Monet: Impression Sunrise

I did not anticipate enjoying the exhibition ‘Monet, Impression, Sunrise’. The brut formalism of the National Gallery of Australia declares ‘monument, official,’ putting the brain on alert; raw concrete and the height of the galleries emphasise the decadence of any elaborate gilded frames. Here, works of wit or humour are declared important before they are funny.

‘Impressionism,’ ‘Monet’ – the words imply marketing, brand recognition; they remind the visitor that the bottom line is about entry fees and advertising and sales in the shop. In shows focussing on plein air painting, the pictures so often seem like wild animals in zoos, pining for their natural environment. And as with almost all public galleries, the subdued voices, the uniformed attendants render untouchable things that fall off easels in messy studios, are made among half-full glasses and crumbs and pets, with noise from neighbours or streets or children, smells from cisterns and from cooking.

The beautifully designed catalogue of the exhibition includes an essay by Marianne Mathieu, the Scientific Director of the Musée Marmottan Monet, and Curator Géraldine Lefebvre. In 1874 a critic’s sarcasm about Impression, Soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise) provided the description for the approach then adopted by the artist and his circle. At first the picture did not bear the historical weight it now carries as the ‘founding’ picture of Impressionism. Once its importance was claimed, questions arose: about where and when it was painted, where exhibited, its various owners. Mathieu and Lefebvre provide a riveting account of the competing claims and theories, of the research establishing where and when the picture was painted; it reads like a mystery novel.

The exhibition’s title doesn’t convey its depth, structure and variety. Yes, famous Monets are on show, and a Haystack, and a couple of Waterlilies – I’d thought I’d seen enough Waterlilies – but because the exhibition leads to them with graceful logic, through spaces that have just enough pictures, I was pleased to see them. There’s an atmosphere of calm, even happiness, as if you’ve come to see a new friend’s collection, and find they share your taste.

It’s not been marketed as a blockbuster. Curator Simeran Maxwell says, ‘We don’t use the term “blockbuster” now’, but it has more power than many an exhibition so described. It is scholarly and carefully considered. It comes to the NGA through the Musée Marmottan Monet. This elegant Parisian townhouse was given to the Academie des Beaux-Arts by Paul Marmottan together with his Empire and Haute Epoque collections. The Musée later accepted a collection from Victorine de Bellio, the daughter, and Eugene Donop du Monchy, the son-in-law of Paul Bellio, patron of Monet, who had added then-contemporary Impressionist works to his collection of old masters. Later Michel, Monet’s last living descendent, gave the Museum the Giverny house where Claude Monet painted his waterlilies, and his father’s remaining paintings.

The hang recalls and reflects these relationships. Works from the Marmottan collection are together in one space, those from the De Bellio Donop du Monchy can be seen in another. Impression, Sunrise is here surrounded by the works of Monet’s friends, artists who influenced him and those who paved the way for the Impressionist movement.

Other works from the Museum are exhibited; a bowl of jonquils and wallflowers by Ernest Quost, a Sisley, a Delacroix, and the NGA’s own Waterlilies (1914–17) and Haystack (1890), luminous after being cleaned for the show. More carefully sourced pictures add to the scene: Kerry Stokes’ Monet, Waterloo Bridge (1899-1901) and a Courbet; a Corot from the Art Gallery of South Australia. There are two Whistlers: the NGA’s Harmony in blue and pearl: The Sands, Dieppe (1885) and the AGNSW’s austere and powerful Nocturne in grey and silver, The Thames (1872). Adding work by Monet’s mentor Ernest Boudin, and his Dutch friend Johan Jongkind, whose work is not as celebrated, encourages another level of enjoyment and interest; pictures lose the air of masterpiece and become friendly.

The relationship between Marianne Mathieu, NGA Director Nick Mitzevich, and Carol Henry, CEO of Art Exhibitions Australia and their extended networks have also been crucial to the show. Other French galleries have loaned works, New Zealand galleries, the Tate, the Yale Centre for British Art. These lists may seem tedious, but I want to make the point that the show demonstrates how a network of curators, supported by donors, reflects the sort of contacts and links that bring artists and their supporters together in the first place.

With, surprisingly, the addition of an astrophysicist to this network, the essay about the picture’s date elegantly contextualises the personal in the period. Monet painted Impression, Sunrise in Le Havre, on return from a sojourn in London. The port was expanding at the time, to accommodate fast-growing trade, but it was obliterated in World War II. Maps from various French archives, engravings, photographs, postcards, the location of a chimney, an account from Stendahl and a painting by Boudin enabled reconstruction of the point of view rendered in Monet’s picture. But the date remained in question, and this is where astrophysicist Don Olson was able to assist.

An account of the scheduled port activity, and that the picture shows the new transatlantic lock-gate open, was used to confirm the sun is rising, not (as had been suggested) setting. Sunrise times, collated with lock opening times and meteorological reports, allowed Olson to propose ten-minute periods on two dates on which the smoke from the chimney in the picture was drifting to the right. Examination using infrared light established that, Impression, Sunrise was painted contemporaneously with other paintings in the ‘Impressionist’ show, and that it was painted on 13 November 1872.

The exhibition has scholarly and personal interest, and a range of pictures from slight sketches to masterpieces. I asked Simeran which one she’d take home – Monet’s Le Pont de L’Europe, Gare Saint-Lazare (1877). Yes, the brushstrokes brilliantly float ephemeral steam and a pale sky above the iron bridge while indicating an engine, a worker, the solidity of the buildings beyond. But this, and works like Les Tuileries (1876) are for me haunted by the academy. I’d have Impression, Sunrise any day. That’s if I had the option only of a Monet from the show. But Monet had come to Le Havre from London, where he’d looked at J.M.W. Turner.

Lucina Ward, in one of the catalogue essays which discuss each picture, remarks ‘J.M.W. Turner’s late paintings … are often regarded as precursors to modern art movements such as Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.’ But this show illustrates that if anyone provides impressions it is Turner. Perhaps because he goes beyond Impressionism, involving his viewer in the instant, the moment, his pictures clutch at the heart. This show celebrates Monet, collectors, artists, scholarship, connection. And it offers, inadvertently, an insight: J.M.W. Turner was not simply painting landscape: he was painting astrophysics.

Monet: Impression Sunrise
7 June – 1 September 2019
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

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