Until 29 July 2018
Admission £20 (weekdays), £22 (weekends)
Try and categorise Monet by subject, and one might come up with gardens, certainly at Givenchy later in life, landscapes and seascapes, and maybe the odd haystack.
Some years ago, the National Gallery must have been casting around for the next blockbuster theme at one of their planning meetings. ‘Who haven’t we done?’ ‘I know,’ said one bright spark, ‘what about Monet? The public love ‘im’ ‘No, we did him with his water garden in 2015, and we also did Corot to Monet in 2009’. ‘Has anyone done his architecture?’ ‘I didn’t know he did architecture.’ ‘Course he did! Think London. Think Venice. Think Rouen.’ And so was born Monet & Architecture, featuring over 75 paintings from private collections and galleries from all over the world. ‘Architecture’ seems such a hard-edged and off-putting word in light of some of the subject matter. Maybe ‘Buildings’ would be more apposite? I didn’t get the notion that Monet was particularly interested in architecture, nor even buildings per se. He seems to be more fascinated by what happened visually to different structures at different times of the day and in different weather conditions. His out-of-focus, iridescent views of London, are to do with atmosphere and light, not the buildings. ‘London would be quite ugly if it was not for the fog,” he wrote to his wife Alice. ‘There are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs and the interest in painting is to get the objects as seen through all these fogs.’
I made the mistake of going around the exhibition the wrong way, so I started with those foggy days in London town and Rouen Cathedral in various stages of the day from dawn to dusk, and ended up with windmills in Holland, the Church at Varengeville and the little bridge at Givenchy, which was hardly ‘architecture’. The Cathedral has so little to do with stone, it almost looks as though it is made up of traces of some ethereal substance. Apparently, he had several of these studies on the go at the same time, working from an abandoned shop or from an empty room across the way and would adjust them in turn according to the light. If nothing else, he was obsessive about capturing the spirit of the place, whether it be a cathedral or two dozen studies of haystacks, of which none is in the exhibition, as, presumably, they do not constitute architecture. His studies of Venice deal not only with light, but with reflections, as do his numerous paintings of Argenteuil, a town on the Seine eleven kilometres outside Paris, where he lived from 1872 for four years and was joined by his contemporaries Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet and Alfred Sisley for a time. He converted a boat into a floating studio in order to study the effects of light on water, the results of which are evident in this show. In Argenteuil, the sailing boats, painted in contrast to the colours of the blue water and sky and the green vegetation, are depicted surrounded by dancing light, which was what he was trying to capture, and successfully did, in spades.
The exhibition has been divided into three main topics: The Village and the Picturesque; which is selfexplanetary; The City and the Modern, which includes The Gare St-Lazare, with its diaphanous puffs of steam floating above the locomotives, The Boulevard des Capucines and The rue Montorgueil, with thousands of milling people and fluttering flags seen from above and a pair of tophatted gentlemen on a balcony; The Monument and the Mysterious, which takes us from the dreamy Houses of Parliament at Sunset to Rouen Cathedral via The Grand Canal. En route, we encounter the delicate Antibes, Morning and the dramatic Customs Officer’s Cottage, Varenguile atop a cliff. He was immensely prolific in his 86 years, producing over 2000 canvases, and this is just a sample. Certainly, they are unchallenging pictures and easy on the eye, often accused of being a bit soft and soppy, but his treatment of light and colour to create atmosphere is unique. One enterprising firm actually sells Claude Monet boxes of chocolate on the internet.