LONDON — In 2015 the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) faced a critical backlash against its last major painting blockbuster, Rubens and His Legacy, which featured very little Rubens and an awful lot of tenuous filler. Thank goodness, then, that the museum is back on track with its new survey, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, which seeks to examine how the rise in popularity of the domestic garden influenced the development of painting at the turn of the 20th century.
The purpose of focusing on the garden and Impressionism could have been a lazy means to capitalize on these two undeniably popular themes. However, the RA has gone beyond expectations: although it chooses Claude Monet as its obvious starting point, that the museum has acquired so many Monet loans — which still make up only a fraction of the vast and varied number of works on view — is indicative of the immense effort and imagination that has gone into this superlative exhibition.
What becomes apparent is that both gardens and painterly style developed in a partnership of mutual influence. Intellectual interest in botany, combined with new scientific forays into ever more exotic shapes and colors, increased during the latter part of the 19th century. Coinciding with this was the emergence of what we now recognize as the modern garden: a domestic private space given to the cultivation of plants and a respite from modern city life. Thus we have wonderful examples of gardens as different in character and purpose as the painterly style used to depict them; a fabulous piece from 1911 by Joaquín Sorolla depicts Louis Comfort Tiffany proudly seated amongst the enormous, bright blooms of brilliant purples, yellows, and whites in his Long Island home, rendered with riotous energy, while Camille Pissarro’s “Kitchen Gardens at l’Hermitage, Pontoise” (1874) quietly studies the peaceful functioning of his own garden. Such was the prevailing enthusiasm for this new, fertile source of painterly and intellectual inspiration that writer Octave Mirbeau commented in a letter to Monet, “I love compost like one loves a woman.”
One great benefit of choosing to focus on the wider theme of gardens, while also not limiting the scope to Impressionism alone, is the presence of lesser-known works rarely seen, allowing for an enormous range. Such is the number acquired, including many from private collections — a feat admirable in itself — that in one room there is an ingenious arrangement of a false interior wall, forming a mini ‘house’ within a room. On the ‘outside’ walls are various works focusing on exterior garden structures, copses, and courtyards, while the inner contains more ‘internal’ arrangements of flowers and flowerbeds. It is an imaginative method of extending an already crammed exhibition. The outer room includes German artist Max Liebermann’s depictions of his enormous estate at Wansee, South Berlin, while the inner courtyard features, amongst big-hitters Monet and John Singer Sargent, examples by Laurits Tuxen and James Tissot — the latter at one point being so unfashionable that dealers reputedly gave his work away with other purchases. In this context, such lesser-known names are not so much filler, as relevant and enriching presences.
Similarly, the RA proves the far-reaching influence of gardens amongst the Symbolists, Fauvists, early efforts of the Brücke movement in Emile Nolde, and even Abstract Expressionism in Wassily Kandinsky in a section amusingly titled “Avant-Gardens.” Here gardens are abstracted further into pictorially flat blotches of prime color, while the presence of Edvard Munch’s “Apple Tree in the Garden” (1932–42) startles with its blindingly bright-blue tree trunks and stems. For anyone expecting cozy Impressionistic prettiness, these are an invigorating inclusion and surprise. Also unusual is a non-gilded work, again from a private collection, by Gustav Klimt, whose flowers and petals beautifully fit into his signature tesserae style. Well represented is the previously mentioned Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla, whose luminous pieces demonstrate the range of light and dark effects a garden affords at various times of day; like the distinctive light effects achieved by the Impressionists, here Sorolla’s baking-hot Mediterranean climate is conjured perfectly in monumental, eerily still pieces saturated with rich, deep colors.
It has already been said that the number of Monets acquired here could comfortably form a standalone exhibition; his life’s work embodies the harmonious relationship between gardens and painting, from early horticultural efforts at Sainte-Adresse through to his final months at Giverny. Staggering numbers of his depictions of the famous Japanese Bridge and water lilies at the latter site demonstrate an extraordinary breadth of palettes, from a particularly fluorescent version through to more somber renditions. Crucially, Monet embodies an additional element begun to be felt by artists during the early 20th century: that of the pain and loss felt during the First World War. This is most clearly sensed in his later, more alarming treatments of the Japanese Bridge in burning yellows and oranges, as if actually alight.
The exhausting collection here doesn’t prepare you for the final jewel in the crown: Monet’s enormous Agapanthus triptych of 1916–1919, specifically reunited for this show. Its scale, depicting all colors of the shimmering water, as if refracted to reveal its full spectrum, is utterly moving and unforgettable.
Upon the initial announcement of an Impressionism-led show on gardens, admittedly I viewed it as a calculating attempt to maximize appeal to ticket buyers — a search for the sweet spot in a Venn diagram between two gently appealing genres. What I wasn’t prepared for was an exhibition that courageously explored deeper into the subject, and in many richly rewarding and unexpected areas.
Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London) through April 20.