Stammers on Widauer and Buchhart (2019)

Widauer, Heinz and Dieter Buchhart, editors. Claude Monet: A Floating World. Hirmer Verlag, 2019, pp. 272, 140 color illustrations, ISBN 978-3-7774-3096-6

This handsome new catalogue arises from the exhibition organized at the Albertina in autumn 2019 in association with the Musée Marmottan in Paris, a magnificent collection that showcases some of Monet’s most daring work. The exhibition was the first dedicated to the artist in Vienna in over twenty years, and the catalogue’s essays are organised to cover different phases of his creative achievement. The subtitle, A Floating World, alludes to the shimmering iridescence of Monet’s painted surfaces, but also to his profound debt to Japanese wood-block prints, from which he borrowed not just individual motifs but entire compositional solutions. Despite the subtitle, this exhibition is not centered on any one dimension or theme within Monet’s art, but rather offers a competent survey of his entire oeuvre, explored in a chronological fashion. As a result the essays in this catalogue do not seek to break new ground, but do helpfully summarize for a general audience the findings of some other landmark shows, such as Daubigny, Monet, Van Gogh at the National Galleries of Scotland in 2016 (which underlined the importance of Daubigny as a precursor for plein-air painting), Monet: The Early Years at the Kimbell Art Museum and in San Francisco in 2016 (which traced the complex genesis of his individual style) and Monet Collectionneur at Marmottan in 2017 (crucial for appreciating the specific Japanese inspirations, as well as relations with his peers). 

The authors of the textsprincipally Heinz Widauer, but also Gunhild Bauer, Marianne Mathieu and Dieter Buchharthave split Monet’s life up on geographical grounds. This structure helpfully roots Monet’s evolving technical experiments within specific environments. Hence the unusual cityscapes of the 1860s, such as the 1867 view of the Quai du Louvre, painted with Nieuwerkerke’s permission from the portico of the upper floor of the Louvre, respond to the spectacle of Haussmann’s Paris, as well as the innovations of Marville and Nadar. By contrast, having relocated to the suburb of Argenteuil in 1871, following his brief exile in Britain, Monet became fascinated by industrial-rural dynamics and the evidence of post-war reconstruction, epitomized by his studies of bridges (whose powerful geometric lattice belies the assumption that Monet cared only for transient sensations). In the emotional disarray and hardship that followed his wife’s death, Monet relocated to the peaceful (and cheap) commune of Vétheuil in 1878. “No tourists ventured here, no factory chimney affected the view of the village,” Widauer underlines, “no railway line connected it with the capital” (88). It was in such seclusion that Monet founded new subjects in nature and reinvigorated his pictorial language.

This exhibition is not the first to recognize that the Vétheuil years represent a major pivot in Monet’s developmentthe topic was treated in depth in a show at Michigan and Dallas in 1998but Widauer makes the case for its importance eloquently. He argues, for instance, that Monet’s engagement with Gothic and Renaissance architecture at the church in Vétheuil in 1878 and 1879 lays a path that will lead to the series inspired by the façade of Rouen cathedral a decade later. Similarly, Monet keenly documented the mysterious winter landscapes around the village of Lavancourt created by a dramatic ice drift at the start of 1880. He braved the freezing temperatures to sketch outdoors the glistening sheets of ice and the interplay between snow and sludge; as Widauer notes, the distorted reflection of trees in the frozen river, or the islands of turquoise ice dissolving into the water, anticipate the artist’s treatment of the water-lilies. These experiments were repeated each time Monet found a landscape that enthralled him, whether the rocky, primitive valleys of the Creuse, or the storm-tossed outcrop Belle-Île on the Breton coast (“It is sinister, diabolical, but superb,” he wrote to Alice Hoschedé in 1886) (132).

The essays mix biographical detail with a refined analysis of Monet’s compositions. Whilst the rather formalist approach in several essays reproduces the heroic trajectory of Monet the modernist, paving the way to abstraction, there is nonetheless some acknowledgement of his sensitivity to contingent, external influences. Bauer stresses Monet’s relationship with politicians (Clemenceau) and men of letters (Zola, Mirbeau, Maupassant) and recognizes the patriotic overtones that informed many of Monet’s rural scenes. Although he was not always willing to revise his work to make it more saleablehe proved deaf to the appeals of the dealer Durand-Ruel to produce more “polished” piecesMonet clearly understood what some collectors wanted. His coral-coloured depictions of Antibes in 1888 were judged by Fénéon as “beautiful but more vulgar than ever” (142) yet still sold very well. At Giverny, from 1890 onwards, according to Marianne Mathieu, Monet shaped his own myth as the “painter-gardener” (192), welcoming other artists, journalists and collectors to come and visit this magical domain in which he obsessively painted the ephemeral subjects that would fix his posterity. In creating the pond of water-lilies, Monet no doubt took inspiration from parallel initiatives at the Jardin des Plantes and the Expositions Universelles, and brought in samples from all over Europe (including his little-known trip to Norway in 1895). Giverny, the arcadia, Mathieu suggests, was also directly shaped by modern civilization.

Taken together, these essays provide a solid and stimulating introduction to Monet. Despite its title, this catalogue does not say much about Monet’s engagement with Japan, so visible in the iconic 1875 portrait of the first Madame Monet in a kimono, and the formal garden design at Giverny, and it is regrettable that there is not a contribution devoted to the topic. However, the essay collection does succeed in thinking through the materiality of Monet’s art practice. The most notable influence among recent scholars on the presentation of Monet’s art here is that of Anthea Callen, who has stressed the artist’s experiment with industrially-produced pigments, matt surfaces and defiantly rough textures. The resulting visual effects are brilliantly captured in the large, high-quality illustrations, especially of the Marmottan masterpieces. Reproduced in dazzling colour, they testify to why Geoffroy baptised Monet “a rustic alchemist, always living out of doors […] who had acquired a singular ability to see the disposition and influence of tones immediately” (133)

Tom Stammers
University of Durham