28 March 2009

Light on canvas (caution: purple prose!)

We went to the Monet and the Impressionists exhibition at Te Papa today. It's a collection of Monet's works (plus a small handful of other impressionists, including Manet, Renoir, and Degas - although no dancer paintings!) from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and it's magical. I couldn't believe how the paintings glowed. Each one was like a window into summer and it was astonishing looking at them from different parts of the rooms, seeing how the colours blended and softened. I think I loved them best from clear across the room, although each one still offered something amazing up close.

I finally understood why they describe Monet as the "painter of light". Each of the canvases seemed almost to be lit from behind, especially the ones of Rouen Cathedral and the landscapes. There was a pair of canvases - the same location painted at different times of the day - and it was amazing how different they looked. Valley of the Petite Creuse and Ravine of the Petite Creuse really showed me how much attention Monet paid to the way that light alters the appearance of a rocky landscape. Different things show up, different shadow, different colours.

We went with small daughter and a close friend, and as we went around the exhibition I was discussing it with our little one. I kept asking her what time of day or year she thought the different paintings had been painted, and she was guessing - and she got most of them right, just from the quality of the light in them.

I had a few favourites: Cap Martin, near Menton - I loved the way that this road resolved and the light picked up on the mountains behind, the sense of mist, mystery, and movement. V├ętheuil (1879) was probably my favourite of all. This little town sits so romantically over the water, with warm light picking highlights on the honey-coloured stones, reflected in the river. The delicacy of this quite small canvas really captured me. The town seems almost to float in this amazing light. Meadow with Haystacks near Giverny made me want to go and run around in that late afternoon, dodging among the haystacks. Hubby liked Grainstack (Sunset), as his photographer's eye loved the way it seemed to "pop" out of its frame with the vivid reds and oranges of sunset.

It made an interesting contrast with the Constable exhibition we saw. Constable's paintings can be viewed from far off, but you could take a magnifying glass to Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds and find more and more fabulous detail in it, even to telling the kind of tree in the corner by the shape of its growth and leaves. Monet seemed to be more interested in mood and light, concept, than the glorious detail of Constable, even though Constable still loved the play of light, shadow and cloud. The Monets were definitely better from across the room. I guess that's why they call him and his friends "Impressionists"!

Definitely not to be missed. It was awesome that such an exhibition could make its way to tiny New Zealand - and that it was absolutely packed out with a huge queue to enter! I hope that means there will be more exhibitions of this quality coming over. I wait for the day when they bring Michelangelo, Sculptor (and painter!?)!

Art Aficionado

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