Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Painting the Modern Garden

Pic of courtyard of the Royal Academy of Arts looking towards the huge Painting the Modern Garden exhibition banner on frontage
Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy of Arts

A growing interest in art and an interest in growing. The Royal Academy of Arts killed two birds with one stone* for me by staging its exhibition Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse. A day of gardening and art rolled into one. 

Popular Exhibition
This exhibition is so popular that nearly every available time slot was booked. Thank goodness for being a freelancer. I worked at the weekend and went on a Monday instead. I also had opportunity to attend a lunchtime talk by Professor Clare Willsdon of the University of Glasgow on The Art of Horticulture - painting and planting the "modern garden".

Early Love revisited
My love of Impressionism started at the University of Birmingham. In the first year of my French course, I had the opportunity to study French art. Monet and Manet were my favourites then. My interest deepened by seeing some of the actual paintings at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. 

Up close
Monet's work was at the centre of this exhibition. I was amazed at how many excellent and famous paintings the Royal Academy had managed to bring together. I was thrilled to get up close to the paintings. I could admire the brush strokes and technique, then stand back to get the full impression. 

Monet the Gardener
I had no idea beforehand that Monet was anything more than an amateur gardener. I loved the way the Royal Academy captured the extent of his enthusiasm and botanical knowledge by sharing his books.

It was great to read his faded letters in French. The famous water lily paintings might have been denied to the world if he had not succeeded in his appeal to build his pond. His enthusiasm for gardening strayed into obsession:

"He reads more catalogues and horticultural price lists 
than articles on aesthetics"  
 (Journalist of Monet in 1897)

In advance, I had expected to see an exhibition of paintings that I would love. I had no inkling beforehand that this exhibition would capture what gardening means to me. In the words of Paul Klee:

"My mind is clearest and freshest 
and I often experience the most captivating moods, 
even moments of great joy, 
when I am tending the plants in my garden...".

This is a feeling I can now describe with the German word "Gartengluck" - a feeling of happiness that overcomes you in the garden.

Old Boots
It was a great touch to include Nicholson's painting of Gertrude Jekyll's gardening boots. Seeing one sole falling apart brought a smile to my face. There is no need to get dressed up in the garden. You can get lost in reverie with no one to judge your muddy fingers, dishevelled hair or clothes that have seen a better day.

Historical Context
Professor Willsdon presentation gave the exhibition historical and botanical context. The 19th and early 20th centuries were a very special time in gardening. The flowers in the paintings were exotic. Monet's blue water lilies required great care to overwinter.

Flowers were seen as "decoration". Some scoffed that these painter gardeners should grow more useful plants like potatoes. Another was ridiculed as the painter of cabbages. 

Clare Willsdon explained that the three key developments of the time were:
  • Hybridisation - illustrated by the paintings of chrysanthemums, dahlias, peonies and exotic water lilies in the exhibition
  • Cases with sealed glass to import exotic plants 
  • Advent of greenhouses to look after exotic plants 

A Passion shared
Gardening was very much a passion that Monet shared with other friends and painters. Monet's friends described him as a different person in his garden than the bad-tempered man encountered in Paris. 

Monet's Garden at Giverny with its famous bridge and pond

Clare Willsdon explained Monet's passion for irises and their connection to his late wife. The profusion of irises under the trees in The Artist's Garden at Giverny (detail) of 1900 takes on greater meaning in this context. They speak of his love.

Pic of a single blue iris

So while few people appear in the various exhibition paintings, much emotion is conveyed in them nonetheless. Monet's weeping willows portray the anguish at the loss of life from the guns he could hear in the distance during the First World War.

It wasn't all about Monet or even French artists. The exhibition introduced me to a number of new artists. Max Liebermann, Emil Nolde and Santiago Rusiñol particularly caught my eye. I loved Rusiñol's extraordinary Glorieta II.

How do you end such an exhibition on a high? The Royal Academy succeeded by bringing together Monet's triptych of water lilies from 3 different American museums. It had the wow factor.

Now, I simply have to find a way to see Giverny, Monet's living work of art in person. It will complete my journey from gardening to art and from art to a very special garden.

For my international readers, a link to the meaning of the English idiom used above:
*killing two birds with one stone

Karen Andrews runs
Anglicity Ltd. She is a
French to English
translator and 
transcreator.  She is
also an English 
copywriter and
multilingual digital 

For further information see
Anglicity's website