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American Abstraction and the last Monet

It’s hard to imagine a world where Claude Monet would need “rehabilitation”. His Impressionist masterpieces are ubiquitous around the world. Nevertheless, his art was somewhat neglected shortly after his death in 1926: the art world then riding a Modern Art wagon of Cubism, Futurism and Suprematism, where lines reigned supreme.

Monet’s loose brushstrokes and impressionist blur was as rejected as the neoclassical style he himself fought against.

Claude Monet, Blue Water Lilies, 1916-1919, Musée de l’Orangerie

Yet his last works (and the very last above) bear the seeds of another path: the Path to Abstraction, specifically Abstract Expressionism and the New York School. This is the object of a focused exhibition, currently showing at the Musée de l’Orangerie, on until August 20.

Due his cataract affliction, Monet’s palette became much heightened in his late years.

Dark vivid red and purple, acid yellows and greens, all overwhelmed his compositions, leaving us with a singularly different vision of his much loved Giverny, seen distorted by his cataract eyes.

Yet what is also striking at the end of his life is the compositional change: a narrower focus on water reflections covers most of the expanse of any canvas, until the horizon line already raised up and up, fully disappears.

Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond (1900) at left of Rodin’s Eve, with Claude Monet, Water Lily Pond (1917/19) at right, Art Institute of Chicago.

I found the perfect visual illustration at the Art Institute of Chicago earlier this year.

At Musée de l’Orangerie, this is very clear with Japanese Bridge (1918): brushstrokes are directionally different, their very loose and fluid quality makes it almost hard to distinguish Monet’s much loved motif.

And perhaps that’s the point anyway, to show how much this has become an impressed emotion, a memory rather than an optical impression. More on this can be found on an earlier blog here.

At the same time, and paradoxically since his advanced age and vision problem, Monet starts the Grandes Decorations, these all-encompassing canvases into which any human being can lose him/ herself, but which also engulfed their own creator as his life drew to a close.

Claude Monet, The Water Lilies: Morning, Musée de l’ Orangerie

And in many ways, their size and composition definitely presage and inspired American Abstraction and the entire school of Abstract Expressionism painters.

There are actually many quotes where Abstract Expressionist painters overtly recognize being inspired by Monet’s Nympheas. Breaking down the many fine and invisible brushstrokes of neoclassical painting was more than leaving space between the paint, the Impressionists actually opened a door into a different art: theirs but also an entire school and generation after them, those who would tread and reach their own path towards abstraction in a more accomplished way than Monet ever did.

So where Monet and Neoclassical paintings were about a full break, Monet and Abstract Expressionist artists are more about continuity than outright rejection. The exhibition retraces such painterly process and visual experimentation.

Willem De Kooning, Villa Borghese (1960) at Musée de l’Orangerie.

First, how about blowing up brushstrokes out of any proportions? De Kooning made great use of these huge canvases, playing with macro brushstrokes for his “parkway” landscape.

Mark Rothko, No. 22 (1948) at Musée de l’Orangerie

Looking at Rothko’s early works, his brushstrokes were loosened in a more Impressionist way than his future color field technique betrays.

In a way, Staining and Color Field paintings were the full dissolution of any figurative elements, focusing on color theory and thinly built-up layers. Helen Frankenthaler, Rothko but also Morris Louis took this technique to breathtaking depth of expressionism.

Yet I wonder how much they owe to Marie Laurencin’s influence?

Marie Laurencin, Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel (1923), Musée de l’Orangerie

Then came musicality and a very directional approach to brushwork: Joan Mitchell epitomizes this very well. This installation next to Monet’s Japanese Bridge (1918-24) speaks louder than words.

Claude Monet, The Japanese Bridge (1918-24) next to Joan Mitchell, Untitled (1967)

Until rhythm reached yet another level with Pollock dripping it into his action painting. Yet I’d rather stay with Joan Mitchell for a while longer…

Joan Mitchell, The good-bye door (1980)

This exhibition bodes the question of influence, progression and continuity. If Monet’s own style progression carried the seeds of Abstraction, who carried the seeds of Impressionism?

When I studied Impressionism, Velasquez was often quoted as visual trigger to Manet, in particular his Pablo de Valladolid.

Yet having spent a good amount of my time reading about Titian lately, his late style of loose and broken brushstrokes could already be construed as Impressionist, all the way back in the 1550’s. Titian even used finger paintings, perhaps again in an early gestural proto-modernist painting¹.

Art is never an isolated phenomena: it is nourished and enriched by Art History as the Musée de l’Orangerie beautifully illustrates with this exhibition until August 20.

© 2018 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.


¹ Nichols, T. Titian and the End of the Venetian Renaissance (2013), p.150-153

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