Do you love gardens? Even better, do you love gardening, to see seeds you’ve planted sprout out of the softening ground and grow into gorgeous flowers with a multitude of colours? Do you love impressionist painting? Even better, are you a painter who seeks their subjects en plein air capturing nature in all its pristine wonders? And do you love London, surely the most individual city in the world (as the great architectural writer Steen Eiler Rasmussen said way back in 1934)?
London’s Royal Academy’s exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse’, which runs until April 20th will captivate you if you love these three things. It will captivate you like no other exhibition that you may have visited. And to see all these colours at a time when winter is gradually being swept away and the youthful breath of spring is filling your lungs is an absolutely ecstatic experience.
(parts of our own little garden and orto)
The centre figure of the exhibition is, of course, Monet himself and his intimate relationship with gardens, in particular his own at Giverny. A fervid symbiosis occurred between Monet and his garden – he painted what he created in his garden layout and he planned his garden to capture in green thoughts what his mind envisioned painting.
Flowers are indeed the heart of impressionist painting as so many of the intelligently (and often unusually) chosen pictures selected by curator Ann Dumas so elegantly demonstrates.
Botanical explorations, especially to the Far East, brought back many species which today we regard as almost second nature to any garden. Camellias are one of them. Recollect the beautiful romance of Alexander Dumas junior ‘La Dame aux Camellias’ which Verdi worked up into his passionate opera ‘La Traviata’? Remember too that it was the British expats who spread these plants, which belong to the same family as the tea bush, to the Compitese area on the Pisan Hills where there is a well-known annual camellia festival.
Watch out for that as it’s now in March! Consult the festival’s web site at http://www.camelielucchesia.it/ for more details.
The interesting thing about the R.A.’s superb exhibition, which one should (ideally) travel half the world to visit, is that Monet is placed into context, not only with his French colleagues, like Renoir, Manet and Bazille, but also with other continental painters equally transfixed by the concept of a garden: the Spanish Rusinol, Van Gogh (of course!) and the Bavarian Emil Nolde among them.
There is a section dealing with the problems Monet had with some aspects of his garden, especially in building that pond which his famous bridge crosses (an image constantly evolving through his artistic career) which involved a lot of bureaucratic bother with the local planning authorities (familiar?). Letters and drawings are there for you to examine Monet’s determination to get and see exactly what he wanted.
The last phase of Monet’s life illustrates the garden as a metaphor for the terrible shadow that descended over Europe and ended La Belle Epoque in 1914. His willows are truly weeping for the millions of young lives lost in the terrible slaughter of World War One. (Coincidentally this year is the hundredth anniversary of the worst carnage of that mindless butchery – the battle of the Somme in which 60,000 British soldiers were casualties on the first day alone).
I thought of all the great talent that had died and the willows reminded me of a piece I’d played with my school orchestra – a school which this year celebrates the four hundredth anniversary of its foundation – George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow.
Butterworth wrote it 1913 and died in action on the western front aged just 31. Monet’s painting of the willows, like Butterworth’s piece becomes an anthem to all unknown soldiers – Butterworth’s body was never recovered. But his music, like Monet’s paintings, will live for ever.
I thought that this heart-rending sadness in the exhibition might have heralded its last room. I was happily wrong! There was one more room, a room which surrounded me with a painter’s revelation of heaven itself. I had to wipe my eyes to see properly what was before me: a gigantic triptych of those water lilies beloved by Monet collected together to form a giant panorama, the first and (who knows perhaps the only time) when the three paintings were exhibited together anywhere in the world. How could anyone separate them again to send them to their different museums at the end of the exhibition?
I don’t know? How could one separate the love that binds them together?
These water lilies should always belong together. For they symbolise rebirth after the rains – such lilies we saw in the moats surrounding the greatest temple in the world the Angkor Wat which we visited last December.
(Water lilies near the Angkor Wat, Dec 2015)
Water lilies represent sexuality and creation, peace, purity and that spiritual enlightenment this world has so much need of at the present time and indeed, at any time.
If anything can save the world it is art itself….and gardening!
(PS Pictures displayed in the exhibition by courtesy of the R.A as, of course, no photography is allowed at the exhibition).