“Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colours, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.”
The words of Rainer Maria Rilke put best the overwhelming visual experience of the Royal Academy’s latest, fabulous show, ‘Painting the Modern Garden, Monet to Matisse.” In rooms dotted with garden benches, hung upon walls of muted greens and blues, the canvases shriek with their profusion of joyous colours, impressionist swirls of paint, and riotously blooming flowers – flowers that grew in the gardens of some of the most famous painters of the age.
Gardening became an interest of the middle classes in Western Europe and America only in the 1850s, where middle class families, growing in wealth and numbers, could aim to own a slice of suburban utopia, as opposed to the grand gardens of estates. The exhibition begins with early Monet in the 1860s, tracing the interplay between his horticulture and his art, and moves on to the range of the Impressionists’ gardens. Monet’s deliberately planted beds stand in contrast to the jardin sauvage of Renoir, or the kitchen gardens of Pissarro. Before the Impressionists, nature in art was either backdrop scenery or dramatic moment: stormy seas and towering mountains; landscape idealised. Le Salon in Paris rejected many of the Impressionist works, expressing horror and ridicule at their loose brushwork, real-life subjects and vivid colours. It was decreed that the subjects they would accept had to be worthy of painting – of historical, mythological or religious importance, formally arranged in the centre of the portrait, telling a moral tale. A contemporary critic castigated the “still-life painters” as “rats in the Paris sewers”, gnawing away at the academic foundations of art.
Before the Impressionist flowering, and at the beginning of this exhibition, we see, therefore, more formal gardens meticulously laid out, with bedding plants in block colours; the growths obey their flowerbed borders, in geometrical arrangements. Thus Monet paints his aunt’s garden in Normandy (Lady In The Garden, 1867), executing the thing in the style of the ‘French landscape garden’ or, as the French called it, ‘le jardin anglais’. But though the garden is formally delineated, there are painterly ripples in the grass and blurred strokes on the white blossoms that disturb balance of the picture. The Impressionists resisted both controlled painting and controlled gardening, and this is the beginning of their wildness.
For the Impressionists not only turned their gaze onto their gardens, but deliberately constructed those gardens to be subjects worthy of painting. Monet planted contrasting colours of pink peonies and purple irises, whose translucent petals gave him such grief and joy to paint. In The Garden in the Rue Cortot, Montmartre (1876), Renoir has painted the tiny private garden behind his studio, and which space he called his “laboratory for painting.” It was an outdoor area where formal experiments with light and its effects could take shape within a bounded setting; the fork in the flowerbed seems to speak of work in progress. For many Impressionists, their interests in painting mirrored their interests in horticulture. In one room, documentation of flower sales and letters between Calliebotte and Monet show the time and passion that went into sourcing and procuring flowers, the excited chatter surrounding rare new species, and the importing of plants from around the world to provide subjects for these canvases.
Often elided, however, within the conception of gardening as art-form is the labour of the actual gardeners and servants who maintained the lands. Monet gardened at every house he had from 1860s to his death in 1926, but by the end he also employed eight gardeners who, one imagines, did most of the dirty work. Camille Pissarro – derided as ‘a painter of cabbages’ for his fondness for kitchen gardens over flowers – is one of the few to capture the rural labourer hard at work: a woman bending down over the vegetables in The Artist’s Garden at Eragny (1898). There is a dual sense of labour here: the woman working, out in the open, and then the artist labouring, with thick layers of paint. Impressionist artworks reveal the labour of their creation rather than masking the effort – many of these canvases show crusted slicks of colour; an earthy, contoured, three-dimensional texture. And both gardeners and painters know the frustration of painstaking labour failing to yield results. In 1908, Monet actually destroyed nine of his canvases, which he considered not good enough to be shown. (On a side note, it was amusing to see in the later letters the outraged protests of local farmers and Monet’s aggrieved replies, when he wanted to divert the nearby river to feed his newly planted chrysanthemums and agapanthus. Whose labour took precedence? We note that Monet won in the end.)
In the latter half of the nineteenth century floriography, or ‘the language of flowers’, became wildly popular across Europe and America, offering a codex of emotional significance for well-known flowers. We still have a ‘red rose’ as a symbol for love, for instance, and a ‘yellow rose’ for friendship, but former codes were much more complex; at the first exhibition of Impressionist work Degas even proposed the nasturtium (fr. la capuchine) for the symbol of the movement, both for the group’s fondness for depicting it and, incidentally, because the studio was located at 35 Boulevard des Capucines. Nevertheless, for all the horticulturalist passion many of the Impressionist flowers – Monet’s in particular – become more about effect, a blurred bubbling mass of flowers, and a device through which to display light and colour, rather than singular species with inscribed meanings. Just one symbol obtains in Monet’s last paintings: the weeping willow that began to appear, often against the dusk, as Germany swept through France in World War I.
The final two rooms, devoted to Monet, are the most stunning and the most moving of the show. Monet’s own home and garden at Giverny was close enough to the front line to hear the boom of guns, but he refused to leave his garden, the one he had landscaped so carefully to be a subject for his paintings. As he put it: “If these savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.” These gardens held the subjects Monet returned to and repainted over and over – in particular his Japanese bridge and the waterlilies. In one of the final canvases, the bridge has transformed from the hazy white lines of earlier works to a final blazing red and orange blur in The Japanese Footbridge (1920–22), screaming with defiant energy at what must be an autumn sunset. In its curved strokes it feels more like a Van Gogh in passion – an artist represented partly by an unusual example in Van Gogh’s Daubigny’s Garden in Auvers. Van Gogh came to Daubigny’s garden after the latter’s death, to paint and capture the landscape of the artist who preferred to work en plein air, as a tribute and a testament.
The star of the show, however, and the real draw, will always be Monet’s waterlilies. Monet produced nearly 250 paintings of the lily pond, in different times of day and light. In some, purple irises at the border merge into the shimmering surface of the water, which reflects the sky like a mirror. In later works, the foreground and the sky are more compressed, so that the waterlilies seem to glide over the surface of infinity, abstracted from their surroundings, unmoored from the edges of the pond. In the very last room, the stunning Agapanthus Triptych (1916–19) – three waterlily paintings intended as a set – are reunited for the first time in Europe since 1956. These three huge canvases were intended by Monet as a gift for France after World War I. We see the chaos of the lilies and the soothing repetition of their grouping; the sense of perspective is overwhelmed, but the composition remains ordered nonetheless; the thick strokes create movement in the water, but the purples and greens exude endless calm on the surface. There is balm after the chaos of war. In floriography, water lilies stand for the purity of heart.
Nowadays, we see the garden as a domestic and tame space, one that is orderly, humdrum – perhaps even twee. But in this period, the first suburban gardens were a site of rebellion and a cutting-edge space for work. Here, Impressionist painters burst into plein air, wearing smocks and smears of mud, to fight the establishment norms. For the Impressionists, the first act of creation was often to compose a garden, their canvases blooming into vivid colour only after their plants. Flowers were picked for their hues and their shapes, and arranged to provide paint-box like palettes for painting. But as a gardener-painter dug his carefully imported exotic seed into the soil, or leaned forward to daub a thick brushstroke on the canvas, no effect was guaranteed. With both painting and gardening, there is always the acknowledgment of the limits of control, and the wildness of media. One can but attempt an impression.