Out of the garden As Monet grew older and his vision dimmed, images of his Giverny garden dissolved into paint, color and line. Nature receded, and abstraction took its place, eerily anticipating the art of the mid-20th century.

March 29, 1998|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

Near the beginning of the show of 22 late Monet paintings that opens today at the Walters Art Gallery, there's a 10-foot-long canvas covered with strokes and loops and wisps and jabs of color. It's called "Water Lilies" (1917-1919), but it doesn't look like waterlilies.

This work is a sketch, the beginnings of a painting. Monet would not have sent it into the world until he had developed it further. But to present-day eyes, conditioned by 20th-century abstraction, it could be complete. And it looks positively prophetic.

The large scale, the lack of a particular image to focus on, the gestural marks that show the action of the artist's hand all make the canvas look like the forerunner of a drip painting by the mid-century abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.

But it was created by Claude Monet when he was almost 80. It dates from a generation before Pollock, Willem de Kooning and the other abstract expressionists created the first great American art movement and shifted the capital of the art world from Paris to New York in the years after World War II.

Was this the work of a great visionary, who foresaw and profoundly influenced the direction of 20th-century art? Or was it an irrelevant rumination by an old, almost blind and out-of-date artist who had retreated to his garden and painted its few themes -- waterlilies, Japanese footbridge, rose trellis, weeping willow -- over and over again?

That's the issue inevitably brought to mind by "Monet: Late Paintings of Giverny From the Musee Marmottan," a small but intensely interesting, spaciously presented exhibit that reveals the least lovable and most challenging Monets ever to be seen in Baltimore.

It contains none of the happily sunlit paintings of the 1870s and 1880s that made Monet the quintessential impressionist in his own time and perhaps the world's most popular artist in ours.

Of the show's 22 paintings, all date from after 1900, and all but three are from the last 13 years of Monet's life, 1914-1926, when he aged from 74 to 86. Their surfaces are often thickly painted. Their images can be almost unrecognizable. Many are claustrophobic, with no discernible horizon, the sense of space replaced with nothing more than a painted surface. They are becoming more and more abstract.

They are also becoming more and more expressionist -- that is, they are expressing inner emotions. Just as Monet retreated from the world into his garden in his late years, so the horizonless, claustrophobic late pictures reflect a going into himself. In the obsessiveness and turbulence of their brush stroke, and in their sometimes high-keyed colors (especially acid reds and yellows), they reflect the inner turmoil Monet experienced in this period. He was deeply concerned over his failing eyesight, and like many artists he worried over what place in art history he would ultimately occupy.

His worry was not unfounded. Toward the end of his life and for decades after, the art of the elder Monet was thought passe, his impressionist vision superseded by fauvism, cubism, expressionism, surrealism and other 20th-century movements. In recent decades, however, opinion has shifted, and some believe he anticipated much of what would happen in the 20th century.

"His influence on the entire range of 20th-century painting has been consistently overlooked," says Charles Stuckey, senior curator at the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and a leading scholar of impressionism.

Monet scholar Paul Tucker, who will co-curate an exhibit on Monet in the 20th century at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts later this year, finds Monet's work "ultimately fundamental to much of 20th-century art."

Monet's garden

Born in 1840, Monet was, by the early 1880s, one of the group of revolutionary painters known as the impressionists (also including Renoir, Pissarro, Degas and Sisley). Although the Parisian art mainstream was more conservative, Monet was making a good living from his art, and in 1883 he moved to Giverny, a small farming community in Normandy.

In the 1890s, while busy with the grainstack, Rouen cathedral and poplar tree series that helped make Monet both rich and widely revered, he enlarged the Giverny property.

An avid gardener, he replanted and extended the property's gardens, creating a water garden with a meandering pool planted with waterlilies and bordered by many plantings, including rose trellises, a bamboo grove and an island of yellow water irises. Monet had an arched, Japanese-style footbridge placed near one end of the pool, and it became a favorite motif in subsequent years.

After 1900, Monet almost exclusively painted the Giverny garden, in canvases that were ever more abstract. Even in the earliest pictures at the Walters, two "Water Lilies" of 1903, Monet has banished the horizon. The pictures show nothing but pond. Sometimes the viewer seems to see the illusion of perspective -- of the pond receding in space -- and sometimes it seems the pond is painted on the flat, two-dimensional surface of the

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