The charm of Impressionism was that it allowed a great deal of artistic freedom and expressiveness without losing touch with realism. A good Impressionist painting allows us to recognize a scene, while encouraging us to see it in new ways. This quality of blending the real with something more ethereal and escapist also seems to have been present in the lifestyles of the American artists featured in the Bukamura’s “Monet and the Artists of Giverny” exhibition. Just like expats here in Japan, many of these artists found a freedom in France that they couldn’t at home.
The way the exhibition has been organized, using Claude Monet’s name power to bring in the crowds, curiously echoes the story that the exhibition tells.
In 1883 Monet moved to the small village of Giverny near the banks of the lower Seine in northern France. Over the following years leading up to World War I, a total of around 300 artists went there to paint. Some settled permanently or for a few years, most just stayed for the summer season. Of these, more than 70 percent were Americans. The village, in effect, became an American art colony centered round the great French Impressionist, who continued to live here, developing his lily ponds and water garden, painting them until his death in 1926.
For these Americans, Giverny was a kind of comfortable compromise between the artistic ideal of immersion in French rural life, something that most of them were not really suited for, and their more practical needs. The town’s sole hotel, the Hotel Baudy soon learned to accommodate the outsiders and make them feel at home, offering English tea and pudding and Boston baked beans.
The exhibition uses Monet as a kind of framing device. The first section presents a few Monets alongside works by American artists that echo them, although often the echoing is merely because they are painting the same scenery. Monet’s “Winter in Giverny” (1885), showing a townscape in the distance cropped by a snowy hillside in the middle distance, seems to have been the inspiration for Theodore Robinson’s similar scene “Winter Landscape” (1889), which won the young painter his first art prize when it was exhibited back in America.
There is also a series of studies of a haystack, “Studies of an Autumn Day, 1-12” (1891), painted at different times of the day by John Leslie Breck that is a clear attempt to follow Monet’s practice of repeatedly painting the same object in order to better understand the nature of light. But while Monet’s astounding masterpiece “Grainstack (Sunset)” (1891) is essentially about light rather than the object it touches, Breck’s studies end up being more about the haystacks, showing the difference between a talented master and a mediocre follower.
Interestingly, Willard Leroy Metcalf’s “The Lily Pond” (1887) seems to predate any of Monet’s paintings on the same theme at the exhibition by quite a few years, suggesting that the influence might not have always flowed one way, but possibly two. These paintings by Monet of his water garden and lily pond are usually seen as the culmination of his career, so it is intriguing to think he might have been given the hint by a young Bostonian.
Some of the Americans attained great skill. In Frederick Carl Frieseke’s “Lady in a Garden” (c. 1912), energy is built up through a colorful claustrophobic composition that avoids depth, and is then released in long, intense brushstrokes that represent the flower stems, which blend with the pattern of the lady’s dress.
But more often than not, placing these painters alongside Monet tends to emphasize their tourist credentials. When Monet looked at a scene, he saw light and the way it touched things, and didn’t think of himself as an artist because he was one. With the Americans, by contrast, the exoticism and picturesque quality of the things they saw often intrudes, creating a kind of preciousness, and then there’s the self-consciousness brought about by living “the life of an artist” in France.
Although an attractive painting, Louis Ritman’s “Early Morning” (1912-15), with its sexily disrobed model, nevertheless seems have some of that ooh-la-la quality associated with young men exploring the seamier side of France. Elsewhere, in Frederick William MacMonnies’s “Self Portrait” (1896), there is the unmistakable scent of someone entering into the role of “artist.” All that’s missing in this work is the standard-issue artist beret.
I’m not sure if this exhibition works as an exploration of American Impressionism, as Impressionism is certainly more interesting viewed internationally than through the prism of one country, but, viewed as a show that explores the dichotomy between artistic genius and pretensions to it, the exhibition comes into its own and has an interesting tale to tell.
“Monet and the Artists of Giverny: The Beginning of American Impressionism” at The Bunkamura Museum of Art runs till Feb. 17; admission ¥1,400; open daily 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 9 p.m.). For more information, visit www.bunkamura.co.jp