It goes with the stereotype – berets, baguettes, a stripy T-shirt and a French painter sitting with his easel beside the Seine. The French know how to do art. It is a country overflowing with culture and cuisine, tantalising our taste buds with wonders such as the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. We have come to expect grandeur and magnificence from this country so full of strikes and frogs; thus any rumour of an exhibition, be it of art or otherwise, is ushered in by a wave of anticipation. In true French style, with the Monet exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris, we are not disappointed.
Born in 1840, Claude Monet is one of France’s most acclaimed artists. Credited as being a “Father of Impressionism” his beautiful oil landscapes are world renowned, most notably those of his garden in Giverny. He is the creator of more than 2,000 magnificent paintings inspired by nature both on his doorstep and across the globe – Paris, Normandy, London, the Mediterranean. Studying under the tutelage of Eugène Boudin, Monet learned to capture a moment of time on the canvas, mastering the changing light and the subtle nuances of the seasons. It was common for him to return to each scene of beauty again and again, in order to faithfully portray it in every stage of its splendour.
The exhibition at the Grand Palais is a jubilant celebration of Monet’s extraordinary talent. Thirty years since such an exhibition was dedicated to this deserving artist, it comes as no surprise that more than 80,000 tickets were sold online in the five month run-up to the grand opening at the end of September. Commissioned by Guy Cogeval, President of the Musée d’Orsay, and a team of four specialists including Richard Thomson from the University of Edinburgh, this retrospective collaborated with art museums and private collections across the world in order to bring together 174 of Claude Monet’s works of wonder in one spectacular building. The public response has been overwhelming: with around 300 visitors every half hour and more than 6,500 spectators a day, visiting the exhibition can be an exercise in patience.
The actual exhibition space is surprising. Orchestrated by Hubert Le Gall, the gold gilded canvases stand out from the warm tones of the freshly painted walls. Whilst this meant all attention was drawn to the paintings on display, I was slightly disappointed that the exhibition was held in such a modern space and thus contained none of the anticipated grandeur of the Grand Palais. It could have been held anywhere: a basement, a converted barn – the only difference would be that the entrance fee would be less!
However Le Gall’s sequential arrangement of the exhibition merits attention. Displayed in both a chronological and a geographical order (apart from the thematic sections of still life and figures), this layout allows the spectator to trace the development of Monet’s work all the way from his boyish beginnings in Normandy through to his famed garden in Giverny. The story of his life unfolds through his work. This is illustrated in transitions from room to room, such as the bustling images of the Parisian train stations followed by the winter paintings of 1880. Whilst the former are vibrant and exploding with colour, the latter are bleak, sombre and devoid of joy, reflecting the melancholic depression into which Monet fell after the death of his first wife Camille the year before. Here, his art gives birth to emotive expression, creatively exploited by Le Gall and his team of designers.
Yet this ingenious presentation would not have been possible if it wasn’t for the collaborative efforts of the Board of Commissioners with other museums and private collectors across the world. The number of paintings that have travelled to the Grand Palais from England, America and further afield is impressive. As I previously mentioned, Monet habitually returned to the same scene on several occasions in order to capture it in every change of light. This is demonstrated to the public on many occasions through a subtle sourcing and presentation of two almost identical canvases. For example, Le Pont du Chemin de Fer, Argenteuil, 1874 appears in duplicate, side by side – the sole paintings hanging on a stretch of dark green wall. One bursts with midday sunlight, the other a more sombre recollection of an overcast sky. The helpful little notice in the corner informs us that one hails from the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the other from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. It is frequent presentations such as these that so beautifully demonstrate Monet’s incredible ability to truly see the world around him.
The brilliance of Monet is that you do not have to be an art historian to understand his work or to appreciate his genius. I am not an artist – I have never studied history of art and my own drawings are not much greater than flowers or stick people, but I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition at the Grand Palais. Perhaps it’s something to do with my limited knowledge of the art world, but I find there is something dangerously attractive about the work of the Impressionists, much more so than the works of art displayed in the Louvre. Whether you are able to interpret the subtle imagery hidden in the corner of a canvas or simply think that the picture is pretty, this exhibition is well worth a visit.
Whilst explanations accompany each section and are multilingual, the descriptions are often brief and not always conclusive. For those interested, I highly recommend getting the audio guide to walk around with. Whilst it will cost you 5€ (this is Paris after all), it greatly enriches the experience by providing invaluable insight into the life and passions of the artist. It gives anecdotes and explanations, bringing the art work to life. I found that I appreciated the art even more when I understood the motivation behind its creation. Guided tours are also available, and whilst these are enlightening, they are perhaps more restricting for those who wish to marvel at their own pace.
So if you find yourself in Paris before 24th January, go to the Grand Palais. Whilst the reduced rate of €8 is still rather straining on the student budget, the beauty of Monet’s work in the exhibition is worth every centime.