Monet, Monet, Monet
it’s a Gardener’s World!

Royal Academy

I knew there was a reason I’d been avoiding the Monet to Matisse (Painting the Modern Garden) exhibition at the RA.

The world assumes that everyone loves Monet and the impressionists, and it’s probably right in most cases, but I’ve never been a great fan. Coupled with the frustration of seeing some of those beautiful flowers depicted with just a few touches of colour – never quite understood why I couldn’t achieve the same effect! Tripled by the realisation that most of the people there are going to be elderly garden-types… if you know what I mean…

But then a friend mentioned her interest in the exhibition and I dug out my ‘Friends’ card and off we trotted – typically for me, just as the exhibition was nearing its final days.

The exhibition is huge and, as expected, full of ladies of a certain age. I found it quite exhausting, both the overwhelming culture daze and the elderly visitors. I have a problem with people on their phones or listening to music in public places when they disappear into their own little world, oblivious to the people around them. The same is true of the aural guides dished out to exhibition visitors. Many times I was elbowed, barged and stepped on, having become invisible to the earphone-wearing elderly – and sometimes to those not even wearing headsets.

On occasion, the layout of the galleries made it difficult to view the paintings at their best (that is, from a distance for the Impressionist paintings) and I think I would have been happier to see a reduced number of paintings. For me, there were two outstanding Joaquín Sorollas on display and I could have done without the others, though I’d be happy to spend my day gazing at the vibrant beauty of all three Emil Nolde paintings chosen for the exhibition. The Making a Garden installation with its cold frames and miniature greenhouse falls short of showing the essential inspiration for the exhibition – the humble flowering plant, and serves only as a clever idea to house the archival material in Robert Carsen’s exhibition design. I thought I would enjoy his approach to displaying the paintings, but I’m not sure I quite got it.

The gallery exhibiting the ‘Gardens of Silence’ suggested that the gardens depicted were ‘devoid of human presence’, which I think is tenuous at best. Yes, I agree, there is not a living figure in the paintings, yet they are imbued with human presence. With the exception of one or two more natural gardens, the rest are full of man-made manicured lawns and trees, tables set for tea, lights burning in distant windows, decorative statues and urns and idealised landscaping.

There are some absolute treats though – the amazing (and huge) Agapanthus Triptych at the end of the exhibition – reunited in Europe for the first time in 65 years. The wall of Monet’s Water Lilies is interesting – of the five, my friend and I chose totally different favourites and second-bests, proving that it really is each to their own where art is concerned. We both agreed though, that in the Avant-Gardens gallery, Kandinsky’s amazing abstract Murnau The Garden II was the most appealing painting – and, for me, of the whole exhibition.

You can catch Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Mattisse at the Royal Academy until 20 April 2016.