As museum-goers, it seems we can never get enough French Impressionist painting -- or at least that art museum curators and directors think we can't. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is giving us another opportunity to test that proposition with the exhibition "Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River," on view through February 1.
The premise of the show is straightforward: Claude Monet (1840-1926), the artist who is perhaps the pre-eminent Impressionist, was born in Paris, through which flows the Seine; he grew up in the Normandy port city of Le Havre, at the mouth of the river; and for most of his life, he lived and painted in one place or another along the river -- including Giverny, made famous by his presence -- taking the river and its banks as the subject of countless paintings or at least the framework for them (more about that later).
According to the catalog for the show, it's surprising that no previous exhibition has focused squarely on this aspect of his inspiration and output, given the pervasive presence of the Seine in Monet's work. Well, maybe. Or maybe it was just so self-evident that there seemed to be no need to float a whole exhibition on the river alone. Either way, this exhibition does float explicitly up and down the Seine -- a name whose sound alone brings joy to the heart, thanks in part to Monet -- through 50-plus beautiful paintings made over almost 40 years.
Some of the early works, like Towing a Boat, Honfleur (at the mouth of the river, just across from Le Havre), from 1864, proto-Impressionist and hardly looking like Monets at all, serve as interesting comparisons with later ones, like the 1878 Banks of the Seine at Lavacourt -- fully Impressionist, the ones we recognize instantly as his, done after he'd literally floated and painted the river for many years -- literally, because he fitted up a boat with a painting studio so that he could work in the middle of the Seine.
There are masterpieces in the show -- Argenteuil of 1875, with its two red boats front and center, and The Seine at Lavacourt of 1880, among them. Some others are from Monet's second rank, but even those are more compelling than most other paintings ever done.
Though in a literal sense Monet took the Seine and its banks as the subject for all these paintings, he wasn't primarily interested in the river as a river. That he painted this particular river, with its unique light, topography and vegetation, undoubtedly did affect the results. But mostly he was striving to capture the effects of light and color as transformed by nature through days and seasons. He painted places because in his day, artists still did that. The radical idea of paintings without subjects was still a few decades away.
But really, Monet had essentially already got there, and so through his series paintings (haystacks, cathedrals, water lilies) he could make subjects moot by repeating them time after time as he explored the abstract qualities of light and color he was really after -- a process described by Richard Brettell, one of the catalog authors for the current show, in a lecture at MFAH a few years ago when we had the French paintings from the National Gallery in Washington, DC, on loan.
Of all the series, the one called "Mornings on the Seine" is to my eye the most sublime and at the same time exhilarating. According to the exhibition wall text, we have the largest number of this series to be reunited anywhere since its first exhibition in 1898. I remember as one of my earliest art--viewing epiphanies a gallery including paintings from "Mornings on the Seine" in a Monet exhibition at the Saint Louis Art Museum almost 40 years ago. How thrilling to see them again.
Thrilling but also a little disconcerting, because it's almost as though I've been transported back through those 40 years to repeat that exhibition, perhaps with some differences in content and emphasis -- differences that to specialists may seem major but to those of us who are just exhibition--goers are less apparent. With that in mind, and understanding that there are always new generations who deserve their chance at a Monet epiphany like the one I had back then, I have to wonder if this exhibition was really necessary -- if it was really the best use of scarce museum curatorial and financial resources?
To its credit and the credit of its curators, "Monet and the Seine" is a show with its own story to tell. It's not just another of those our-great-paintings-on-loan-to-you-so-that-we-can-make-some-money exhibits that have become so prevalent. And whenever I can see 50 Monets simply by driving across town and paying the ticket price, asking such a question verges on bald-faced ingratitude. I know that.
But I ask the question because here in Houston we've seen so much French Impressionism over the years. In a piece I wrote last year when the French paintings from the Clark Museum came to town, I wondered if we'd have to wait a year for our next show of French Impressionism. As it happens, we didn't: We had to wait only ten months.
French Impressionist paintings are wonderful, but there's so much else to see as well, so much that we don't get to see because we see so much of them. In previewing the upcoming museum season around the country, New York Times art critic Roberta Smith noted "Monet and the Seine" at MFAH as "This year's inevitable Impressionist exhibition..." Ouch. Not the sort of characterization you hope to read in the national press about your premier exhibition of the season, I suspect, if you're a museum director or curator. Also not the sort I like to read as a devoted MFAH-er.
Perhaps we shouldn't swallow Smith's comment whole, since The New York Times has a love/hate relationship with Houston that's often light on the love. Still, such a comment from an eminent source is worth considering. What else might we have seen this fall but for the inevitability of Impressionism? Maybe something as groundbreaking as last year's Antonio Berni or American Adversaries shows? Or, if it must be Impressionism, maybe something as eye-opening as "German Impressionist Landscape Painting: -Liebermann-Corinth-Slevogt" of 2010?
But what-might-have-been for this year is daydreaming. We go to the museum with the exhibition we have, and we have Monet. We have him, that is, if we can find just the right angle from which to view him. Otherwise, we have reflection and glare.
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Unfortunately for us and for Monet, the show is installed in the museum's Upper Brown Pavilion in the Caroline Wiess Law Building. Though I've enjoyed other shows in this reconfigured space, for this show it's completely unsuitable. The white gallery walls do the paintings no favors. Inadequate lighting in the vast space leaves too many of these smallish works too dimly lit. Outside light pouring through double-story windows reflects off the glass that covers many of the paintings and makes finding a spot from which to see the paintings, and not the reflections, difficult -- in some cases impossible. It precludes the joy of a panoramic sweep around a whole gallery from a single spot. How wonderful that would have been with those meticulously reunited "Mornings on the Seine." And how disheartening to have to spend so much time ducking and weaving in front of, to the side of, across the room from paintings to get a glimpse of them.
Why this show is installed where it is, while the special exhibition galleries in the Beck Building sit empty, is a mystery. And it's a mistake. In a stroke of reviewer's good luck (or was it bad?), I started the week in which I saw "Monet and the Seine" by seeing two splendidly installed Impressionist exhibitions in Paris -- "Impression, soleil levant: L'histoire vraie du chef-d'oeuvre de Claude Monet" at the Musée Marmottan Monet and "Paul Durand-Ruel: Le pari de l'impressionnisme Manet, Monet, Renoir" at the Musée du Luxembourg -- that made the flaws of the installation here particularly glaring.
Still, you must see the show. Whenever Monet comes to town, it's a good idea to find time for him. And who knows? It could be a whole ten months till our next Impressionist exhibition.
"Monet and the Seine: Impressions of a River" Through February 1, 2015. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7300, mfah.org.