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Painting the Modern Garden – A Bourgeois Utopia

February 6, 2016

ArtsGroup Exhibition | by Harry Seymour


The Royal Academy’s recently opened exhibition, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, is aesthetically stunning, however, its true beauty lies within the encrypted messages hidden beneath the surfaces of the 120 exhibited canvases.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas (Waterlilies), 1914-15 Oil on canvas, 160.7 x 180.3 cm Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16 Photo © Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon
Claude Monet, Nymphéas (Waterlilies), 1914-15
Oil on canvas, 160.7 x 180.3 cm
Portland Art Museum, Oregon. Museum Purchase: Helen Thurston Ayer Fund, 59.16
Photo © Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Superficially, the exhibition, arranged thematically into nine rooms, details the role of the private leisure garden and horticulture as source of creative inspiration for master painters including Monet, Renoir, Cézanne and Matisse. The vibrant colours, textures, natural light and ephemeral subject matter of the private garden encouraged the Impressionists, and later Symbolists, Fauves and German Expressionists, to depict nature with a more lyrical vision than that seen previously. Monet’s garden at Giverny, a village about 50 miles Northwest of Paris, is perhaps the most famous of such inspirational gardens. Giverny, with its lily ponds, exotic hybrid flowers and square metres of unpopulated space, curated by Monet himself, provided the painter (also an enthusiastic horticulturalist) with a visual sanctuary – a silent utopia in which he could paint undisturbed.

Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau The Garden II, 1910 Oil on cardboard, 67 x 51 cm Merzbacher Kunststiftung Photo © Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Wassily Kandinsky, Murnau The Garden II, 1910
Oil on cardboard, 67 x 51 cm
Merzbacher Kunststiftung
Photo © Merzbacher Kunststiftung

Numerous works in the exhibition such as Japanese Footbridge, 1895, and Waterlilies, 1914-15, depict stills from Monet’s haven at Giverny. Celebrated internationally for his ability to transcend time and space in his water landscapes, Monet’s aquatic scenes are ethereal, other worldly but utterly enchanting. Likewise, Edouard Vuillard’s The Garden of Le Relais at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, 1898, wholly envelops and enchants the viewer. The panels, which show guests in the extensive gardens at Le Relais, the country residence of the editor Thadée Natanson and his wife at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in Burgundy, are technically and compositionally intriguing. The intricate floral patterning emulates the mille-feuille ground of medieval tapestries and the subject matter of languorous leisured guests transports you into the heat of a breezy summer’s day – a welcome respite from a cold and rainy London. However, what becomes startlingly clear, as you progress through the exhibition, is that the gardenscape of Monet and his contemporaries is a categorically bourgeois utopia. The private garden and extensive horticultural knowledge are symbols of conspicuous consumption, the apt privilege of what Thorstein Veblen has termed the ‘Leisure Class’.

Joaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911 Oil on canvas, 150 x 225.5 cm On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY Photo © Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York
Joaquin Sorolla, Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911
Oil on canvas, 150 x 225.5 cm
On loan from the Hispanic Society of America, New York, NY
Photo © Courtesy of The Hispanic Society of America, New York

Painting, walking, relaxing and picnicking in one’s own private garden were activities enjoyed primarily by the emerging middle classes in late nineteenth century France. For the first time, the bourgeoisie had enough ‘leisure’ time to retreat from the bustle of the inner city to wild or manicured gardens, whether public or private, and emulate the leisured customs of the aristocracy. While the exhibited paintings are undeniably beautiful, the surface message of languorous reverie enjoyed by all is, in my opinion, somewhat unrepresentative of fin-de-siècle European society. It would be easy to believe, from the paintings on display, that every European suddenly enjoyed the luxury respite the ‘Modern Garden’ afforded.

Henri Matisse, The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer 1917 Oil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956 Photo © 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / © Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015
Henri Matisse, The Rose Marble Table, Issy-les-Moulineaux, spring-summer 1917
Oil on canvas, 146 x 97 cm
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mrs. Simon Guggenheim Fund, 1956
Photo © 2015. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence / © Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015

The urban chaos brought about by Modernité, a term coined by critic Walter Benjamin to describe the rapid transformations of an industrialising Paris towards the end of the nineteenth-century, seems a world away from the idyllic scenes on display. The gritty reality of lower class toil, which Zola stylistically paints in novels such as Germinal and Nana, and Degas outlines in his monotypes of Parisian brothels, seem of an entirely different period. Of course, I would not expect to see images of industrialisation, prostitution or indeed consumer spending in an exhibition on the Modern Garden, but it is only when you look beyond the imagery of the exhibition to contemporary socio-cultural contexts of urbanisation and war, that the significance and beauty of their status as naturalistic inspiration comes to light. Juxtaposing the harmonious landscapes with urban scenes may have indeed highlighted the significance of such gardens to a greater degree. I would even go so far as to say the lack of wider context inhibits the viewer’s grasp of the exhibition’s overarching message.

Emil Nolde, Flower Garden (O), 1922 Oil on canvas, 74 x 89.5 cm Nolde Stiftung Seebüll © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll
Emil Nolde, Flower Garden (O), 1922
Oil on canvas, 74 x 89.5 cm
Nolde Stiftung Seebüll
© Nolde Stiftung Seebüll

That said, although we are faced with yet another Monet dominated exhibition, curators, Ann Dumas, Curator at the RA and Dr William H. Robinson, Head Curator of Modern European Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, have grouped these garden landscapes in an innovative way that themselves speak of a socio-cultural shift. Visually engaging and interesting enough, the Modern Garden, will appeal to the art enthusiast, horticulturalist and Francophile alike.

By Lucy Scovell

Painting The Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at Royal Academy, London, 30 January – 20 April 2016