Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Everybody loves Claude MONET



"Claude Monet (1840-1926): A Tribute to Daniel Wildenstein and Katia Granoff," Apr. 27-June 15, 2007, at Wildenstein & Co., 19 East 64th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021

Forget auction records. You can gauge an artist’s popularity by the number of people waiting in line to visit an exhibition at a museum or an art gallery. One top candidate? Claude Monet. His enormous appeal was evident more than a decade ago when almost a million hardy souls braved a devastating heat wave in Chicago to catch the majestic retrospective Charles Stuckey organized at the Art Institute. For the past few months, ever since the Orangerie in Paris reopened, art lovers have queued in the Tuileries Gardens to reacquaint themselves with Monet’s restored Water Lily decorations splendidly reinstalled beneath skylights as was the artist’s intention. And, for several weeks, tony collectors and grungy art students alike have stood outside Wildenstein & Co. on East 64th Street in Manhattan to gain admittance to a glorious mini-survey installed in the art gallery’s second floor showrooms. Once inside, everyone seems to be oohing and aahing.

There are more than 60 paintings on view. You may remember some of them from recent survey shows ("The Origins of Impressionism," "Impressionists in Winter," "Monet and the Mediterranean") or the Chicago retrospective. But for the most part, they are newbies.

Many of these fabulous, unfamiliar pictures have never -- or hardly ever -- been exhibited in the U.S. Lent anonymously, many once belonged to Michel Monet, the artist’s son, and then to Katia Granoff, a European-based dealer and fervent champion of the painter.

"Claude Monet (1840-1926): A Tribute to Daniel Wildenstein and Katia Granoff" is a benefit for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. It’s worth the price of admission -- $10 -- to see just one painting, The Weeping Willow, Giverny (1920-22), the only artwork displayed on the ground floor. You see it coming and going. I almost cried in front of this large, shimmering, semi-abstract scene. Cascading strokes of yellow, green, Chinese red, blue and white are simultaneously descriptive and imprecise, animated yet clearly made from paint applied with a loaded brush. The horizontal marks careening across the base of the picture suggest dappled light and shade without denying their origins on an artist’s palette. The same goes for the swirls in the sky. Ever wonder why trees like these are called weeping willows? Here’s your answer.

Upstairs, you’ll be tempted to start at the room at the head of the stairs where early landscapes and still-lifes are installed. Instead of proceeding chronologically, I’d go to the right to view six other late works executed between 1914-24. Two represent water lilies; four, the Japanese footbridge in the gardens at Giverny. Three that depict the walkway over the pond are cloaked and clotted with oil pigment. One is so dense it looks as if Chaim Soutine tried to a copy a Monet. Teetering on the edge of abstraction, these six pictures depict a pantheistic world. Imagine. As Cubism was evolving, Dada hijinks proliferating, and the seeds of Surrealism being sown, Monet was alive and kicking. His late style is a visual poet’s epic response to nature and seasonal change. Isn’t this an exhibition waiting to be mounted?

The gallery displaying work of the teens and ‘20s also features paintings Monet executed during the 1890s and the first decade of the new century. Because this is a compact show, many of the artist’s most beloved series, including the Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, Poplars on the banks of the River Epte, and views of London and Venice, are only seen in one or two examples. Nevertheless, this change of pace allows you to savor the merits of each painting rather than feeling compelled to compare and contrast differences.

The last room is also notable for mixing scenes of manmade structures (bridges in London, the facades of palazzos in Venice) with renderings of nature. These works are not as dissimilar as they may sound: lots of water, lots of sky, assertive brushstrokes, muted tones. To be sure, one startling canvas, Leicester Square, Night (1901) links them all together. Once owned by Michel Monet, this hasn’t been seen in America since 1960 when it was exhibited in the revelatory Museum of Modern Art exhibition, "Claude Monet: Seasons and Moments." It’s easy to be fooled by this agglomeration of slithery lines and dabs of color. Walk past it too quickly and you will think you’ve just glimpsed water lilies floating in a pond. Slow down and you will notice the lights of the busy London square (on theatre marquees and horse-drawn carriages) glimmering through rain at dusk. This is the sort of amazing picture that makes the show a must see.

As you backtrack, you’ll find many other treasures. Several of these are atypical Monets that don’t ordinarily get included in survey shows or retrospectives because they are oddballs. Yet, they round out our impressions of this masterful artist. Others are well known classics that greet us the way old friends do. And don’t miss the display of photographs and hand-written love letters that Monet sent to his wife every day, full of endearments and fretting whether his dealer had sent money as he had instructed.

Monet died at the top of his game in 1926. He was 86 years old. Months later the giant waterlily decorations, still drawing crowds today, were installed in the Orangerie, just off the Place de la Concorde. A few weeks from now, a radical new interpretation of the Impressionist’s career, "The Unknown Monet: Pastels and Drawings," opens at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown , Massachusetts. So the saga continues.


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