I had the privilege to experience the Monet Water Lilies exhibit in Kansas City recently at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. This exhibit re-unites the three panels of the “Water Lilies Agapanthus” triptych, made up of three, six-foot tall panels depicting Monet’s own water lily pond. He is believed to have worked on the painting from 1915 to 1926, the year of his death.
One of only two triptychs by Monet in the United States, this exhibition brings together the panels owned by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Cleveland Museum of Art for the first time in a generation. The exhibit is designed to come as close as possible to the experience one might have if they were to come across Claude Monet, at work in his garden in Giverny, France. The paintings themselves were meant to give viewers the experience of being surrounded by, “a flowered aquarium.”
What gives the exhibit strength from which it lacks in quantity as it is only the one work featured, is a combination of scientific study on the paintings and a rare 1915 film footage taken of Monet dressed in a pristine white suit with a cigarette lackadaisically hanging out of his mouth.
Watching the black and white image of one of the world’s most adored artists I was struck by three things. First, why was he wearing a stark white suit to paint in and was that ash ever going to fall from his cigarette onto his stark white suit, or worse into the painting he was working on? Then I focused on his body motion as he quickly and repeatedly made a stroke on the canvas then turned to his subject. Why the heck didn’t he just face his subject?
My first impression of the famous impressionistic work, please forgive the pun, was one immediate observation that this painting was created by someone who couldn’t see well. Not that this personal observation is meant in any way to diminish the work, but it just popped into my mind, and was echoed by a conversation I overheard among two women at the exhibit that he may have had cataracts at the time he worked on the large paneled work.
Monet did in fact have nuclear cataracts in both eyes. At the age of 65 he began to experience changes in his perception of color. He no longer perceived colors with the same intensity. Indeed his paintings showed a change in the whites and greens and blues, with a shift toward “muddier” yellow and purple tones. After 1915, his paintings became much more abstract, with an even more pronounced color shift from blue-green to red-yellow.
The Agapanthus “Water Lilies” triptych is so named for a plant that was actually painted out by Monet through a series of changes that are well documented in the exhibit of the three paintings found covered in dust at the artist’s studio.
The tryptych had its first showing in 1978 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and then again in 1979 and 1980 in both Kansas City and St. Louis. Since then, the panels have remained separately in the three museums that purchased them in the 1950s. The left panel was purchased by the Cleveland Museum of Art, the central panel by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the right panel by the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City, Mo.
The extensive research and analysis done on the works, all on display in a room of the exhibit, demonstrates that Monet, while generally thought of as someone who worked spontaneously and without a lot of revision, was actually much more methodical and even “obsessive,” when it came to his water lily depictions. X-rays, cross sections of paint fragments and early studies show the many times Monet painted over his “Water Lilies” before they reached their current state.
I found the Monet exhibit a bit slim, but not without substance. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is worth the trip in itself.
(c) 2011 – Ruth Mitchell – all rights reserved