The Parisian train station we saw earlier was not only emptied of distracting travellers but more steam was blown up when required, like he was a director staging a scene. Venice was already a tourist Mecca, so his decision to eliminate the crowds was practical. But it goes beyond that.

It’s often noted that the human figure, never particularly prominent in Monet’s work, diminishes further and further as time goes on. And his Venice paintings become where that absence is conspicuous. But further and unlike, say <i>’Antibes, Morning</i> he gives us no solid vantage point. The ground beneath our feet seems to have gone, and we see spectral buildings seemingly floating on the water-line. (The other side of the Palace not only can be seen from the ground, but from across a sizeable square, so this was an aesthetic choice.)

In fact we always see his Venice from a distance, across a wide body of water. Which here takes up more than half the canvas. If Rouen Cathedral was created from light, the Palace seems to be rising up out of the drink. Venice is a town not built on solid ground.

Turner had painted Venice as a “Gothic ruin” with “a romantic fatalism”, something only half in this world. (At least according to me.) Monet, who also painted there late in life (aged 68), takes away that earthly half. Though both have a mirage-like aspect, of a place which you can see but can’t reach out and touch, his is much more solitary than Turner’s.

It’s almost inevitable that we live more in the world when we are younger, and as we age we retreat increasingly into our own private space. The Venice paintings seem to simultaneously suggest a world becoming more and more remote from him, and a fraying of earthly ties. After Venice, he mostly painted his own private garden.

While we should be wary of seeing Impressionism as a clean break from all that came before, much earlier painting had been about recording the wealthy with their possessions about them, a form of cataloguing. The ability to convey solidity on a flat surface was therefore considered an essential part of an artists’s skill. It’s significant how much Monet breaks from this. And it seems most audacious of all to render Cathedrals and Parliaments as insubstantial.

In the Standard, Matthew Collings comments: “Monet suggests that all the usual relationships we expect, which anchor us in all our doings, are questionable. Which is the definition of revolution.” We always thought we were simply seeing, while our eyes were really corralled by convention. We didn’t see things as they were, but as they’d been shown to us to be. As said last time Impressionism was not overly politicised, so the political implications are only latent. But equally, they’re as obvious.

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