Painting the Modern Garden

Flower Garden by Emil Nolde, 1922

As 100mph storms engulf a dark, wintry Britain, the Royal Academy of Arts brings a timely form of escapism. Its latest exhibition, ‘Painting the Modern Garden’, transports us to the heights of summer with a collection of works by artists including Monet, Matisse, Van Gogh and Cezanne. From dappled lights across verdant lawns, to the vivid hues of blossoming shoots, each canvas dazzles with the colours and textures of its titular theme – and illustrates an intriguing story of how gardens provided much of the inspiration for modern art.

The link between gardening and modern art initially seems questionable: an activity of quintessential associations versus a movement born out of rebellion. And yet, as the exhibition reveals, the majority of the modern artists on show demonstrated an equal passion for gardening and painting alike. In particular Monet, the artist whose work naturally dominates the exhibition, acknowledged the very powerful creative influence that the former had on his work: “I perhaps owe to flowers that I became a painter,” he declared.

Water Lilies (Agapanthus) by Claude Monet, 1915-26

Having funded an ambitious landscaping project of his own garden in Giverny in 1893, Monet’s ongoing fascination with this environment is traceable in his repeated modernist experimentation with the same imagery. The wooden footbridge over his water-lily pond is a recurring focus, featuring in a total of twelve paintings, and yet each attempt is marked by a new emphasis. He paints it vertically, horizontally, in the glow of autumn and the green of summer, apparently marvelling over the differing effects of light and shade, and the change in form created by different perspectives.

Indeed, what soon becomes clear is the multitude of approaches to depicting the garden, both within and between each artists’ body of work. A fellow Impressionist of Monet, Pierre Bonnard’s Resting in the Garden (1914) conjures an enigmatic composition of energetic brushstrokes. There’s also the Post-Impressionist work of Max Liebermann, who arranged his garden specifically for the purpose of painting it, and yet injects into Flower Terrace in the Garden (1922) a dynamic modernism almost at odds with the symmetrical precision of his subject.

Flower Terrace in the Garden by Max Liebermann, 1922

There is also bold experimentation with the various possibilities of colour. In Flower Garden (1922), the German-Danish painter Emil Nolde, one of the first Expressionist artists, displays his trademark use of luminescent colour and animated brushwork. Out of a patch of bluebells, he creates a work of heavily abstracted intensity, the now phallic-shaped plants rising above a backdrop of blood-red flora. It’s an apt representation of how the decorative face of the garden unveils, for these artists, a deeper creative language.

The exhibition also doubles up as an informative social history, documenting the changing role of the garden across the nineteenth century. Previously recognised either as an aristocratic park or a place for growing vegetables, the garden suddenly emerged as a domain for personal pleasure and leisurely pursuits. With artefacts including seed catalogues, horticultural specimens and detailed letters from Monet to his gardeners, it’s a thorough lesson about the social context underlying the garden’s impact on artists.

Resting in the Garden by Pierre Bonnard, 1914

But ultimately, the exhibition is most powerful in conveying how gardens provided artists with the opportunity to test new and abstract ideas regarding colour, movement and form, paving the way for the modern aesthetic. It ends persuasively with Monet’s monumental water lily works, the Agapanthus Triptych (1915-26), reunited for the first time in the UK. A psychedelic pattern of shards of light shifting across water and foliage, expansive in its field of vision, it’s a show-stopping epitome of how the painting of gardens synthesised art and nature – and why this exhibition should not be missed.

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