Claude Monet, Lady in the Garden, 1867. Photo © The State Hermitage Museum. Photography: Vladimir Terebenin
Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau The Garden II, 1910, Photo © Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Claude Monet, Nymphéas (Waterlilies), 1914-15, Photo © Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Monet Monet Monet: Painting the Modern Garden
At the opening of ‘Painting the Modern Garden’ Charles Saumarez Smith, Secretary of the Royal Academy, winked. ‘People are being kind’. Why wouldn’t they? ‘People are suspicious when you put on a show with pretty pictures of gardens’.
I was reminded of a conversation with Charles shortly after I’d begun work at what would become the Garden Museum. Why had Tate Britain’s ‘The artist and the garden’ been a failure not just with press but with the public? One of the worst-attended shows in the gallery’s history was conceived because of a marketer’s statistic that six million British people garden. ‘When I was at the National Portrait Gallery’ replied Charles ‘the only time I gave in to the marketing people was when they proposed an exhibition of portraits of sporting heroes. Nobody came’. A person can like gardens, and like art. But putting pictures of gardens on a wall of Tate does not put him or her on a train to London; the warp and weft of our private interests is more complicated than that.
Painting the Modern Garden succeeds and is a hit with press and public because of the astonishing beauty of the work on display, but also because it tells a true and moving story: how a circle of artists – first, Caillebotte and Monet, next Bonnard and Matisse – loved gardens, and found in their flux and colour a challenge to the act of painting.
In the queue, pause, and think: why paint a garden? In the Renaissance and Baroque paintings were commissioned as records of princely plantings: a bird’s eye view can demonstrate how compartments and vitas form a three-dimensional master-plan in a way that a plan, or a written text, cannot.
You paint a garden to capture Time. On my window-cill a hyacinth has split open in a glass jar. No painting in the world can be as beautiful as that moment of rupture, no green pigment as green as that uncurling leaf. But now the hyacinth has corroded, and I am pouring the smelly water down the kitchen sink. For the other 51 weeks of the year I would like a Winifred Nicholson of a still-life of a hyacinth on a snowy cill, a work which is a bottling of light.
Early paintings of European gardens were symbolic in intent: the Virgin in a walled garden. And garden paintings are often emotive in impulse: at the end of the Second World War C. Eliot Hodgkin (one of the artist-gardeners in the East Anglian circle of John Nash, Eric Ravilious, and Cedric Morris) painted the wild flowers which flourished in the bombsites of blitzed London. These are a gardener’s curiosity at urban rudology – that is, the flowers which spring up in urban rubble – and a survivor’s statement of hope.
So why did a circle of radical artists take up a theme which has been the exception, not the rule, in western art? In the catalogue Clare Willsdon, the Glasgow Professor who has made the Impressionists’ gardens a subject for serious study, suggests that it was the mesmerising newness of plants such as the double dahlia (the dahlia itself an immigrant from Mexico) and the chrysanthemum (from China). I’m not completely convinced. Since the Renaissance the story of gardens has also been the story of plant introductions. Zoffany might have painted the chimonanthus which first took root in Britain at Croome Court, or Turner the wisteria which arrived in Britain in 1826.
But she shows, fascinatingly, that to the Impressionists a garden was a form of retreat from what they disliked in the modern world. The most intriguing illustration of this is the watering can which Manet sketched into a letter furious at the ‘emptiness’ of the art chosen for the Salon. The watering can symbolises new life, and the truth of Nature. A garden is an Eden, a space in which everything is controlled to a personal ideal; beyond the garden wall is compromise, and negotiation. To paint a garden is not to paint a landscape, or a flower: it is to paint a personal space set apart from the world.
In his excellent Monet: Life and Art (1995) Paul Tucker argued that Monet turned into his garden at Giverny when – disgusted by the Dreyfus Affair – he turned his bank on the nation which symbolised itself by cathedrals and train stations. This exhibition shows that Monet, Matisse and Bonnard (each of whom had a garden on the Seine, and were close enough neighbours for us to see a photograph of the water-lily pond made by Matisse as a homage to his friend) intensified the emotional depth of their gardens during the First World War. Matisse suffered nightmares from the laconic stories of trench warfare told by solders billeted on leave; his mother was behind enemy lines. ‘I paint to forget everything else’, he wrote to his wife.
The climax of this exhibition is three canvasses of water lilies, re-joined from three American Museums thousands of miles apart. They are three of the twelve he conceived as a war memorial in the form of a circular pavilion within a garden in Paris, with the viewer placed as if floating in Monet’s rowing boat (in which, we learn, from Ann Dumas’s excellent essays on the making of the gardens, each morning a gardener set sail to dust the lilies and scoop detritus from the water). The doors would be curtained by the mournful branches of the willows which surround the pond at Giverny; sadly, the Rotunda – which would have been one of the most affecting of all war memorials – was never built.
Dumas’s essay is one of the finest interlinkings of art and garden history that I, at least, have read; too often art historians do not scrunch themselves up and enter the undergrowth of the gardener’s inner world. What the non-gardener sees as a patch of bare earth, or compost, is in the gardener’s mind a picture thrilled and terrified by visions of growth and decay. Boldly, beside the masterpieces are displayed Monet’s seed catalogues and gardening books and, touchingly, the deferential application to the Commune to dig the lily pond. And who knew that Monet subscribed to Country Life?
It’s irritating, then, to see that the only loan from a British collection is William Nicholson’s still-life of Gertrude Jekyll’s gardening boots. Why not Jekyll herself, or a representation of a Jekyll garden? For Jekyll trained as an artist, studied the radical colour theory of the chemist Eugene Chevreul – as the Impressionists did – and was a woman of intellect and scholarship. And subtlety. The boots had belonged to a soldier, and to garden in a soldier’s old boots in 1919 is, surely, a form of memorial. If Monet had visited London during his gardening old age he would not wished to puff cigars with moustachioed Academicians but, rather, to take the train to Godalming to visit Miss Jekyll’s garden.
Were the Impressionists’ gardens ‘modern’? They were wild, true, but every age of gardening is a dialogue between the wild and the artificial, and artists like gardens which throw up sudden complexities of light and shade. You see this in the Brixton garden of Antony Eyton, the only serving Royal Academician who is in the painter-gardener tradition of Nash, Ravilious, and Morris (with Charlotte Verity, our Artist in Residence in 2010, the outstanding painter-gardener of the next generation). A fig and a rose fight over a fallen walnut tree – too good a subject to tidy up - and like at Giverny pigments spatter the pages of plant catalogues.
But, really, who cares whether their gardens were modern or not? This is one of the most astonishing exhibitions of our time. And, in the final rooms, heart-breaking: the very late works of lumpy reds and thick yellows were painted as colours from memory by a more than half-blind Monet, and after his cataracts were operated upon we are immersed in the water paintings in which all boundaries dissolve into light. (‘Just imagine if he had not lived so old’ observes Verity ‘Can you imagine art without these paintings?’). Debussy composed a piece inspired by this scene, and in order to hear the notes which fall like raindrops on water beside the works themselves I would single-handledy carry a piano up the steps of Burlington House.
In these room you also witness something very rare: the mechanics and materials particular to a discipline – whether brush, pen, or musical score - dissolve into a naked expression of what the artist believes to be most valuable and elusive in the human spirit. It happens in Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, the great self-examination of the heart wrung out on scraps of paper in jail; it happens in Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, and it happens in Johnny Cash’s rasping last album, Ain’t no Grave, where the guitar notes are reduced to a handful scattered like gravel. And it happened in Monet’s garden. In the end, art is art, but gardens are life.
Painting the Modern Garden is at the Royal Academy until 20 April 2016