Claude Monet pioneered abstract art and is a forerunner of Mark Rothko and Gerhard Richter.
That’s the bold theme of an exhibition at Paris’s Musee Marmottan, which has the largest collection of paintings by the Impressionist artist.
The idea isn’t new. It came up in the 1950s when Abstract Expressionism was in full swing -- the first movement in U.S. art to achieve international status.
Clement Greenberg, an influential critic at the time, drew a direct line between the water lilies he had seen at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris and the New York School, “even if Monet’s own taste,” as he generously allowed (in Art News Annual, December 1956), “had not caught up with his art.”
The previous year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which until then had ignored Monet, bought, to excited media hoopla, a panel from the water-lily series, labeling it “Abstract Impressionism.” (The canvas was destroyed along with another water-lily painting by a fire in 1958. They were replaced by panels from the same series.)
As Greenberg correctly noticed, Monet hadn’t shown any interest in abstract art, which had been around for almost 20 years when he died in 1926. Although he liked to call his murals in the Orangerie “les grandes decorations” and his failing eyesight made it difficult for him to see what he painted, he still worked from nature -- his garden at Giverny.
Nor did the Abstract Expressionists care for the old master who was supposed to have inspired them. One of the few exceptions was Joan Mitchell; she even moved to Vetheuil where Monet had lived for several years.
The Musee Marmottan and its co-organizer, the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid where the show was previously, are walking on thin ice when they rehash the ageing theory.
Superficially, the blurred landscapes of the old, almost blind Monet may remind you of Jackson Pollock’s wild “action paintings,” yet their approaches were fundamentally different: Pollock aimed at an autonomous work of art; Monet still was seeking “an intimate fusion with nature,” as he told his biographer Gustave Geoffroy.
The same applies to Mark Rothko, Sam Francis, Adolph Gottlieb and other abstract painters in the show: They belong to a different world. Only a few, such as Nicolas de Stael or Gerhard Richter, are borderline cases, playfully suggesting themselves as links between figurative and abstract art.
Relabeling Monet’s late work also had commercial motives. After his death, his son and heir, Michel, made no attempt to sell what he had found in the Giverny studio. It was all seen as leftovers from the Orangerie mural project -- sketches, unfinished efforts or failures, undated and unsigned.
Presenting the estate in a new light as a harbinger of abstract art made it commercially attractive, and more than a few dealers, collectors and museums jumped on the bandwagon.
Antique dealers call the procedure “marriage” -- selling old furniture by replacing worn parts with new ones.
“Monet et l’Abstraction” is at the Musee Marmottan Monet, Paris, through Sept. 26. Information: http://www.marmottan.com or +33-1-4496-5033.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)