Essay by KateThomson

Impressionist master of time and space


New exhibition in praise of Claude Monet, his curators and champion
Special to The Japan Times
If the world seems like a dark place at the beginning of the present century, an exhibition of work completed at the beginning of the last may help put things back in a more optimistic perspective. "Monet -- Later Works: Homage to Katia Granoff," is on show at the Iwate Museum of Art till Feb. 11 and then travels to Sakura, Chiba Prefecture, and to Nagoya.

"Water-Lily Pond" (1917-19; catalog No. 28) represents the matured vision of impressionist pioneerClaude Monet.

The first exhibition in Japan to focus exclusively on Monet's paintings of the water-garden he created next to his house in Giverny, this display pays special attention to the penultimate series of canvases produced in preparation for the artist's grand "Water Lilies" murals, now in the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris.

Many of these paintings remained virtually unseen in Monet's studio after his death. That they were shown to a wider public and dispersed to collections internationally is thanks to art dealer Katia Granoff, born in Mykolaiv, Russia, in 1895.

The exhibition is a tribute to Granoff, who sparked the "Monet Revival" of the 1950s that led to a re-evaluation of the artist's late work. She instigated a phase of critical consideration that re-established the artist at the forefront of the Impressionist pioneers and made him a figure of influence for subsequent developments in abstract art.

And thanks to the efforts of a new generation of curators -- Katsunori Fukaya of Nagoya City Art Museum, Yasui Hiro of IMA and Shin'ichi Numabe of Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art who devised this exhibition -- we can now appreciate many of Monet's most striking innovations under one roof.

One of the artist's most radical experiments in his early works was his use of light and color to represent the passage of time. In his later works, this becomes a sense of timelessness -- a subject that I feel better placed to appreciate, having recently completed a sculpture series experimenting with the same elements. Monet's earlier studies approached a single subject such as the Gare Saint-Lazare (painted 1876-78), Haystacks (1890-91) or the celebrated group of Rouen Cathedral (1892-95), at different times of the day or the year.

Such series are only fully appreciated when viewed in their totality, but the demands of the art market meant that they were usually sold piecemeal at the end of their debut exhibitions. Thus, toward the end of his career and no longer needing to sell paintings to survive, Monet conceived the idea of a sequence that would be permanently exhibited in its entirety.

Purposely unframed, the water lily paintings were intended to fill a room, creating, as Fukaya's excellent catalog essay explains, "the illusion of an endless whole, of water without horizon or shore."

Monet worked toward that ideal over the course of years, and this exhibition charts his painstaking progress; many pieces bear the same title, as the artist returned to water lilies time and again. After my prejudices seemed to be confirmed by "chocolate-box" cliches such as "Water Lilies" (1907; catalog No. 5) in the first room, I found myself attracted to the almost Fauvist color of "Water Lilies" (1914-17; 8) and "Irises" (1914-17; 17). The subtle expression of light in "Water Lilies" (1914-17; 14) made me wonder if the artist's failing eyesight, caused by cataracts, had not somehow heightened his "vision."

Personal tragedy -- Monet's double loss of wife and son -- followed by the horrors of World War I perhaps feed into the expressive texture of the group of four "Water-Lilies, Reflections of Weeping Willows" (1916-19; 22). And then comes the matured vision: In the four "Water-Lily Pond" paintings (1917-19; 27), the sense of space is remarkable. On flat canvas, the artist depicts the surface of the water without a horizon. The classical laws of perspective are apparently abolished -- yet we receive a strong 3-D impression of the surrounding landscape from its reflection in the water.

Perhaps, too, this image expresses Monet's pantheistic perspective -- he idealized the harmony of nature and identified God with the universe -- and like many people at the time, the artist was attracted to notions of pantheology, which sought to synthesize all religions. Certainly the later works are stronger and darker, seeming to contain sadness in the depth of the water, but expressing an optimism in the way the whole reflects the complexity and beauty of everything below, around and above.

It wasn't until peace had been restored after World War II that the depth and harmony of Monet's last great works was fully recognized. Indeed, it took a great deal of critical and political maneuvering to persuade the French state, in 1922, to accept Monet's donation of the "Water Lily" series of 22 canvases for the Musee de l'Orangerie.

As the history of the Orangerie series and Katia Granoff's groundbreaking reappraisal of Monet teach us, artists need intellectual as well as financial support from governments, critics, curators and the public if they are to maintain their passion and vision. And society, as these peaceful and profound works remind us, needs art.

"Monet -- Later Works: Homage to Katia Granoff" runs till Feb. 11 at the Iwate Museum of Art, Morioka; tel: (019) 658-1711, fax: (019) 658-1712 or visit the IMA Web site at The exhibition then tours to the Kawamura Memorial Museum of Art, Sakura, Feb. 20-April 14; Nagoya City Art Museum, Nagoya, April 23-June 16.
Kate Thomson's work can be seen on the Ukishima Sculpture Studio home page: Her new marble-and-light sculptures (reviewed in these pages Dec. 12) will be on show from June 4-19 at the Bansui Gallery in Sendai. Tel: (022) 713-6230, fax: (022) 713-6252

The Japan Times: Feb. 6, 2002
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