By Kevin O’Sullivan
It’s something I’m sure most of us have in common. In our lives we’ve spent millions of slow footsteps dodging the digital camera-wielding bus tourists and the unenthusiastic schoolchildren led around by stressed-looking teachers and harassed tour guides. We remember some of them. Others fade quickly into a mist of ‘did I see that?’ But only sometimes do we stop to think more deeply about what captures our attention and what turns a collection of paintings and artefacts into a memorable exhibition.
Should we be guided along in a thematic or chronological sequence? Do we prefer to be left alone? Lots or little text? How much background do we need? And what about interactive touch screens? Audio guides? Introductory films?
It is, of course, predominantly a matter of personal taste. When I go to a museum, I’m searching for an elusive property: the space to engage with the subject matter physically, but also just the right amount of information to make up my own mind about the subject matter in front of me. Whether that makes me typical or not, I have no idea, but I know that sometimes a curator can get it so right that it leaves everyone – consciously or not – with the sense that they’ve been allowed to see something special.
The Claude Monet retrospective which opened at Paris’s Grand Palais on 22 September does just that. Its content is a fitting testament to the brilliant career of a genre-defining artist. Drawn from galleries and private collections from Chicago and New York to Copenhagen and Lisbon, the exhibit encompasses the artist’s lengthy career, from his beginnings at Honfleur to his death in Giverny in the mid-1920s. Even in his later years, when cataracts destroyed his sight, Monet retained an astounding ability with colour – seen here in a set of paintings of waterlillies from his home at Giverny, and in their final glory at the specially-built Orangerie in the Tuileries gardens.
Yet there was more to Monet than the colourful haystacks or the lillyponds of Giverny. One of the exhibition’s most striking features is Monet’s role as a documenter of the changing landscape of modern Europe. In his paintings at Argenteuil and the station at Saint-Lazare , trains feature prominently. In Ice Floes on the Seine at Bougival, the smoke from distant factories serve as a reminder of France’s industrialising economy. His love of London and impressions of a fog-covered Thames say much of that city’s development in the late-nineteenth century.
The paintings, of course, are the stars here. If Impressionism is the people’s art, the galleries’ guaranteed hit-maker, then Monet is its Abba, churning out hit after technicolour hit, and consistently capable of bringing in the crowds. But equally striking is the strength of the medium, and the power of a well-constructed exhibition.
There are few galleries that can match the Grand Palais’ monetary resources and its space to put on a full retrospective of one of art’s greatest. There are few cities, too, where the ticketless will queue for more than an hour after work to have the pleasure. But a great exhibition is still a great exhibition. Here the full power of Monet’s work is subtly revealed by a chronological lay-out that magnifies the development of an artist learning to express his exceptional talent, often in awe-inspiring colour. No need to impose some false thematic division. Instead, we can see how repetition became a powerful device for the artist later in his career, allowing him to depict changes in light, shadow and season across twenty or more paintings of the same scene – those haystacks or the shifting views of the cathedral at Rouen.
And that, I think, is what makes a great exhibition: the ability to leave well enough alone, to avoid being too prescriptive, and to leave space for the viewer’s own interpretations. At each turn, we are briefly introduced to Monet the person, where he was, why he moved there, who his inspirations were. But then the paintings are quickly left to find their own voice in the mind if the viewer. It’s not an easy task by any means, and I’m sure – to misquote a phrase – it’s not easy to please all of the people, all of the time. But it worked for me.
Exposition Monet runs at the Galeries Nationales, Grand Palais, Paris, until 24 January 2011.