This is a wonderful exhibition, filled with some astounding works by the painter of effects, les effets: effects of light, of mist, of snow, of sunlight, of fog. What Mone was not particularly interested in was architecture; he certainly never wrote about it. So the theme of this show at the National Gallery would, I fear, have bemused, if not dumbfounded him.
For Monet, buildings became integral parts of his dialogue with landscape. A building was a surface for flickering effects of light and shade. 'Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat' he once wrote, 'I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat.’ Yes, there are buildings in every one of the paintings on show at the National Gallery, but they are part of the experience of looking at a particular moment, seeing a particular colour, absorbing a particular effet.
Monet compared Rouen cathedral to a cliff. Architecture was therefore another way of imbibing nature. Each subject-bridges, railway stations, boulevards, the Houses of Parliament,Venetian palaces, were structures on which to explore and express the memory of a gradual dawn, a glowing form in evening light, or fog. For Monet, the experience of seeing always came first. I'll let some of the paintings speak for themselves:
Much as I might quibble over the imposed theme of architecture, I accept that it must be getting increasingly difficult to give us 'new ways' of looking at one of art's guaranteed crowd pleasers. And yes, I am pretty sure that every aspect of his treatment of landscape has already been featured somewhere in the world, every one a blockbuster: Water-lilies-check!; Gardens,-check!;the Normandy coast,check!; haystacks-check! So now let's do ARCHITECTURE! The show overstates its arguments, particularly in its early stages, but it has, nevertheless brought together a magnificent, life-enhancing, spine-tingling, unforgettable collection of paintings to make its case.
One last thought...The National Gallery really needs to sort out this special exhibition space in the Sainsbury Wing. As it charges up to £22 a ticket to see this show, it is absolutely unacceptable that visitors are crammed into small, stuffy rooms, craning to see works in an atmosphere more akin to Oxford Circus station at 5.30pm on a Friday.