A Deft Nudge to the Ribs

To Piccadilly and escape from the hurly burly of traffic and pedestrians by dodging through one of the archways that leads to the comparative calm of the courtyard outside Burlington House. Then it’s straight ahead, past the ever so slightly camp statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy – in front of which he’s sited and into which I am headed. Once inside, it’s back to a sort of mild scrum and scuffle and the sense of confusion that arises when small crowds and queues intersect: buying tickets for the exhibitions; putting coats in the cloakroom; standing at the information desk; assembling groups of friends to go for tea in the members room; or, most demanding of all, dithering over the decision whether it’s best to attempt to climb the long, imposing staircase to get to the galleries or else go in search of the entrance to the lift, which can whisk one there without needing to exert quite so much physical effort. It’s all a bit chaotic but, of course, the mob here is frightfully well-behaved and, at the risk of expounding a chauvinistic cliché, everything feels quite comfortably self-restrained and cultivated and, sort of, terribly, er…British. So that even when I’m getting redirected out the way by a deft nudge to the ribs or craftily queue-jumped by some wily old bird who’s feigning deafness to get in front of me, every action is carried out with the kind of charming mock courtesy that encourages me to respond with an equally hypocritical fixed smile. And even though I can’t stop myself from automatically composing a string of protesting, exasperated expletives in full, 20-point emboldened capitals inside my head…by the time they’re getting ready to exit my mouth, I’ve self-consciously turned the volume control down so that there’s no danger of any actual fricatives being emitted that might disturb the consensus of polite acquiescence.

This majority of the crowd here is composed of what might be called female seniors – I guess the gender imbalance is about four-to-one, with most bearing a good few more wrinkles than I’ve managed to acquire and many walking a lot less steadily than I can still manage, although when it comes to hair…Anyway, they seem to me to represent a sterling example of the British middle and upper-middle classes at play. And if they’re all just a tiny bit flustered and excited, it’s excusable, as they’re on a day out and expecting to be entertained, and ever-so slightly intellectually elevated, by confronting some art – and Modern art at that. Well, Modern in a sort of strict, text book definition. Don’t worry, our not-very-monstrous-at-all regiment will be ok – there’s nothing here today at the Academy to frighten a pet labrador, let alone anything of an equine nature. There are no naughty, naked narratives or scary social commentaries to trouble the brow, nor any abstract silliness – everything here looks just like it’s meant to – and none of the artists is out to shock or do anything so bold, or in such bad taste, as to try to epater its audience. And even though all the art on display today is set outside the studio and in the open air, there are no awesome alpine spectacles to induce temporary vertigo or any fearsome examples of nature’s sublime fury to bring on an attack of the vapours. Smelling salts my safely be left at home for today’s topic is the wilderness tamed or, to be more specific, the phenomenon of the modern garden. The aim of the exhibition – which, I suppose you could say, it achieves in spades – is to examine how cultivated bits of greenery across Europe have been styled, shaped and turned into sanctities of serenity and colour, and then remodeled in oil on canvas by a range of artists over the past hundred years, from about 1860 onwards or, as the exhibition subtitle more enticingly phrases it, from Monet to Matisse.

It’s a wonder that the Academy’s marketing people managed to resist the temptation to add parentheses along the lines of (and don’t worry, there’s a lot more of the former than the latter), for the star of the show is very definitely that RA favourite, the thinking woman’s croissant, Claude Monet, both generally, and very particularly, when it comes to showing what he managed to achieve at Giverny. As is very well known, the Impressionist spent half a lifetime designing the layout of the gardens at this country retreat and then repeatedly recreating it in a range of different painterly representations, which have proved to be some of the most popular artistic creations of the last century. And even though I’m by no means a great fan of gardening – able to count the number of flowers I could name on the very un-green fingers of about one-and-a half hands – I still find looking at Monet’s flower arrangements hugely attractive. Whether it’s a simple cascading bed of purple irises or the more complex junction where the vertical lines of some green willow branches meet the horizontal plane of a soupy blue pond, on which float a dozen water lilies, and all is offset by the gentle curve of his famous Japanese footbridge…well, let’s just say that the combinations of colours and forms are very hard not to like.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of unambiguously untroubling, joyous kind of art is very popular and the exhibition is, as already suggested, very full of visitors but – congratulations to the curators – the displays are well laid out and there are no real problems getting to view all or any of the individual artworks. Of course, it probably helps that the vast majority of paintings on display are Impressionist so that, in most cases, they are better viewed from a distance and little is to be gained by going in for a close up snoop. As with all pixilated images, instead of the picture getting clearer at close quarters, the exact opposite happens and everything dissipates into individually meaningless flecks of paint. So, it makes sense to stand back a bit and enjoy these simple vistas of the natural world that have been so very carefully crafted by some very skillful painterly technicians.

If Monet, along with Renoir and Caillebotte, present the top end of the flower market, luxuriating in the ornamental extravagance of their showy, bourgeois spreads, then their Impressionist compatriot, the anarchist, Pissarro was decidedly more down to earth, in both senses of the phrase. And his scenes of Madame Pissarro, bending over to weed the cabbage patch, are pleasantly parochial rather than perfectly picturesque and definitely less suited to reproduce on the cover of the Christmas box of Quality Street. But if his choice of garden subject matter was somewhat modest, his technical facility was just as impressive as his French contemporaries. Not so some of the other less well-known names here: the Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla seems to have an equal struggle on his hands whether he’s trying to reproduce a bunch of splodgy blooms or his sitter’s fluffy dog; and the German Max Lieberman is equally disappointing. More surprising are the failings of the great Anglo-American John Singer Sargent. So deft at catching the sheen on the dress of a duchess in a candle-lit salon, he just can’t repeat the trick en plain air and for once his bravura strokes fail to spark when it comes to trying to gild an actual lily.

Thankfully, just as the unrelenting displays of florid, floral Impressionism start to overwhelm there is a brief documentary intermission with some racks of actual seedlings, a batch of horticultural textbook illustrations and some odd archival literature from Giverny. But then it’s straight back to more blooms and blossoms but this time from a mixed assortment of Post-Impressionists and Expressionists: Van Gogh, Matisse, Bonnard, Munch, Vuillard and Nolde show us their bucolic credentials but all appear in the shade, in comparison to what has come before. And, indeed, what comes after, for Monet is brought back once again to close the show. So we get to see the long-bearded gentleman, standing in front of his easel puffing a cigarette and painting a canvas, in a flickering black and white silent film, expecting at any moment that Charlie Chaplin will come along and tip him into his beloved water feature. And from this imagined vision of the ridiculous to the very real compositions of the sublime that close the show – two of the large, late paintings of water lillies on which Monet laboured so lovingly for so long. One of these comes from our own National Gallery while the other triptych has been reconstructed from canvases normally separated over three states in America. These are really, rather wonderful although, whisper it softly, for the full Monet shot, the absolute apotheosis of this series of floral tributes, it’s necessary to get the Eurostar to Paris and take a look at the permanent display at the Orangerie – an experience that should be on everyone’s garden bucket list.

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