The Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting and the Last* Monet

Musé de L’Orangerie, Paris | April 13 – August 20, 2018

Claude Monet, Le Pont japonais, 1918-1924. Oil on canvas, 73 × 100 cm. Private collection. Courtesy Blondeau & Cie, Geneva. Photo : © Studio Sebert, Paris.

At different points in history, contemporary artists have led revived appreciations for earlier painters or styles. Plentiful examples include the rediscovery of El Greco through the eyes of the German Expressionists, new excitement for the work of Frans Hals by a number of Impressionist painters, and the rekindling of attention to the later periods of Francis Picabia during the heyday of Neo-Expressionism. Evidently such reception histories were spurred through relationships between earlier masters’ painterly techniques, types of imagery, and/or artistic strategies, on the one hand, and those of the living artists who championed their oft underappreciated work, on the other.   

The new relevance of later work of Impressionist Claude Monet for mid-twentieth century Abstract Expressionist painters offers both a case in point and a special corollary to this phenomenon. In fact, Monet’s later work was largely overlooked during his lifetime and during the two decades immediately after his death in 1926. The exhibition at l’Orangerie in Paris is devoted to exploring the unusual trans-Atlantic nature of the reception of Monet’s later painting. L’Orangerie is a logical site for such a project given that it houses two vast cycles of the Impressionist’s iconic Water Lilies, painted specifically for those spaces as the artist’s gift to the French nation. Speaking in the mid-1940s, the artist André Masson dubbed these two vast oval installations the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” In 1955 critic Thomas Hess hailed the Abstract Expressionist painters for the rediscovery of late Monet as the “most avant-garde of the ‘old masters.’” The Museum of Modern Art’s acquisition of a major late Monet that same year is an upshot of the decade-long campaign by a number of the American abstractionists.

Philip Guston, Painting, 1954. Oil on canvas, 63 1/4 × 60 1/8 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence. © The Estate of Philip Guston. Courtesy Hauser & Wirth.

Both the exhibition and its excellent catalogue trace the way the first sustained appreciation of Monet’s production during the twentieth century came into being. In large measure this resulted from the advocacy of the American Abstract Expressionists. The show presents this history through its analogue display of Monet’s later work alongside that of the American artists who admired it. Likewise, the American abstractionists recognized the potent issues at stake in Monet’s late works, simultaneously realizing that important connections could be extruded between this period of the Impressionist’s work and their own means of expression. In short, Monet’s late work, in particular his now exemplar Water Lilies, offered a new node on the modernist art historical road map that underwrote American Abstract Expressionism. With 20/20 hindsight, late Monet could be explained and exploited as foreshadowing the origins of the large-scale gestural canvases, close chromatic range, and all-over compositions of the American painters. Yet, it stands to reason that these grandes decorations (Monet’s term) with their narrow range of dark color, and seemingly direct depiction of the natural world would have seemed dated from a vantage point of their time. They often were denigrated or dismissed as either too romantic or too Symbolist, in essence too removed from the radical modernist inventions of Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism, not to mention pure abstraction and non-objective art. They also were derided as the product of an artist with cataracts and their attendant visual blur.

Installation view, The Water Lilies: American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet, Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris, 2018. Photo: Sophie Crépy-Boegly. © Musée de l’Orangerie.

The exhibition synthesizes earlier research and exhibitions related to late Monet, beginning with Michael Leja’s important examination on the late Monet revival in the catalogue for Paul Hayes Tucker’s magisterial 1998 show: Monet in the Twentieth Century, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This synthesis also included Ann Temkin’s and Nora Lawrence’s 2009 Monet’s Water Lilies at the Museum of Modern Art; as well as Yve-Alain Bois and Sarah Lees’s 2014 – 2015 Monet | Kelly show at the Clark Art Institute. The major trajectory of the exhibition begins on the lower floor in the Orangerie’s temporary exhibition galleries. Joan Mitchell’s monumental 1980 polyptych, The Good-bye Door, is hung outside the first gallery as the exhibition’s opening salvo. Created by the American artist in her French studio not far from Monet’s haunts in Giverny, this picture persuasively conveys geographical, historical, and visual substantiation of the premise of the show—and it does so dramatically. It’s hard to look at Mitchell’s painting next to the show’s title wall without recalling the palette, scale, and facture of Monet’s late masterworks.

The first actual gallery space presents a dialogue between Barnett Newman’s The Beginning (1946) and Monet’s Nymphéas bleus [Blue Water Lilies] (1916 – 1919). The connection here is less visually forceful than the Mitchell association, though their comparison via text makes clear the extent of Newman’s important early championing of the later works of the founding Impressionist. Thus, Newman anchors the intellectual and historical relationship and supports the exhibition’s concept. While viewers may resist engaging two such dissimilar works, with time they begin to realize the connections between each picture’s contemplative, absorbing presence. In the second gallery, two moderate-scale, horizontal Monet canvases, both titled Le pont japonais and dated 1918 – 1924, preside over an array of works by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. The Monets are installed at the far end of this space, one on either side of the central passageway dividing the galleries. Hanging on walls not immediately contiguous with the works of the American Abstract Expressionists affords a useful strategy. From their well-considered placement, they seem to hover over the other works in the same gallery as points of reference, if not direct inspirations. This avoids any forced direct comparison and confrontation between the Monets and the works of the American artists. Some of the mid-20th century American works here offer fascinating visual connections with the Impressionist paterfamilias. This is especially true of Rothko’s two small-scale multiform paintings from 1948, both Untitled. The way Rothko’s delicately chromatic forms float on the surface of the canvases offer bravado associations with Monet’s late waterscapes, even though Rothko may have been channeling his favored [Pierre] Bonnard rather than Monet. Using the terminology and conceptual ideas of critics, like Clement Greenberg, and artists, like Newman, the wall labels and texts in this space offer specific examples of mid-century appreciations of late Monet and connections between his work and mid-twentieth century American abstraction. 

Standing apart, Monet’s Japanese bridge pictures simultaneously frame the large-scale Morris Louis Veil that is staged centrally in the subsequent gallery. The installation is at once subtle and smart as it begins to introduce viewers to Monet’s belated relationship with the post-painterly abstractionists, especially Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. The palette, narrow color range, and all-over method of paint application of the two horizontal Monets perfectly connects them with flickering essence of Louis’s painting. In essence, this tri-partite constellation reminds viewers of critic Clement Greenberg’s analogy not only to the narrow chromatic range of many Abstract Expressionists to Monet’s late work, but also the close harmonies of Schoenberg’s atonal music. Following the Louis pictures, a well-known canvas of a Monet weeping willow leads into a fourth gallery space. There a short perpendicular wall separates it from Helen Frankenthaler’s lush Milkwood Arcade (1963). Another U-shaped area in this gallery situates Philip Guston’s Painting (1954) and Joan Mitchell’s classic 1956 – 57 Peinture with Monet’s Le Saule pleurer (1920 – 22). More convincing conceptually than from a purely visual point of view is the installation of Monet’s small scale, moody Le pont japonais (1918 – 1924) situated between Guston’s Untitled and Mark Tobey’s White Journey (1956). The atmospheric nature of each of the three works is indubitable, yet the delicacy of the airier, more open mid-century canvases jockey against the heavier, deep blue/purple palette of the Monet. In sum, the Monet/Abstract Expressionist dichotomy works best for this viewer when the Impressionist’s pictures and the American abstract works do not share the same wall. Kinships between their painterly methods and visual constructions are best kept at arm’s length.

Inescapably, a large black cube gallery to the side projects Hans Namuth’s legendary film of Pollock dripping alongside a film of a white-suited Monet painting on an easel in his celebrated garden. Comparing and contrasting these two films, and by extension these two radically different painting methods, is an inevitable yet savvy temptation that I was happy to experience together.

On the upper floor of the Orangerie, virtually sited between the large entry space and the two huge permanent installations of Monet’s grandes decorations was a gallery devoted to Ellsworth Kelly’s connections with Monet. The separate space thus functions as a pendant exhibition to that on the lower floor. It includes Kelly’s Tableau Vert (1952), a series of 13 of his drawings Water Lily (1968) as well as a 1994 wood sculpture. The painterly blue/green monochrome makes Tableau Vert an outlier in Kelly’s more rigorously controlled, reductive practice. Kelly created it immediately after his visit to Giverny in 1952. The unlikely pairing of Monet and Kelly here is as uncanny as it is historically cogent. Though the offbeat product of a proto-Minimalist, it is perhaps the only painting in the entire exhibition that is directly influenced by the Impressionist master. 

Ellsworth Kelly, Tableau Vert, 1952. Oil on wood, 29 1/4 × 34 1/4 inches. The Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago. © Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.

Given the vigorous advocacy for late Monet by the mid-century Americans, it is not surprising that two painter/critics—Elaine de Kooning and Louis Finkelstein—developed the term Abstract Impressionism as alternative moniker. The radicality of both Impressionism and mid-century American abstraction spawned numerous terms to both explain and/or disparage each movement. The Impressionists were also dubbed Independents and Intransigents. Of course, the Abstract Impressionists, a.k.a. Action Painters, ultimately were codified as Abstract Expressionists. To be best appreciated and understood, the exhibition requires engagement with its well-written texts. Yet it rewards viewers with an open-ended narrative and lots of beautiful painting.

Notes

  1. The title is the Orangerie’s English translation.  “Late” would be more accurate than “last.”

Contributor

Norman L Kleeblatt

NORMAN KLEEBLATT is a curator, art historian, and critic. Formerly chief curator at The Jewish Museum, New York, his exhibitions included Action/Abstraction: Pollock, De Kooning, and American Art, 1940-1976 (2008) and From the Margins: Lee Krasner and Norman Lewis, 1945 – 1952 (2014). He has contributed to ARTnewsArtforumArt Journal, and Art in America, among other publications.

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