Yes, Claude Monet is a great painter. But the very idea of Monet sometimes makes me want to kick a golden retriever. The air around him is clotted with cheerful clichés. He has become the pretty-picture man—haystacks, cathedrals, Venice—who offers a reprieve from difficult art. He is Father Time among the water lilies at Giverny. He is postcards, calendars, and countryside. Since he sells more tickets to museums than most of the nineteenth-century painters who are his equal, museums regularly find new ways to exhibit his work. (Monet is Money.) The latest is “Monet’s London: Artists’ Reflections on the Thames (1859–1914),” a show at the Brooklyn Museum of Art fashioned around Monet’s series of paintings of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament. The idea of pairing this painter with London is, of course, very seductive. “Monet’s London” sounds like one of those summer vacations to England and France that one can claim is also educational. Sometimes, I’d rather rough it.
Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida—and coordinated in Brooklyn by Elizabeth A. Easton—the exhibition offers viewers a social and visual sketch of the Thames during England’s rapid industrialization in the nineteenth century. The river, a churning highway steeped in fog and smoke, attracted many artists of the period who wanted to capture the new realities of modern life; the show presents a selection of their views, among them a fine array of prints and photographs of life along the riverbank and two wonderful paintings by Derain. The Thames could provoke in artists both an intense, descriptive realism and—owing to the foggy environment—an air of romantic reverie. In Whistler, you can see each at work: a dreamy evocation of the river (particularly in his nocturnes) and a sharp-eyed view of life on the docks. The American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn also created lushly poetic images that nevertheless reflect our fascination with fact.
Monet (1840–1926) visited London three times around the turn of the century. He stayed at the Savoy Hotel, from which he painted the nearby bridges. He also found a vantage point across the river from which to paint the Houses of Parliament. He would sketch out the smoky, intoxicating effects of light and then usually finish the canvasses at home in Giverny. (He liked to say that it took him long hours of labor to capture a fleeting moment.) He took little interest in the social bustle of the river. The Houses of Parliament seemed to represent nothing more to him than an interesting vertical. In that respect, Monet was a remarkably solipsistic artist, one who asked even Parliament, a symbol of the larger nation, to yield to the individual eye.
Which also makes me irritable. I wonder if Monet chose to paint Parliament partly because (like the face of a cathedral) it represented something large-minded—and he wanted instead to assert the private and idiosyncratic. In Monet’s later work, light dissolves every declarative form. Much as a meditating Buddhist will empty a moment of distractions, he created an enveloping atmosphere of visual rapture, one in which nothing was allowed to intrude upon the mind or interrupt the eye. The sensations created by such a sensibility are very pure—but also circumscribed. Monet was a radical artist who excised much. That’s partly why he is popular today: He created a paradise without metaphysical complications.
Well, the argument goes, shouldn’t paradise, of all places, be easy? Perhaps the best of all possible worlds will indeed finally arrive when Parliament melts magnificently in the eye. But I like an edgier Eden, one that does not entirely forget the difficulties of existence or the awkwardness of other people. I prefer the exquisite Dionysian ferocity of Matisse’s Dance I, which emphasizes communal release, to Monet’s passive bliss. Cézanne best described Monet: “He is only an eye—but, my God, what an eye.”