Paris in the nineteenth century changed the way we look, talk and think about art forever. It wasn’t just the fact that artists were becoming more adventurous and challenging conventions, they were also swallowing new experiences, influences and taking new risks. Without the likes of Manet, Van Gogh and Gaugin being prepared to put themselves on the line for their art, we wouldn’t have the likes of Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons and Jake and Dinos Chapman today. The nineteenth-century shadow reaches far beyond the visual art field. Arguably, you can trace the roots of the punk aesthetic back there too, what were Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Flaubert if not the Lydon, Strummer and Mclaren of their day?
The same period has also been a victim of its own success. Whilst it was a breeding ground for greatness, it is also responsible for a huge amount of middle-of-the-road mediocrity that we have to suffer today. There’s nothing formally wrong with a lot of the art produced during the latter part if the century, much of it indeed has been recognised by learned experts as being important, and influential in its own way. Much of it has, however, passed into common currency, it has been co-opted by the branders of chocolate boxes, tea-towels and uninspired prints. In short, it has become over-familiar, evoking memories of boring tea-times at the houses of unloved aunts, doctors’ waiting rooms and mindlessly-purchased birthday cards.
For me, the biggest victim of that is Claude Monet, this comes as a result of how he has been marketed as much as anything. Time and again, his work has been exhibited, eulogised and over-exposed. To put it bluntly, Monet sells. The organisers of this particular gargantuan show at the Grand Palais, split over two floors in the space’s Galeries Nationales know that they are going to sell tickets. By the bucketload, largely to tourists, who really can’t get enough of this Authentic French Culture and are happy to shell out 12 Euros a time, many of whom will also be buying commemorative DVDs, catalogues and no-doubt the aforementioned tea-towels. Hugely surprisingly, this is the first full retrospective of his work in France since 1980; much of his work feels familiar, possibly since much of it is borrowed from the Musée d’Orsay (who are also responsible for curating this show).
It would be trite, and wrong, for me to challenge the notion of Monet as a great painter. He was revolutionary in his use of light,and of course instrumental to the development of the impressionist aesthetic. One look at his series of haystacks, for example, or his evocations of the dawning of the Modern age that make up his pictures of Saint Lazare station are a great example of that. But his work has become boring, sentimental and over-familiar. This exhibition does very little to change that, there’s too much of the cliched, sentimental Monet there. For all of the greatness, the series, the haystacks, the Rouen cathedral, the views of London from the Thames (all of which will probably be relatively familiar to any relatively regular gallery visitor) this exhibition wallows all too often in the cloyingly sentimental. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the curators, but raises the possibility that Monet, for all his greatness was, like Renoir, a cloyingly sentimental painter at the end of the day.
If you look at his work in the context of some of his contemporaries, it pales by comparison. Manet, to cite one example, was taking bigger risks. For me the presence of Monet’s treatment of the Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe makes Manet’s own version seem all the more outrageous.
There are some positives; it does start to offer the casual visitor another take on Monet rather than the water lilies (although they are there, inevitably). The casual visitor, however, probably doesn’t want it. This show will probably break all records, but doesn’t do the nineteenth century justice. Hopefully, the Musée d’Orsay’s Manet show next year will help to redress the balance.