23 Jul 2018

Go see: Monet

To be accepted as a Creative Genius, is it necessary to cultivate the image of one? The National Gallery’s Monet and Architecture show suggests that, if the work is good enough, it can speak for itself, says Paul Cardwell, Creative Partner. 

Charing Cross Bridge, reflets sur la Tamise, 1899-1901 © The Baltimore Museum of Art / Photography By: Mitro Hood, featured in Creative Review.

One of our greatest artistic inventions is the image of what it takes to be a great artist. They stare down on us from the walls, with blazing eyes and hair swept by the wind. The revolutionaries. The rule-breakers. The pushers of envelopes. From Caravaggio through Goya to Gauguin and beyond. Picasso and his gang. Here’s to the crazy ones.

Pop culture has fanned the sparks of that myth into a firework display. If you are so inclined, you can currently pay three figures to go and see the Rolling Stones – who have been millionaires for more than 50 years – pretend to be a street gang.

And this isn’t restricted to the arts, by the way. Look at Einstein. He wouldn’t look half as clever if he’d brushed his hair.

Image is all. To be a revolutionary, you must get your image on message. Celebrity culture. These two words do not belong together.

So what a relief it is to see one of the greatest, most influential, most popular and most radical of all artists who has no ‘image’ at all.

Of all the world’s great painters, Claude Monet is the one most us know the least about. That’s not because his life was any great secret – it was recent and well-documented. It’s because we don’t care.

So how is this possible? How is it that one of the world’s best loved artists, probably the single most copied and reproduced painter of all time, is of so little interest to his vast audience?

The answer is in the work itself. His pictures were his own worst enemy. They are easy live with. Too easy. He made the whole world pretty. Pretty haystacks. Cathedrals. Railway stations. He even bathed the dirty old Thames in a mysterious golden glow.

The National Gallery have gathered seventy eight of his pictures for the exhibition Monet and Architecture

We know Monet’s pictures so well that we have completely lost sight, through the artful fog, of the man who painted them. What impressions we have are as shadowy and ambiguous as the few figures who appear in his work.

But because his pictures make us feel happy we unquestioningly suppose that he was happy painting them. This blithe view ignores his well-documented suicide bid and the fact that his friends were for a constantly concerned that he would have better luck next time.

Every painting is a self-portrait. It cannot be anything else. But with Monet it is sometimes hard to see the man inside the work. We must half-close our eyes to see through the glowing surface to the shadows beyond.

And there is darkness there: depression engulfed him like the mists in his pictures. It was not until the very end of his life that he was at peace with himself.

It is worth sketching the framework of that life. It was very French, very fin de siècle. He married young. His pregnant girlfriend did not impress his father, who promptly disowned the young couple, disregarding the fact that he was supporting his own pregnant mistress (I warned you it was French. And it gets worse.). Monet loved Claudette and they had two children before she died, an agonising and protracted death, in their poverty-stricken home.

Monet was emotionally desolate and financially destitute (see Papa Monet, above). He moved into the splendid home of his patron, Hoschede. This gentleman had five children and within a short time the sixth, a son, was born. Hoschede then left for Paris to sort out his various shady deals and Monet and Madame Hoschede then went on to live together, with the eight children, for the rest of their lives. C’est la vie. C’est la guerre.

So Monet’s life was not without incident. And this was not Paris. It will surprise many who love his pictures that Monet hated Paris. Apart from his time as a student, he never lived there. How often have you heard people say that it was Monet who taught them to love Paris? Well he may have taught them, but he never managed it himself. All of this drama took place in small provincial towns where the net curtains were fluttering like flamingos at this exotic behaviour.

He was a great, great painter. He didn’t grow to become one, it was there right from the start. Like Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra, he could just do it. He couldn’t help himself.

He painted every day. He lived until he was 86 and his catalogue raisonne has more than 2,000 pictures. Very few sketches and drawings: it was all about paint. He was a painter.

That is important. Because he is never painting things, he is painting light.

Very early on he had the great insight that illuminated his long life and, in time, influenced thousands and thousands of artists who came after him. Things are nothing. Light is everything. Colour is an illusion, created by light. So in this show you are not looking at buildings, you are looking at the effect of the light for one particular moment.

He had two fascinations. Transient things: clouds and water. And permanent things: cathedrals and cliffs. But for him they were the same thing. The ancient façade of Rouen Cathedral was yellow one day and blue the next. Vermillion. Lilac. And sometimes it would fade, shapeless, into the grey sky.

So he painted, every day of his life. He was ready to work at dawn, which meant rising early. In summertime this meant 3.30. When he was happy, he painted. When sad, which was much more often, he buried himself in his work, painting until the light failed and he stumbled home, exhausted in the dark.

And right from the start, he was one of the great ones. This exhibition is arranged thematically. So pictures painted fifty years apart can be within a few feet of one another. It’s hard to tell. It isn’t that he was good and got better. He was great, and stayed that way.

The other painters knew. All his life he was supported and encouraged by a huge range of his fellow artists. He was the real thing, and they knew it. He had his own style. His own way of seeing. His own voice. His picked up a brush and a Monet appeared. It couldn’t be anyone else.

But success was a long time coming. For the first twenty years Monet lived near to starvation, unable to fed his children and spending his nights writing begging letters to his family.

But, unusually for art history, it is a story with a happy ending. He becomes the Grand Old Man, living at Giverny in the wonderful oriental garden that he created.

This is an uplifting, life-enhancing show. To see an artist with such absolute certainly about what he is doing, such confidence, is inspiring. He was not a philosophical painter. He was not interested in being revolutionary. He just saw things differently, and painted what he saw. Now, of course, we can all see that way.

Then there is the simple joy of walking though the life’s work of a master craftsman. Seventy years. These pictures are utterly, sensationally beautiful. If you had one, your entire home would be decorated. You could paint the rest of it white and throw the TV in a skip.

And you feel him exploring his subjects. But he never explains, never lectures, never theorises. He is more poetic than that. His cathedrals are misty with nostalgia, looking back to a time of certainty and chivalry and decency and honour. A time when men could build something that was intended to stand forever. And our Parliament building looks imposing and dignified, like a tower from the Lord Of The Rings. But then he was in London to escape the Franco-Prussian War and with the Germans on the outskirts of Paris democracy must have looked like a noble idea that was worth defending.

You can tell something about a person by the way that he lives: you can tell everything by the way that he dies. Claude Monet died quietly and modestly.

He had two very simple rules for his funeral – no guests and no religion. Just family, and no God. The painter of so many cathedrals was an atheist. Right to the very end, he was able to surprise us.

Forget everything you think you know about Monet and go and see this show. Go and meet a quiet, modest genius who set the world aglow.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture is at the National Gallery until July 29.

First published in Creative Review.