Claude Monet’s Secret Garden uncovers the impressionist master's late abstractions

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      Claude Monet's Secret Garden
      At the Vancouver Art Gallery until October 1

      Recently opened to great fanfare at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Claude Monet’s Secret Garden is a juicy summer show, guaranteed to attract tourists and locals alike.

      The “secret” in the exhibition title is both tantalizing and a tad misleading. Monet’s gardens at Giverny, a village in northern France where the Epte River flows into the Seine, and where the artist lived from 1883 until his death in 1926, were and are probably the best known of any artist’s gardens anywhere in the world. That’s because Monet’s paintings of his exuberant flower beds, rose-covered trellises, weeping willows, curving Japanese bridge, and, most especially, his water-lily pond are among the best-known impressionist works in the art-historical canon. The gardens were famous in Monet’s lifetime, and continue so to this day.

      No, the secret here is the highly abstracted paintings Monet produced late in his career and refused to exhibit or sell. Although inspired by scenes in the Giverny gardens, these late works forge a direct path to the abstract expressionism of the mid-20th century. They’re the secret that gives the exhibition its critical edge.

      The famous waterlilies of Giverny abound here, as in Monet's Nympheas from 1916-19.

      The show is curated by VAG senior curator Ian Thom and Marianne Mathieu, deputy director of the Musée Marmottan Monet in Paris, which possesses the world’s largest collection of the impressionist master’s work. Claude Monet’s Secret Garden boasts 38 paintings borrowed from the Marmottan and spanning the years 1870 to 1926. A leading proponent of impressionism, Monet sought out subjects that served his compositional interests, Mathieu said during a media preview of the show. His principal preoccupations were light, space, and colour, she added, and these can be seen in his depictions of the River Seine at Argenteuil and later, at Vétheuil, where he lived before moving to Giverny.

      They’re evident, too, in his scenes of family members, sitting on beaches and walking through sunny summer fields. Monet was a painter of clear colour, Mathieu continued. True to the tenets of impressionism, he banned black from his palette. He is also renowned for painting the same subject serially, under different light and weather conditions, at different times of the day, season, and year. This is evident in The Seine at Port-Villez. Rose Effect and The Seine at Port-Villez. Evening Effect, both painted in 1894. Like the other impressionists, Monet championed plein air painting, a direct experience of nature, and the fleeting effects of light on his subject. Still, in his later decades, as his work became increasingly radical, he completed most of his paintings in the studio.

      Examples of scenes revisited are Charing Cross Bridge, executed in 1899-1901, and Charing Cross Bridge, Smoke in the Fog. Impression, dated 1902. Look, too, for his 1905 painting London, Houses of Parliament, Reflections on the Thames, one of a noted series of this subject. The buildings and their reflection are rendered in long vertical strokes of aquamarine and purple; the sky in shorter, diagonal strokes of lavender, beige, off-white, and milky green, and the river in short horizontal strokes of off-white, lavender, blues, and purples.

      Monet also depicted symbols of modernity, such as factories and steam engines. Thom said that the advent of an extensive railway system in France was critical to the impressionists as they travelled outward from Paris in search of subject matter. Monet repeatedly and famously painted the Paris railway station of Saint-Lazare, and although none of that series is represented here, the show does include the 1875 Train in the Snow. The Locomotive, with its wondrous play of billowing smoke, low grey sky, and multihued snow.

      Claude Monet by his pond in Giverny in 1905.
      RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource NY

      The earlier works in the show provide a lovely primer to Monet’s practice, but the real focus here is on the late and, for many years, unseen works produced in Giverny. Although his early career was marked by poverty, Monet sold enough paintings in the 1870s, ’80s, and ’90s, Thom said, that he could afford to hold on to the output of his last two decades. At that point, he chose to paint and innovate in private, without the pressures of the marketplace, while also designing and cultivating his immense garden, itself one of his greatest creative achievements. As seen here, his paintings of water lilies, irises, clematis, and weeping willows become increasingly abstract and gestural. The horizon line disappears. Forms merge with their reflections. The effect becomes ever closer to all-over abstraction, as Monet pushes the boundaries of his medium.

      His paintings, such as Water Lilies of 1917-1919, increase in size and horizontality, too. This work is built out of long, curving paint strokes in vivid colours on a light ground, so that the dashes of greens, purples, deep pink, and yellow ochre seem to float above the picture plane. Three versions of The Path Under the Rose Arches, executed in 1920-1922, barely hint at the forms of the title and give themselves over almost entirely to braided textures and colours. The palette here and in other late works is decidedly dark, with only a few flecks of light pink discernible amid the burgundy, navy blue, burnt sienna, and deep ochres and umbers.

      This shift in palette is attributed to Monet’s failing vision, caused by cataracts. However, in 1925-26, after eye surgery, he produced The Roses, probably the last work of his career and certainly the climax of this show. It is a big canvas—an exuberant splash of pale pinky lavender across a greyish-blue and lavender ground. A secret no more.