Monet's Finish

John Haber
in New York City

Claude Monet: Late Work

A history of modern art has to begin with Impressionism and the Salon des Refusés. And pretty much any textbook history ends the nineteenth century in a crisis. Claude Monet's influence runs in at least three directions, each stranger than the next. It runs to Post-Impressionism, Cézanne, and van Gogh in Arles—and through them to tough choices and radical alternatives.

That omits a stubborn fact. Monet kept working alongside them all, even with declining health and vision, into the 1920s. A show of his late work traces his immersion in a private world, where he tended his gardens and compulsively rearranged the subject of his Water Lilies. One room has eight paintings shown at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1909, an impressive historical recreation all to itself. However, the water's surface seen up close, unmoored from sky or shore, was only the beginning of the experiments. Monet does not fit glibly into the history that he himself created. Claude Monet's Japanese Footbridge (Museum of Modern Art, c. 1920–1922)

Monet's heirs, including himself

First, though, what about those three directions? Georges Seurat, Paul Cézanne, and Vincent van Gogh might stand for three ways of thinking about Monet. One can see the first two as color and space, visual and tactile, systematic and unsettled, cosmopolitan Paris and open quarries, or the center of a movement and a painter apart, even when painting his wife. Instead of Impressionism's moment, they both seek something permanent or even classical, and they leave it an open question whether art will ever find it. And then there is van Gogh or Paul Gauguin, especially in Gauguin's prints, with a different kind of release—to the impulse, the exotic, or the imagination. In sum, painting by its nature could be finished, unfinished, or whatever one wants it to be.

Like most histories, this one omits everything important, but it offers a handy way to look at early Modernism. In most versions of the story, one path leads to Henri Matisse, one to Pablo Picasso, and one to Expressionism. The choices also help bring out the tensions within each one. One can see Cubism as impersonal or personal, a collaboration or Picasso's massive ego, a reconstruction or a deconstruction of reality. Later, one can look at Jackson Pollock and see all-over painting or the drips, action or abstraction. When it comes to appropriation or the originality of the avant-garde, artists are still taking sides.

When Monet died in 1926, Cubism was over, Wassily Kandinsky was at the Bauhaus after a forced return to Russia during the war, and Marcel Duchamp was more than ten years past Dada and his bicycle wheel. By then, Monet was in splendid isolation. He did not exhibit after 1918. In the old Museum of Modern Art, the room for his immense Water Lilies was an escape from the rush of events, and they have never looked half as good since MoMA's 2004 expansion. Even in a room together this winter, they stood too far apart. One might have been killing time in a hotel lobby.

"Claude Monet: The Late Work" has none of the murals, but it is impressive all the same. Of course, Monet will always be on display somewhere, even apart from the posters in your doctor's waiting room. After the Monet retrospective in 1995 came shows of his late work in 1998 and 1999. Gagosian manages what even a major museum cannot right now, but this is a recession. Top dealers will still cultivate exclusive clients, while actual museums have tight budgets. When people complain about crowd-pleasing museum blockbusters, they should be careful what they wish for.

Gagosian has done a superb job nonetheless. It has four rooms for twenty-seven paintings, every one worth remembering. The Musée Marmottan has been particularly generous, and the gallery boasts that not one work is for sale. It allows one to imagine oneself in a gallery in 1908, and it sets out a clear history after that. Late Monet became newly relevant with Abstract Expressionism, but that relevance extends beyond the mural scale at MoMA or the Orangerie in Paris. Part of it really does come down to choosing which of Monet's heirs is Monet.

The larger Water Lilies are the ultimate all-over paintings. They extend everywhere, no matter how far one steps back, and they have as much to do with the wall as the water. They are also a precise rendering of the scene in front of him, at a clear time of day. The water lilies move about from painting to painting because he moved and because he had others move the water lilies. If Impressionism began with a new middle-class in pursuit of leisure, it ended in a private garden at Giverny. From now on, though, I shall have to think of Monet at his most refined as about the unfinished, too—or at least open-ended.

Depth in two dimensions

The 1909 show reeks of finish. The water's surface shines like fresh varnish, and flowers sit on top in thick dabs of red, yellow, and white. It takes a moment to realize how thickly Monet painted, with a coarse texture he refused to smooth out. He sticks to an easel scale and blends colors, as Georges Seurat said one should not, right up to the edge of the canvas. Each work has a clear time of day or season of the year. The series took him about four years to complete.

They are subjective and confusing all the same. Paintings lack uniform dimensions or uniform anything else. Each scene is crystal clear, but no telling which bit of color belongs to vegetation or to reflected sunlight. The overall blue-green defies theories of atmospheric perspective, and the irregular placement of water lilies defies linear perspective. They suggest a curved surface, like the limits of actual human vision. One is seeing water up close with nowhere to stand.

One is also seeing two notions of depth. The water's surface recedes into the distance, but any spot on the surface has depth, too. Blue recedes and flowers pop. Monet identifies painting both with space and with its place on the wall, and both axes are an illusion. Impressionism has the two perspectives from the first, but here they take over and get harder to tell apart. They already lay the groundwork for the later murals and for late Modernism as well.

The second room has a serious surprise, white and lots of it. The lead ground becomes visible, chiefly but not always along the edges. Paintings are now too large for an easel, and the polish is gone, along with the illusion of a thinly painted surface close to watercolor. Monet may start with a flower, rather than adding flowers to the water's surface. A single agapanthus rises up half the height of one canvas, surrounded by plenty of white, as in a painting by Joan Mitchell. Monet is sketching with a loaded brush.

Not that he leaves unpainted canvas, like Abstract Expressionism. Nor does he simply switch from product to process. One cannot predict what work he will sign from the amount of white. Rather, the whole idea of finished or unfinished comes with quotation marks. Monet did not exhibit this work or add dates to his signature, and he may have seen himself as in transition. Still, the illusion of reality remains compelling.

Work in the third room gets a bit larger, mostly the vertical dimension. The occasional white of the ground competes more often with white highlights. Paint reaches almost entirely to the edge, suggesting that he is nailing representation down again. However, the earlier lavender-green shades have brightened to green and blue, so that individual brushstrokes stand out. In one painting, a willow reflected on the water stresses the lattice of drawing, and most paintings allow a stretch of water to wind vertically near the central axis, between water lilies. The two dimensions of depth are again at play.

Stepping back

The last room has what most people remember as late Monet. Paint grows thicker and more layered, but one can hardly separate the layers. White ground appears rarely if ever, although white highlights can give the illusion of bare surface. Colors intensify, including intense yellow and red. Subjects include the Japanese footbridge on his estate, as at MoMA. The artist is working in series again, for times of day.

The paradoxes intensify, too. One is the contrast between the time of day and the time it takes to lavish on all this color. Monet famously kept several paintings in progress, so that he could return to each one under the right conditions. Another is the contrast between precision and subjectivity. As cataracts got in the way of vision, he had to trust more to habits and instinct. He had been doing this a long time.

With that instinct goes the contrast between distance and immersion. Earlier, the water's surface took over visually, and the murals take over physically as well. Here the subjects insist on enclosure—the arch of the footbridge, the path under rose arches, or the span of a weeping willow. These alleys run into depth, but one has to step back to make out the subject at all. Loops of paint define both light and the lattice of roses or a bridge, just as the water confuses reflections and flowers. Up close, paint takes over and objects all but disappear.

The artist's stepping back to assess—or to admire—his work has become a cliché. Rembrandt as a young artist painted himself doing just that. Here stepping in and out is part of the process. The last paradox is again Monet in time. He stands apart, which is why people who hate modern or contemporary art find him comforting. Yet it also explains why Gagosian drew longer lines last year for something more obviously kinetic and self-involved, late Picasso.

Monet in his eighties must have heard of abstraction, but I cannot imagine him liking it. Vision, for him, had too deep a connection to the imagination, even as his powers of vision died. Much of the thrill of his 1995 retrospective came from seeing his entire career in that light. He does look forward to the anxious object of late Modernism, but he deserves to look back. He can already look back to his successors. They had mostly forgotten him anyway.

Is Modernism finished or unfinished? Take your pick, but no wonder the middle-class pursuit of leisure now includes tourism at Giverny. Rose arches ascend like physical pulses, and the bridge in late afternoon catches fire. Maybe nothing is as fiery as MoMA's version, and a fifth room for the murals would have made a wonderful ending, but a dealer cannot do everything. I hope that the late work looks this good again soon at the Modern. But I doubt it will, unless the next expansion adds something more pertinent than condos.

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Monet's late work ran at Gagosian through June 26, 2010, and his "Water Lilies" at The Museum of Modern Art through April 12. A related review looks at his entire career, thanks to the 1995 Monet retrospective.


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