Art review: Monet & Architecture, National Gallery, London

The Doge's Palace, 1908
The Doge's Palace, 1908
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As Richard Thomson, curator of Monet & Architecture, remarked at the press view for the exhibition, at first sight the title sounds counter-intuitive. On the one hand Monet was first of all a landscape painter and on the other the formalities of architecture seem scarcely to fit the art of atmosphere and dissolving light he pioneered. If you accept that architecture can mean often quite humble buildings, however, then the show makes wonderful sense. The first part covers Monet’s career from the 1860s to 1890s. The paintings include, sometimes quite inconspicuously, churches, houses, bridges, villages, city streets and a railway station. In most of the 70 or so pictures, people are either insignificant or altogether absent, unless implied in a building or buildings. These are not just compositional devices, however, nor merely accidental. Standing for time and history, for modernity, for the human presence, even for personal association, they open up Monet’s subject matter in unexpected ways.

Monet & Architecture, National Gallery, London *****

Monet is regarded so much as an original, not heir to past traditions but the starting point for new, that it is a surprise to find him following tourists to the picturesque, the daily bread of so many lesser painters, but in Holland in 1871 he painted orange-sailed windmills and picturesque gabled houses. The church at Vetheuil where he moved with his family in 1879 was also a classic artist’s subject. He painted it from the street, but it also provides a satisfyingly picturesque profile for the town from across the river with its reflection dancing in the shimmering water in the summer of 1879, or again that winter when the river was filled with ice. But there is personal association too, for it was in Vetheuil that his wife Camille died.

Dealing with the historic or the picturesque, Monet could however also be very understated. In 1872, for instance, he painted Rouen Cathedral reflected in the waters of the Seine. Two years later Sail Boats at Petit-Gennvilliers is a classic impressionist scene of leisure activity on the river. Both pictures are perfect essays in reflective tranquillity, but there is scarcely any difference in emphasis between the great gothic church in the one and the sailing boat in the other. He could, however, also make drama from such subject matter. The striking medieval church of Varengeville perched on the Normandy cliffs was subject of a series of paintings in 1882. In one of them, seen from below, the church stands atop a sheer cliff, but anticipating his later work, this wall of rock is eroded by the light. In another picture, the church itself dissolves in pink and blue. A pair of feathery trees silhouetted in the foreground seem more solid.

Clearly subject matter mattered to Monet. Appropriate sentiment is not underlined as in so much 19th century painting, but it is there nonetheless as the ancient church dissolves in the light, or when, in one related picture, a humble little building nearby, semi-derelict but a human presence all the same, is dwarfed by the mighty cliffs and the open sea beyond. If, like Turner, Monet here sets puny humanity against the vastness of time and nature, like Turner too he was equally ready to embrace modernity with enthusiasm. As Trouville on the Channel coast blossomed into a holiday resort, he painted new buildings along its seafront, not as an intrusive presence, but as a bright epitome of modern life. He also celebrated the modern city, although here again there can be a deeper subject. In a glorious view of the Boulevard des Capucines, one of Paris’s wide new streets, for instance, sunlight and shadow split the picture diagonally in two; all human bustle dwarfed by nature’s grand simplicity.

The Gare St-Lazare painted from inside the train shed looking out has no such ambiguity. Architecture really is the frame for this picture and it is emphatically modern. Steam from the engines curls up to the roof. No mock gothic fancy dress here, the building is simply iron and glass, static complement to the dynamic iron and steam beneath. If this is Monet’s answer to Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed, he does not contrast modernity to nature as Turner does. The modern is the whole story. He also gives us a more sombre image of modernity, however, when he paints men heaving coal up narrow gangways from a barge in The Coal Workers. The iron arch of a bridge with traffic passing on the roadway above frames the composition linking the coalmen’s toil with liberty and progress. Like William Bell Scott’s heroic Coal and Steel, Monet here is overtly political, but unlike Scott, his modernity is also expressed in the apparent informality of his painting, although in fact he reconnoitred his motifs with care and thought too of his market. Even with this picture he had a potential client in view. He also uses a bridge as a framing device in the beautiful Wooden Bridge at Argenteuil. In the calm, grey light of early morning, the bridge’s arch and its reflection make a circle and the traffic hurrying across the bridge are repeated inverted the water. The bridge was a temporary structure put up after the old bridge was destroyed in the Franco-Prussian war and so this elegiac study of improvised engineering also tells a story.

In the last two rooms the show changes gear. Here are three groups of paintings from Monet’s three great series, of Rouen Cathedral, of London and of Venice. These rooms alone should make the trip to see this show a must. Here great buildings really are the theme. Nevertheless, in Venice, The Doge’s Palace is scarcely more substantial than its reflection in the dancing water of the Venetian Lagoon. In the rainbow light of sunset, the great dome of the Church of the Salute seems an ethereal emanation from the Grand Canal, as iridescent and as transient as a soap bubble. In London, the Houses of Parliament dissolve into the Thames in flaming, coloured light as though the fire that destroyed the buildings they replaced still blazed. The patterns of light and shadow on great, gothic facade of Rouen Cathedral make its stonework look as eroded as if it had stood for millennia in some sandblown desert.

This really is Monet painting architecture, but architecture dissolved in light as eventually it will dissolve in time. No-one had painted it this way before unless it was Turner, but even that comparison only underlines Monet’s modernity. History, grandeur, the rise and fall of political power, hinted at in the first part of the show, are now directly and dramatically evoked, but Monet goes beyond that too. Especially in the Rouen paintings, time is both implicit in the age of the building and explicit in the sequence painted as the sun moved across the facade. lts solid stone dissolving in light, it is as though Monet is anticipating his younger contemporary, Einstein, intuitively seeing space and time, light and matter elide, bound together by some mysterious, dynamic equation.

Until 29 July