Thoughts: Monet & Architecture Exhibition at the National Gallery, London

Monet and Architecture Exhibition quoteThe short version: If you like Monet, go and see this exhibition if you can (it runs until 29 July 2018). And get the exhibition catalogue even if you can’t, not least for the various painting from private collections and the handful of close-up details that seem like life-size reproductions.

The long version: I was expecting to enjoy this exhibition, being a long-time fan of Monet, and the opportunity to see a whole lot of Monet paintings in real life was exciting. What I was not expecting was to encounter so many paintings I hadn’t ever seen before, not even as photos. Instant new level of enjoyment.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture‘, at the National Gallery in London, features some 75 paintings by Monet, from the beginnings of his career in the mid-1860s to his Venice paintings in 1912, with about a quarter from private collections. The paintings are arranged thematically in seven rooms, with the ‘architecture’ element to me really just an tagline to differentiate this exhibition from all the other Monet exhibitions (though I’m sure from a curator’s point of view there’s far more to it!).

As Katherine Tyrrell (Making a Mark) says in her exhibition review: “The thing is Monet did not paint architecture per se — not like those who simply love architecture. He didn’t even paint ‘things’. What he was painting was the light and colour around rather large equivalents of squares and oblongs.” What a joy to see so many Monets, so see series and related paintings side by side.

At ?20 the entry fee is high (free for children under 12), but it is London. (There are ‘free’ Monets in the gallery and a free exhibition of Degas’ from the Burrell Collection in the lower level of the main building that I nearly missed.) For the online booking it seems that there are 90 tickets for each time slot. I entered about quarter-past ten, and left about half-past twelve. At no point did it feel like a game of sardines, unlike exhibitions I’ve been to elsewhere in London.

Each painting simply has a number next to it, and you get a little booklet with the details about each. It solves the problem of people crowding around trying to read a wall label. I found that the smaller rooms were a little crowded, but could still get around quite easily with a little patience. The paintings are well spaced, not squashed together. There are seats in a few of the rooms to help counter museum-footache (I also saw one room attendant let someone sit on his chair) and it wasn’t too hot (an advantage of being in the modern wing of the gallery).

I headed straight to the last room with the Venice paintings, then the Rouen cathedral and London paintings, doing the exhibition ‘backwards’. Partly it was because I wanted to see those paintings first, while my eyes were still fresh, and partly because I knew there would be fewer people in those rooms as most do exhibitions as set out. I made pencil notes in my sketchbook as I wandered around because I knew I wouldn’t remember it all. Notes about things that caught my attention, colours, mark making, thoughts, which I’ve transcribed into my copy of the catalogue, and overheard comments.

Overheard comments:

  • “Better from a distance, not meant to be seen up close” (I think it tells different stories from different distances)
  • “What a difference” (to me it felt like an unfinished painting, just a beginning)
  • “We’ve seen those, they’re nice but we’ve seen them” (they then walked past the Houses of Parliament paintings)
  • “Same ones aren’t they” (are we looking at the same Rouen cathedral paintings?)
  • “I like that one because it’s quiet” (young daughter to dad, in answer to his question of which was her favourite in the room)
  • “Amazing how it’s all so light” (Venice paintings)

One of the paintings I’ve never seen before was this:

Monet
Source: National Gallery Press Office.

Until this painting (link), Rouen cathedral and Monet meant cropped compositions of the tower to me. I’m particularly mesmerised by the colours in the glass of the windows, towards the bottom on the right. Looking at the photo now they don’t seem as striking or prominent as when I saw the painting in real life, the main body of the cathedral seems darker in the photo.

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