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Drawing a Line Between Monet and Abstraction in Paris

Claude Monet, "Le Pont japonais, (The Japanese Bridge)," 1918-1924, oil on canvas, 73x100 cm Huile sur toile, 73 x 100 cm
(Private collection, courtesy of Blondeau & Cie, Genève Photo : © Studio Sebert, Paris)

Even after the American Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchell moved so close to Claude Monet’s former home in Giverny that she was able to overlook both it and the Avenue Claude Monet, she largely refused to admit her interest in him. Whether she was being ironic or not has been hard to tell, as when she continually referred to him in her 1991 interview with Deborah Solomon as “Monet,” rhyming it with “bonnet,” while also firmly telling Solomon, “I bought this house because I liked the view, not out of any love for Monet.”

But walking into the exhibition “The Water Lilies. American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet” at the Orangerie Museum in Paris, it is Mitchell’s seven-meter, multi-paneled “The Goodbye Door” that welcomes you first; and, from formal, spatial, and color standpoints, it is irrefutably indebted to Monet. One of her greatest achievements, the painting appears like a door, slightly ajar, allowing for a quick glance into a blossoming, lush garden — not unlike the view she might have had from her home in Vetheuil — while its gestures (aggressive) and even its intentions (to evoke a feeling rather than to record a place) are deeply similar to Monet. The question of whether she felt a kinship with him seems to have been put to rest.

 It is not only Mitchell, though, who took from Monet; it is, as the exhibition’s curator and the director of the Orangerie Museum, Cecile Debray, so successfully shows, the entirety of the American Abstract Expressionist movement that might be seen to derive from the Frenchman’s work.

“In Monet we find a world of art with the variety and spaciousness and ease of a world,” wrote the critic Clement Greenberg in “American-Type Painting,” his seminal essay first published in Partisan Review, which serves to anchor this exhibition.

For decades, critics and the public alike largely derided Monet’s water lily paintings. They were neither avant-garde nor realist and thus seemed implacable within any historical context. Installed first in Paris in 1927, then shut away after bomb damage from the Second World War in 1944, Monet’s water lilies were largely ignored until Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, purchased one for the museum in 1955.

That same year, Greenberg drew a parallel between Monet and Abstract Expressionism in “American-Type Painting,” challenging the existing notion that it was Paul Cezanne’s flat, daubed paintings that were the conduit to Modernism and Expressionism. It had always been assumed that Cezanne’s work led to Cubism but within this idea it had also been implicit that through Cezanne came Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Mark Rothko, and other Abstract Expressionists. But with a Monet now installed at MoMA, Greenberg rightly contested this idea.

“As the Cubists resumed Cezanne, Still has resumed Monet,” Greenberg wrote.

Even a decade earlier, in 1944, Barnett Newman had been on to something similar, writing, “[Cezanne] did not trigger the so-called modern art revolution. The credit goes to the Impressionists. They freed artists from the influence of the Renaissance and its academic aftermath, providing the world with far more than a new arsenal. They freed artists from the shackles of traditionalism.”

Still earlier than that, the French critic Roger Marx, writing in La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, perceived Monet’s Modernist genius in June 1909. “Here the painter has deliberately distanced himself from the dominance of the western tradition: he does not seek out lines which form a pyramid or draw the eye to a single focal point,” Marx wrote: “everything that is fixed and unchanging seems to him to run counter to the very principle of fluidity; he wants our attention to be diffuse and dispersed in all directions.”

Looking back on it, Monet’s influence on Abstract Expressionism might seem clear, but the exhibition at the Orangerie completes the rarely tried task of plainly drawing the link.

Monet spent his career moving painting away from what might be considered “sculptural drawing” and toward what Greenberg termed both “area drawing” and having an “all-over quality.” In the current exhibition, on until August 20, Debray has selected ten Monets and 20 works by American Abstract Expressionists, which show the manifold affinities between the Frenchman and the New York-based artists.

There is, firstly, the use of the canvas for action and abrupt gestures, but there is also that “all-over” composition Greenberg pointed out, not to mention the sheer grandeur of the works so that looking at Monet’s water lilies or, say, a painting by Pollock, provides a similar feeling of falling into an abyss — an existentially charged experience caused by the artists’ similarly flat spatial choices.

            Specifically, in Monet’s “The Weeping Willow,” his dynamic, curving lines create the perception of a tree rather than of the tree itself, not unlike Pollock’s “The Deep,” to which Monet’s painting is placed near, which uses clashing, colorful, interwoven lines that create the feeling of multidimensionality with a two-dimensional space. Side-by-side videos of both Monet and Pollock in the act painting show how their physicality and movement was deeply similar as well — mostly: aggressive, hard, abrupt strokes to create non-geometric, energetic paintings.

Rothko, who said, “We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth,” regarding the Abstract Expressionists, has one of his paintings “Blue and Gray” in the exhibition — a silver and gray rectangle composition that looks not unlike a pair of winter lily pads. Likewise, Still’s harsh slashes — like a jagged version of a Newman “zip” painting — in “1965 (PH-578)” again resound with the same spatial and dimensional nature of Monet’s water lilies.

In Helen Frankenthaler’s large-scale, four-meter-wide “Riverhead,” whose colors appear to have been washed out, the painting looks as though it had been submerged, its blue, orange, and purple oils turned to watercolors. And in Morris Louis’ “Vernal,” his greens and golds are streaked and dripping, coming to appear similarly thin and transparent, like Frankenthaler’s colors but also like the green reflections in Monet’s painted ponds.

            The end of the exhibition is the reason the show could only be done at the Orangerie; walking upstairs, one ends on Monet’s massive, wall-bending water lilies, which now come to appear not simply beautiful but also brimming with fresh significance. As an originator and progenitor of Abstract Expressionism, a single Frenchman influenced all of mid-century American art and, eventually, the world with only a water lily.

"The Water Lilies. American Abstract Painting and the Last Monet" is on view at l'Orangerie in Paris through August 20.  More information: http://www.musee-orangerie.fr 

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