Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse – Exhibition on Screen

Reviewer: Helen Tope

Writer: David Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky

Director: David Bickerstaff

Revisiting the Royal Academy exhibit from 2016, Exhibition on Screen’s film, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, is a timeless articulation of the bond between Art and Nature.

Bringing together artistic influences as disparate as Albrecht Durer and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the documentary focuses on artists who have not only represented gardens in their art, but have created outdoor spaces of their own. At the centre of Painting the Modern Garden is Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny. The pond covered with water lilies, framed by willow trees, is an image we are familiar with. The film reveals how Monet’s love of gardening resulted in a constantly evolving look. Exhibition on Screen’s unhurried camera lingers, picking out accents of brightness. Monet built a garden (referred to as “drifts of colour”) that wasn’t necessarily formal, but more individual and expressive. Seeking out new varieties of plant, including a hybrid breed of pink and red water lilies, Monet’s maximalist approach to colour and texture directly links to what ended up on his canvas.

While in this subject matter, there is the potential for schmaltz, within the Royal Academy’s eclectic range of artists, Painting the Modern Garden can plot the development of early twentieth-century art. Commentators such as Scottish artist Lachlan Goudie and art historian Tim Marlow provide context, with the film leaning into the Academy’s avant-garde selection. Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky feature: their dynamic use of colour owes a debt to Monet’s late Impressionism. Matisse’s Palm Leaf, Tangier – inspired by a visit to an Islamic garden – is delivered in a “flash of inspiration.” The paint is applied quickly, with Matisse’s characteristic energy. We see the same approach in Emil Nolde’s Flower Garden – a riposte to the refined Dutch flower paintings of the eighteenth-century. Heavy brush strokes portray a work that is rough and rugged, but intentionally so. The surprises keep coming: Spain’s Joaquin Sorolla paints designer Louis Comfort Tiffany against a bank of hydrangeas. Big, blustering swagger – this is flower power but with a real hit of machismo. The ‘country squire’ portraits of Reynolds and Gainsborough get a modern reworking, questioning outdated ideas of masculinity.

Painting the Modern Garden also examines the rise of Impressionism. As well as the monumental, immersive water lily triptych by Monet, we also look at the work of Pierre Bonnard and Max Liebermann. The commonalities: a “fundamental” interest in light, and a European sensibility, not only charts Impressionism’s influence on the global art world, but the art movement’s shift from an emphasis on cutting-edge techniques into a more personal expression of emotion.

Painting the Modern Garden at its core returns to a mindfulness that feels utterly contemporary. While the featured paintings refer to a progression in modern art, what they describe is something much older. The freedom to cultivate a space; a private space of solace and calm. As Spring edges closer, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse encourages us to reconnect with Nature and a sense of wellbeing; to find our happy place.

Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse is released in cinemas nationwide from 27th February.

The Reviews Hub Score:

Timeless articulation

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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