Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 10th April 2016
‘Painting the Modern Garden’ should be a brilliant winter show, full of sunlight, warmth, and life ‘en plein-air’, but Piccadilly in February could not be further removed from the golden afternoons of the Côté Sud, particularly as our museums and galleries seem to be showing pictures in ever lesser light. My memory of first seeing Monet’s Waterlilies are of the glorious naturally top-lit rooms of the Jeu de Paume Paris which felt like being outdoors, whereas here one felt as if murkily under water, and for me at least, the waterlilies were underwhelming.
The exhibition takes Monet’s work in creating and painting his own garden at Giverny in the early part of the twentieth century and examines his and his contemporaries’ approach to painting gardens and flowers and life in a new intimate, private, celebratory way. The beginning of the twentieth century saw social changes which went on to influence immeasurably our modern way of living. Women unbuttoned and took to real gardening with their bare hands, as well as to work and professions. The most memorable of the pictures here reflect all of these goings on; the coming of the Great War and its colossal aftermath. Monet’s house and garden at Giverny has become a loadstone for its decoration and exposition of a way of life. It is a poem of a garden, made by a genius in his dotage with irrepressible love and enthusiasm, but also for the purpose of painting. I have long loved to read of Monet surrounded by plant catalogues, greedily ordering. His gardeners would wash the dust from the leaves of the water lilies every morning so that they were bright and shiny ready for him to paint. As a gardener, I return to Giverny again and again for comfort and to remind myself how simple good things need to be. It is not about tricks or botanising, it is about the sheer joy of flowers, and the husbandry and magic they extend.
The heart of this exhibition is its domestic scenes: Monet’s The Luncheon 1874; Bonnard’s garden at Veronnet two miles away; Pissaro’s garden at Eragny – Minette Siting in a Garden 1872 – and his market gardens at the back of small towns, which make you smell the soil and feel the heat mounting in the morning. You get a sense that this painter knew about growing things, his view is not entirely romantic. Vuillard is a master of domestic scenes, and his huge and slightly curious diptych of 1898, Woman Reading and Woman Seated is rightly placed at the centre of the exhibition. Here the terrace is an outdoor room with tables and chairs, bestrewn with pinks and maybe sisyrinchiums in a way we should strive to emulate in our gardens today. The exhibition argues that such records of domestic life in the garden had not really been recorded in paint on canvas previously, which is to neglect both the Dutch seventeenth century and also the highly fashionable Brownian landscapes that prop up the social standing of the likes of Mr and Mrs Andrews in Gainsborough’s portraits. But here is a feast of one-upmanship and horticultural flamboyance, and unfamiliar painters like Rusinol and Trinxet paint with astonishing swagger and detail.
The king of super realism, Tissot, uses sophisticated gardens as backdrops to jaw-droppingly beautiful women. The Letter 1878 is full of fascinating incidental detail, precisely laid down, such as the Persian rug put down on the gravel under the table. The paintings are a mine of historical minutiae. We find Windsor chairs in Thomas Robbins’ eighteenth century garden portraits, while in the paintings of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious are sofas and kitchen chairs dragged out on to the lawn in the days before outdoor furniture really existed. Overall, the quieter observational paintings in this exhibition are more interesting than the floral reworks. There are some really quite mediocre paintings here even Sargent can come over as merely selling ‘lifestyle’. Of course, Van Gough shines out as a master, and, Matisse’s is a horticultural world you want to be in. But it was Alfred Parsons Orange Lilies Broadway 1911 that simply scooped me bodily into that garden in the high Cotswolds before the Great War; the equivalent in painting of Edward Thomas’s ‘Adlestrop’. This is what I look for in paintings of gardens, I am looking for that thing which photographs rarely give you, the soul of the garden, the story of its life, the life lived in it.
English painters and gardeners in the twentieth century were hugely influenced by all that is illustrated here, both going with and breaking away. The most influential twentieth century women gardeners, Vita Sackville-West, Vanessa Bell, Nancy Lancaster, Valerie Finnis and Beth Chatto, pursued a dream such as we see here in these pictures. Anyone digging and delving is trying to make a small piece of this Elysium. Last year I had to make a ‘Monet’ bridge for someone, but anyone can make their own corner of Klimt simply by using nasturtiums and petunias, lilies in pots and packets of poppy seeds.
By Isabel Bannerman