Tuesday, 24 April 2018

' Monet & Architecture' at the National Gallery

To many people, the name Claude Monet probably conjures up images of waterlilies, gardens and gorgeous landscapes. That makes an exhibition about his paintings of architecture - streets and buildings - rather inspired. And what a good exhibition it is, with 77 paintings by Monet grouped thematically and nicely spaced out. For a change there are no labels beside the paintings to distract, just a  number that you can look up in the free booklet you pick up at the entrance.

There are some lovely landscapes and seascapes with a house or church or some other building in it to justify its inclusion but this painting, 'The Steps' caught my attention because it's not in a landscape or garden, it's a set of stone steps beside a house in what looks like a courtyard. Naturally there are trees and plants in the scene as well but there would be, wouldn't there. What really made me look again was the sense that the steps were leading up and backwards into the near distance, the shadow at the front of the steps really emphasising this. Considering this is a very enclosed space there's no feeling of claustrophobia at all due to the gorgeous sunlight keeping it all light and airy. I wonder what's in the room at the top of the stairs - is it a bedroom or a store-room or something else? I'm nosy.

There were a few paintings that I thought were borderline cheating given the theme of architecture but I'll trust the National Gallery in its choices. There were a few scenes of sea and cliff and a small church on top of the cliffs which were wonderfully vivid but this painting is a bit different since it's mainly landscape and cliffs with the roof of a house nestled into the landscape. This is 'The Cliffs at Varengeville' and the house was a customs station to look out for smugglers. Is this painting really about architecture or is it a landscape that happens to have the top of a house in it?  I don't really care - it's lovely and that's enough for me.

Another painting I fell in love with was the gorgeous 'Villas at Bordighera' from 1884. I counted approximately 4, 365 colours in this painting (or thereabouts) with its lush foliage and flowers and the sun playing on the buildings under that lovely blue sky. Can you imagine having that as your back garden? I can almost hear the rustle of the palm fronds in the breeze just looking at this photo.

Something I've mentioned before is that the photos I post here in the Plastic Bag aren't always very representative of the actual paintings - you need to see the real paintings if at all possible to appreciate the colours and brush strokes and all-round atmosphere of the paintings. It makes so much difference seeing the real thing. That is especially true of Monet's paintings.

Another painting to marvel at is 'The Beach at Trouville' which radiates heat and glorious light - paintings like this really need to be seen in winter to warm us all up.

A painting that I've blogged about before is 'The Rue Montorgueil , Paris. The National Holiday of 30 June 1878' which normally lives in Musee D'Orsay in Paris. This is such a gorgeous painting with the street thronged with people, flags flying from every vantage and the inevitable sun beating down on Paris. All of those little people in the street are blobs of paint, one smear of the paint brush, so up-close they don't look like much but we can clearly see them as people. Monet knew he didn't have to be detailed and that's the beauty of his paintings - a suggestion is all we need to see whatever he wanted us to see. I love the sheer colour, vibrancy and light of this painting and it;s probably the one I'd put in my bag first if I was mounting a raid on the exhibition (which I'm not, by the way, if security is reading!).

Of course, M. Monet also confounds us with an incredibly realistic cityscape of 'The Boulevard des Capucines, Paris' from 1873. These aren't little blobs of colour on the canvas, these are far more detailed and accurate portrayals of people and the cityscape and it was almost a shock to see this painting. Am I in the right exhibition? but it's great to see how Monet's vision changed and developed over the years.

The final couple of rooms take us to Rouen to see the effects of the sunlight he painted of the facade of Rouen Cathedral, the atmospheric effects of the Thames in London, and the effects of water on the buildings of Venice. After Venice he largely retired to his garden to paint the wonderful scenes of his garden as his sight failed.

I think my favourite of these later paintings is 'Houses of Parliament, Sunset' from 1904 with its glaring ball of fire in the sky burning up the Thames.  Now *that* is how you paint the mother of all parliaments, a mere shadow against the power of nature. I have to wonder again, is this really about architecture or is it about the power of nature and the images of atmosphere?

I'm not sure I care, to be honest. It's an inspired concept for an exhibition and I love it. I'm familiar with some of the paintings from the National Gallery's own collection and from D'Orsay, but so many of them were new to me that it's a privilege to see them in London. I suspect the exhibition is going to Paris at some point since the catalogue is available in French. I bought the English version of the catalogue so I can relive this exhibition whenever I want to.

If you're in London when the exhibition is on then I heartily recommend a visit, but try early mornings or late afternoons when it shouldn't be so busy. This is definitely one of the exhibitions of the year.

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