February 20, 2010

Monet's Water Lilies at MoMA

If the dirty, slushy, sloppy, last gasp of winter (we hope!) is getting you down, a breath of spring is waiting for you right now in a second floor gallery at New York's Museum of Modern Art.

For the first time since opening the new building in 2004, MoMA is presenting their entire collection of Claude Monet water lily paintings, along with a couple of pertinent loans, in one area. Imagine, being surrounded in a room filled with Monet's Impressionist masterpieces! But are they really?

In 1883, at the age of 42, Monet moved into the pink house with the beautiful garden in Giverny, a small town just North of Paris. At that time he was the "king" of Impressionism and he enjoyed both critical and financial success. But with the death of his wife and son, the outbreak of World War I and his diminishing eyesight, Monet's world changed drastically and he shifted his focus to interpreting his own marvelous surroundings. From 1914 until 1926 he worked tirelessly on series after series of paintings depicting his flower garden and water lily pond in increasingly abstract versions. Working outdoors in the spring and summer he filled canvas after canvas with oil sketches that captured nuances of light, weather and location. In the winter he moved indoors, into his specially constructed studio where he transferred these studies into massive canvas', sometimes reaching twenty feet in length. What was unique about his method was his habit of working for years on one piece - adding layer upon layer of paint until the initial image was buried under a thick impasto and the viewer was left with more of a sensation of what might have been, rather than what actually was.

When these large canvas' and triptychs were first presented to the public in 1927, they were met with resounding disappointment. Critics referred to them as "messy" and "blurry" and speculated that the artist's cataracts might be impeding his work. It was not until well after his death, in the 1950s, that these paintings were recognized as proto-masterpieces of Abstract Expressionist Art and they have remained stars of any museum fortunate enough to have one in the collection.

Which brings me back to MoMA and their current exhibition. One room, six superb paintings on a theme, each is different but part of a whole. Beautifully installed with oil sketches like "Agapanthus" (above right) complimenting the 41 foot, three panel, jewel-colored monument that absorbs the onlooker into its shimmering reflections of clouds in the water. Most of us have seen our share of Monet paintings in various museum installations, but the impact of being surrounded by such works is a totally different experience. And what this small but excellent presentation does most effectively is explain why Monet really was a master of Modern Art and not just the 19th Century variety of pretty pictures.

Monet's Water Lilies will be hanging at MoMA until April 12th.

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