From grey skies and stone in wintery London to the lush sunlit gardens of Giverny, Auvers and Bordighera, the Royal Academy’s new exhibition is a sight for sore eyes on a dull winter’s morning. Here are paintings so brimming with colour and light that you can practically feel the sun on your skin or the breeze that stirs the trees, and half expect to catch a whiff of floral perfume as you wander through the rooms.
We tend to think of the music hall, boulevard and café as the natural habitat of the late 19th century avant-garde; suitably modern urban subject matter for thoroughly modern artists. Yet curator Ann Dumas has set out to show how painters as diverse as Vuillard, Cezanne and Kandinsky had an enduring fascination with gardens.
None more so than Claude Monet. He is, unsurprisingly, the headline act of this show – the rare chance to see his Agapanthus Triptych (1916-19) brought together from three different American museums would be enough to tempt the crowds and fill the RA’s coffers alone. But while it’s well known that the artist and his fellow Impressionists favoured painting en plein air to capture fleeting light and atmospheric effects, we are now introduced to Monet, the avid and expert horticulturist. His waterlilies and flowerbeds are displayed alongside detailed letters to his gardeners, and seed catalogues and horticultural journals to which he subscribed, revealing how he planned and nurtured his garden as carefully as any painting.
In his earliest garden paintings, it is perennially summer. The Artist’s Garden at Vetheuil (1881) pulses with sun-drenched complementary colour, a searing violet sky and blue-patterned Delft pottery contrasting a swarm of orange-gold sunflowers, while in Lady in the Garden (1867) the dress and parasol of the solitary figure seem to glow with white heat. Positioned in the far left with her back turned to us, she is typical of the figures in these garden scenes of Monet’s contemporaries: obscured, side-lined, enigmatically faceless, as if absorbed in – or by – nature. In Scandinavian painter Laurits Tuxen’s Rhododendron in Tuxen’s Garden (1917) it’s easy to miss the figure among the profusion of pink and peach flowers; their colour even seeps into and camouflages the gardener’s white shirt.
These celebrations of untamed abundant nature chime with popular horticultural theory of the time. One of the major influencers in this was Englishman William Robinson, who advocated planting in loose drafts instead of traditional formal gardens. Bonnard tended to his ‘jardin sauvage’, while Pisarro revered the humble farmhouse garden. In Germany there was a comparable turn towards wild heathland. In the face of rapid industrialisation, the garden – whatever one’s preference stylistically – offered an antidote to modern urban life, a utopia in which the simple acts of sowing, potting and pruning bring order and peace to at least one small corner of the world. This appeal can hardly be lost on us today, looking at these images from a digital and equally troubled age.
But gardening was also fashionable, and more accessible, than ever. Exotic varieties of flowers were being newly imported and bred on an industrial scale – where Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder and Jan Brueghel the Younger had depicted tulip mania two centuries before, fine-de-siecle Parisians clamoured for chrysanthemums from China, and dahlias and nasturtiums from Central America. Gustave Caillebotte’s Nasturtiums (1892) is entirely without horizon or perspective, a highly decorative treatment showing the influence of another craze of the time: Japanese prints.
This was just the start of the overt stylisation of gardens and flowers – they become increasingly decorative, increasingly unreal as the exhibition moves into the 20th century. The eye-popping primary colours of Emil Nolde’s poppies and irises (he was another green-fingered artist, designing the garden of his home at Seebüll, northern Germany) and the spare, sketched strokes of Henri Matisse’s Palm Leaf, Tangier (1912) obliterate any ideas of floral art as twee and picturesque. It’s a shame not to have more of Matisse, given his billing in the exhibition title, but instead we get some less familiar offerings, such as the intense orange sunsets of Catalan painters Santiago Rusiñol and Joaquin Mir Trinxet.
Throughout the exhibition, Monet’s paintings are planted at intervals to eventually reach a crescendo in the final room – the late masterpieces painted in Giverny, where he lived from 1883 until his death in 1926. These deeply symbolic, near-abstract scenes have a meditative, introspective mood, monumental and absorbing as a Rothko. Just try to remember the riotous colour and sunlight of those early works – they have been swallowed by inky water and shadow, or become the fiery autumnal foliage of Japanese Bridge. These paintings are elegies. Beyond Monet’s garden walls, the Great War was raging, and in the trailing willows and ripples in the pond it’s as if nature is in mourning.
If there were a sound effect for these paintings, it would not be birdsong, but the sound of weeping. The sun is setting; there is a chill in the air. While the garden offered artists a sanctuary from the world, it speaks volumes about the world from which they were retreating.
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is at the Royal Academy, London, until 20 April 2016. For more information and to book tickets visit the website.