The Unknown Monet at the Royal Academy of Arts
By Ashley Eldridge-Ford in London
Having spent the weekend in the country surrounded by boggy fields frolicked in by new-born lambs, and having donned DWWs (Dog Walking Wellies), I left little time for my weekend museum/gallery visit. On my list to review and rather fortuitously at the end of my working street, I popped across to the Royal Academy (returning once again to the same institution I visited last week may seem a little uninspired on my part, but, thankfully, the shows are very different) to see 'The Unknown Monet' exhibition in the Sackler Wing of Galleries. Having read a rather disparaging review of the exhibition by one of our national daily newspaper critics, I was preparing myself for a fairly uneventful show. Bearing in mind that the last exhibition of Monet's work I saw was at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in 2003, which was truly fantastic, the prospect of looking at a collection of his pastels and drawings from between 1857 - 1901 seemed a little like second best compared to the luminous, colourful, lively paintings I had previously studied closely.
Most fascinating at the beginning of the exhibition are a collection of Monet's first money earning commissions: caricature. A very surprising selection due to my having had no knowledge of Monet's output of this variety in his early years. One, in particular, stands out, 'Caricature of Jules Didier, 'Butterfly Man'' (c.1858). A painter and lithographer who specialised in historical landscapes and animal subjects, Didier has been portrayed in profile with fuzzy bewhiskered cheeks, unimaginably (and enviously) long eyelashes, and elongated delicate nose, like that of a neurotic sommelier, with the floundering body of a butterfly supporting the head's weight. Like a balloon hovering, a string runs from the hybrid butterfly-man into what at first appears to me the mouth of a lively dog but which, on closer inspection, transpired to be the hands of a female centaur, if such a creature were possible. I would never have envisage this piece as belonging in Monet's oeuvre. The remainder of images in the first room were part of landscapes around Le Havre - an alley of trees, a water mill, cliff faces.
In the second room the first sketch is a black and white chalk study of a female figure ('Figure of a Woman (Camille)', c.1865). Her thick hanging skirts, smart fitted jacket, the tapering ribbons falling from her hair are elegant additions to a figure who stands with her shoulders rounded and a wistful expression on her face, turned from the viewer. She is repeated alongside this study in a painted study for 'Luncheon on the Grass' entitled 'Bazille and Camille' (c.1865). The two figures stand in a glade of shadow, awkwardly together, the gentleman reaches over to tentatively touch the arm and attention of mademoiselle Camille (is this Monet's attempt to communicate his feelings or his shyness to Camille - his future wife - during their courting period?). What is quite striking in this painted study is the luminosity of the floodlit grass behind and a sliver between them. This is the first sight, in this exhibition, of where Monet intends to take his palette. The light explodes around the two figures in a halo of pale green with white and yellow hues.
Moving from this to Monet's 1863 'Farmyard in Normandy' it is possible to see the incredible transition that has taken place in two years, the palette here is dull browns and dark greens, the subject matter a quiet farmyard but what is interesting to see is, even at this early stage, the loosening flickers of his paintbrush representing the leaves on the trees and the black lightning streaks of the branches cutting diagonally into the canvas from the upper right hand side.
In the pastel 'Sainte-Andresse, View Across the Estuary' (c.1865-70), his hand has freed up and the long grasses fall over themselves silkily diagonally down the slanted cliff in a mass of greens. The next pastel ('Yport and the Falaise d'Aval', c.1861)is more formal, rigid and staid with a darker palette; there is no indication of light or fluidity as in the preview pastel. To see an artist really grappling with his own style and use of colours whilst learning to capture light is truly fascinating. Where we once more are given a glimpse of what is to come is in 'Towing a Boat, Honfleur' (1864). In this oil on canvas (for they are not all, as is indicated by the subtitle of the exhibition, pastels and drawings) the striking colours of a sunset striate across a darkening cloud bank hovering over the bay. The light brings to mind Monet's 'Impression: Sunrise' of 1872, which gave the critics the terminology to label him an 'impressionist'.
Monet returned to Etretat after decades of absence in 1885 and created more than fifty canvases and an exceptional group of pastels such as the 1885 'The Cliff and the Porte d'Aval, Etretat' where the brushstrokes are free but heavy with thick heavy dabs of paint. He is using a thicker brush than he goes on to use in slightly later paintings. The sea is a choppy palette of greens, blues and whites, the cliffs in pinks, greens and blues in the sunlight and whites, greys and blues in the shadow. In the second painting hung here of the cliffs he is using less paint, a thinner brush and his representation of light is more sculpted as we come to know it. The shadows remain an unworked on uncertain mass of greys and darker blues. What is interesting is that is the black and white drawings executed along the coast, one can see his representation of the structure of the cliffs, rock face and shore. It makes the later development of his use of light all the more marvellous for it becomes a beautiful cloak or an haute couture gown that emphasises to good effect the existing structure beneath.
Monet's sketchbooks in room three are an extraordinary souvenir of all he saw and chose to draw from for his paintings. His hand seems to have been rarely idle. By around 1883 his sketching begins to look towards his handling of his paintbrush and his chosen subject matter, such as in 'View of Rouen' (1883) where the tall poplars resemble Giacometti figures, the clouds a shaky mass and the reflections of Rouen and its cathedral obfuscating the stillness of the water. There is a beautiful and delicately vulnerable sketch of two grain stacks that appear to tremble upon the field on which they stand. These are the soft feeble structures on which Monet went on to project his dazzling pink and blue hues in his grain stack series in the late 1880s - 1890s.
Monet visited London on three occasions between 1899 and 1901 with the intention of creating a series of views across the river Thames. Whilst waiting for his painting materials to arrive he made a series of pastels. Staying in the Savoy Hotel he executed twenty pastel views upstream to Charing Cross Bridge and downstream to Waterloo Bridge. The results are a startling series of candyfloss pastels that look as though the colours and views will disintegrate at any given moment, like mist evaporating as the day warms up. The sweet colours - pale blues, peach, lemon yellow and ice white - is enough to satisfy any sweet tooth.
It is a charming exhibition and a really wonderful introduction to the 'other side' of Monet - the working artist whose images are developing in terms of style, brushwork, structure and colour, most importantly. In the final room are two paintings of his waterlilies and they pale in comparison in my interest levels due to the over-familiarity of the subjects. It is these unseen works, the unexpected subject matter, style and technique in an artist who has become best known from over-exposure on tourist and exhibition marketing souvenirs, that makes the exhibition and the work itself truly unique. Redemption is sweet indeed.