The theme of the garden, albeit considered as “naive” or “too middle class” for serious art, has nevertheless, been a place for constant experimenting, avant garde techniques and spiritual transcendence; and the exhibition of Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, makes a real splash of colours that creates a lasting impression in the audience. Yes, it is a “block buster” and it is difficult to navigate among the many people, who like us, are enthralled by the so well curated exhibition of gardens. As expected, the obvious star of the exhibition is Monet and the impressionists, who saw in the garden an excellent place for their capturing of light and impression. Although now we see the impressionists as “pretty” painters, we forget how revolutionary was to take to paint in plein air, to work not on the representation of a subject/object, but rather on the impression and the interplay between light, shade, colour, density and form.
At the same time, the exhibition shows the evolution of the garden as part of modern life and urbanisation, and the germination of an early environmental conscious in response to industrialisation. Art, as ever, had the capacity to transform such questions and concerns into the visible: either in paintings, letters or in the gardens themselves. It is so interesting to note how cities like London started to include gardens in their urban planning, cherishing sites of greenery as places for pleasure and spiritual renewal, also for social display and encounters. At the turn of the century, the expansion of the cities and the new suburban housing included the garden as a main feature in the new houses. As explained in the excellent Galery Guide (Ann Dumas), gardening, as the modern pursuit, had its origins in the end of the 19th century, and it allowed the “middle classes” to take to the garden as a source of aesthetic pleasure. The possibility of “taming” nature in the form of a contained garden became an initial practice (and still a very popular one as evidenced by perfectly manicured gardens, the evidence of “orderly” lives of middle classes of high morals…). Personally, I prefer the wild gardens, and this is perhaps the heritage of Irish gardener William Robinson, whose ideas were so relevant for the English garden but also in the creation of gardens in the continent.
The exhibition starts with paintings of the impressionists and Monet’s garden in Argenteuil, where he and his chums: Renoir, Pisarro, Manet and even the american John Sargent, met to explore the impression of light on nature. Monet had started to make some money from his art, and he spent most of it in the catalogues and seeds and flowers of this rented house in Argenteuil. In the exhibition, the colourful dahlias, a recent import from Mexico, show the fascination of French people with this extraordinary flower. As I have blogged before, Dahlias are specially important for me, and they symbolize creative energy and new beginnings. It is understandable that this was the first flower I decided to paint with my “fingers” using the digital application Brushes:
The attention to the garden is also helped by the growing imports of flowers and the proliferation of horticultural catalogues and floral displays in international fairs. New plant species, flowers and trees imported from the colonies were symbols of status and brought new sensations which artists were quick to grasp. But beyond the visual, gardens became also ways of expressing desires, hopes and anxieties. For the french gardeners, the resurgence of this pursue became a symbolic way of recovering after the tragic days of the Franco-Prussian war, and each of the artists in this section of the Impressionist Garden took a personal approach to ti For example, for Renoir, the untamed, wild garden was a sensorial feast and he played with textures, smells and foliage. For others like the anarchist writer Octave Mirbeu, the garden was his Utopia, and he claimed he “loves compost like one loves a woman”!
The allure of gardening is also present in other countries such as Spain, which had inherited the grandeur of the Islamic architecture and their love of gardens. A visit to la Alhambra is enough to remind us of the pleasures, sensuality and architectural design of the Spanish “patio”, a legacy that traveled to the American colonies and so present in my own life and history. And among those fantastic painters, the marvelous Joaquin Sorolla, has of course a key place in the exhibition. His gigantic work in his garden, shows the flowers and light of the Madrid sun. Some years ago we went to visit his house in Madrid with my adored friend Ana Maria Carreira, and the garden was of course, the place of delights and history. I managed to capture the song of the geraniums dancing in the shade…
The interplay of flowers and light goes beyond the representational aspects, and it is possible to see how the garden also have influenced new artistic movements such as fauvism and also abstract art. Here I painted Matisse’s table in his garden -probably in Vence- another place of exquisite beauty. Next to it, the palms of Raul Dufy, now that I am starting my project on palms, and I can see how the painter wrestle with the movement of this playful leaves, not always as “straight” as one may think!
But what is truly impressive is the spiritual journey of Monet in his paintings. From the orderly depiction of his dahlias in Argenteuil, to the more symbolic approach to the Chrysanthemums. It is possible to see how Monet weaved his own evolution as a painter but also as an spiritual being, through the paintings. For instance, the chrysanthemums are a highly regarded flower in Japanese culture, and Monet -as many other artists of his time- was a collector of the exquisite prints coming from the East.
And when you think, oh my god, I have seen it all already: I have dived into colour, being tickled with bees and flowers and smell. My eyes have been intimately estimulated by Nolde’s irisis, the majestic flower of germanic intensity. When you have seen the evolution of the garden with the Nabis and the decorative almost tactile quality of Bonnard and Vuillard medieval quilts, and you think, there is not so much after such orgasmic feast, then you are ready for transcendence….
So the last room is the feast of the Waterlilies, and you don’t know any more who you are, or why you got here, you are in the Eden -perhaps- and this is a garden or a water wall, and you dived in the early hours of the morning, with Monet’s old wise eyes, and you are waterlily and you are salvation and solitude. And your spirit simply rejoice in the layers of painting, of water, of sun, of light and colour, and the painting titillates with reflects of spirits and nymphs rocking in the lilies, and you don’t know who are you any more, or whether or not Monet’s could knew what was he painting… because then, he was one with the garden, he has gone through it all, the gardening itself, the intrigue, the architecture, the management, the pleasure, the search of the light of the impression, to become one with it, with all the creation, the return to Eden…