• Alexandra Graff

Royal Academy delivers a floral fantasy

It’s difficult to weed out favorites among the masters included in the Royal Academy’s exhibit of botany and brushstrokes.

The RA isn’t unaccustomed to long lines and sell-out shows, and its latest blockbuster is no exception. Delivering an Impressionism exhibit in such high demand that the gallery stopped selling tickets on site and started requiring advance booking, “Painting the Modern Garden: From Monet to Matisse” lives up to its praise.

Spanning works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the exhibit showcases the development of impressionistic styles through garden vistas, eloquently pairing the famous works of Claude Monet with his impressionist contemporaries working within the garden motif. While the entire exhibit is a floral fantasy, the final gallery is the showstopper; composed of a smaller-scale version of the Monet oval galleries in Paris’ Musée de l’Orangerie, the dimly-lit room presents four of Monet’s large canvas water lilies works, three of which hang in succession. The semi-circular panorama-like canvas engulfs the viewer, and the only snag is the lack of seating that would allow oneself to be fully absorbed in the work. A fourth painting hangs opposite the large work but is equally enthralling with its softly bright hues.

However, it’s evident Monet isn’t the only master; the works of Pierre-August Renoir, Camille Pissaro, and Gustave Caillebotte among others bring a welcome variety to the depictions of floriculture.

The inclusion of Caillebotte’s 1893 “Dahlias: The Garden at Petit-Gennevilliers” shows the excellent diversity in styles and approaches. Caillebotte’s beautifully light scene of a garden path leading to a house draws in the viewer via a starkly realistic perspective, unlike others in the gallery. Similarly, his “Nasturtiums” stands out with its close-up and twisting renditions of the flower set against an open mauve background.

Although the exhibit includes a vast collection of Monet’s recognizable works spread throughout the entire show, only a few Henri Matisse works appear in the exhibit, making it feel as if his name was thrown in for the block-buster and house-hold recognition effect. In comparison, Matisse’s “Palm Leaf, Tangier” from 1912 that affronts the viewer in one of the later galleries adds variety but not a whole lot else.

Beyond the paintings, the curators brilliantly complement the garden theme via room design and decoration. The naturalistic and earthy colored walls, park bench-like seating, and various silk potted plants perfectly evoke the tranquility and sereneness associated with exploring a garden.

The show is almost as much an exhibit on English gardens of the turn of the century as it is an exhibit on Impressionism and Monet. The RA showcases the garden as the artist’s studio, pairing paintings with photographs of the artists working en plein air in their carefully cultivated gardens. The popularity and trends of certain horticultural designs and plant species become apparent as they appear across the galleries; lots of dahlias, poppies, and peonies frequent the works just as they did in the artists’ gardens. Tropical and Mediterranean influences pepper the works as well, giving a variety to the sea of brightly colored marks that equate flowers in impressionism. If nothing else, the exhibit, on display until 20 April, is a chance to explore the outdoors without worrying about London’s unpredictable spring weather.

"Painting the Modern Garden: from Monet to Matisse" runs at the Royal Academy until April 20. 

* NOTE: This review was completed 14 April 2016 as part of a class assignment

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