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Monet at the National Gallery

By Raymond Aubin on November 2, 2015

Don’t look for soothing water lilies in the current Monet exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada. Subtitled A Bridge to Modernity, this series of 12 paintings bring together visions of war and visions of hedonism. Monet becomes a prophet of the contradictions of the 20th century, what we’ve called modernity.

Impressionist painters wanted to move away from monumental historical works. They developed plein-air execution in touch with their direct response to scenes, unpolluted by conceptual considerations. As a result, the size of the canvasses in this exhibition is relatively small compared to today’s standards. To appreciate the finesse of Monet’s work, it is imperative to move in close to the paintings. The colours are pastel, the light is ethereal and the brush stroke is flat and complex.

Claude Monet moved to Argenteuil, a small town down from Paris on the Seine, in 1871, following the Franco-Prussian War. By then, he had become wealthy enough to occupy a suburban house with a garden. Both Argenteuil bridges over the Seine, a carriageway bridge and a railway bridge, were under reconstruction. Monet executed the 12 paintings of A Bridge to Modernity from 1871 to 1875. They all represent scenarios that depict the bridges among laborious or leisurely activity along the Seine.

Claude Monet, The Port at Argenteuil, c. 1872, oil on canvas, 60 × 80.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

Claude Monet, The Port at Argenteuil, c. 1872, oil on canvas, 60 × 80.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.

Monet is an experimental innovator. Experimental painters put the emphasis on brush work and expression (all Impressionists were experimenters). The fact that he developed the theme of the Argenteuil bridges to such an extent is no accident. He believed in the expressiveness of the visual language and in the accumulation of viewpoints, never being satisfied, never thinking that his last painting could be the last word on Argenteuil. He was particularly focussed on capturing reflections in water. Walking through the show, it is well worth spending time comparing the paintings among themselves and noting differences and similarities, especially regarding composition.

Curator Anabelle Kienle Po?ka provides a lot of context around Monet’s paintings: artefacts from Argenteuil at the end of the 19th century, photos of destruction due to war, and a series of Japanese prints. Context is essential in understanding any work of art. One can imagine what was going on in Monet’s mind as he settled in his makeshift floating studio by the river. The Japanese prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai are particularly exquisite and striking. Starting in 1871, Monet became a collector of Japanese prints and their influence on his work is obvious. This is what was called Japonism.

Claude Monet, The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil, 1873, oil on canvas, 54.3 × 73.3 cm. The John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Claude Monet, The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil, 1873, oil on canvas, 54.3 × 73.3 cm. The John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Monet: A Bridge to Modernity runs until February 15, 2016. The lecture by Xavier Ray of the Musée d’Orsay in Paris is not be missed on Thursday, November 26, 2015.