SAN FRANCISCO — When we think of late Monet, the grand old man in his garden at Giverny, there are two facts that seem to structure everything: He was having problems with his eyesight, and he was single-mindedly pursuing his final masterpiece, a cycle of water lily paintings known as the “Grandes Decorations,” which are now installed at the Orangerie in Paris’s Tuileries Gardens. An exhibition at the De Young Museum, “Monet: The Late Years,” acknowledges both of these familiar and essential facts, and demonstrates how little they tell us about what Monet was really doing during his last years.
It is an exciting show. Organized with the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, the exhibition includes about 60 works, mostly focused on the years between 1913 and Monet’s death in 1926. It features a generous array of the smaller works he made in series, images of the Japanese bridge and a willow tree, which were recurring motifs from his beloved garden. Seven bridge images, and a half-dozen canvasses devoted to the willow tree, demonstrate the chances Monet was taking with color, and his daring dematerialization of familiar subject matter. But they also do something else equally important: They mark the limits of his risk taking, and his persistent loyalty to fundamentals of representation.
It has been fashionable for decades to think of Monet’s last years as a cauldron of abstraction, a period in which he explored a freedom of form that would inspire later painters of the 20th century to break definitively from making pictures of real things in the real world. But this show complicates that assumption, making it difficult to argue that Monet radically reinvented himself at some particular moment in the last 10 or 15 years of his life. It also demonstrates how he never quite abandoned basic spatial concerns, how one can almost always find a sense of up and down, and depth and distance, in his late work. There are radical things happening, to be sure, but we never really leave behind the garden, and Monet’s commitment to work within its parameters.
By prefacing the exhibition with a room of earlier work, the curators allow visitors to see that much of what is often said to be essential to late Monet isn’t, in fact, exclusive to his last period. When he turned his attention to the surface of his pond, painting floating flowers and lilies without any horizon line to situate the viewer, he seems to cross some kind of threshold of abstraction. But he was already doing that in some of the earliest works on view, including a depiction of lilies and grass in 1897.
And throughout his late work, verticality is suggested through gravity, even if no horizon line situates the viewer on terra firma. Rose branches drape and bend, flowers dart upward, irises hungry for the sun stretch their greedy blooms to the light. The sky may dissolve into blue reflections on the surface of water, but that surface is still stretched over the water’s depth and, by implication, gives a sense of the above and below that situates us in a logical space.
It’s also surprising, and satisfying, to see a multiplicity of Monet styles throughout his late years, including a range of textures on the canvas. He paints thin and he paints thick, sometimes leaving the surface looking dry, like a fresco, while in other works the surface is clotted and goopy, and the paint becomes almost sculptural. His color schemes get more adventurous in his late works, but the pink blooms that decorate paintings made in 1914 (and just after) have a shocking, candy-colored brightness that makes one think of Wayne Thiebaud’s pop art lollipops, ice cream cones and frosted cakes.
The exhibition addresses, in passing, Monet’s vision problems. His vision deteriorated in the last decade of his life, and in 1923, he consented to have cataract surgery. This can explain everything, or nothing, about his art. Some scientists, including an ophthalmologist at Stanford University, have attempted to directly correlate the blurriness and bright colors of Monet’s work to his eyesight. But Monet remained disciplined about color throughout his difficulties, arraying pigments methodically in his studio and on his palette, in an effort to retain control over the results even if his eyes were registering things differently than they had before.
His style didn’t seem to change much after his partially successful surgery, either, and though he complained of making work that wasn’t up to his standards (and he destroyed canvasses he felt were inadequate), he held on to, and in some cases sold, works that are shockingly aggressive in their tonal schemes. Monet’s dealer may have complained that he had moved beyond the luscious pastels and candy colors of his earlier work, but Monet wasn’t oblivious to his new color choices, and he didn’t make them simply to compensate for diminished or altered color perception.
So the impact and consequences of Monet’s vision are an unknowable, and the curators wisely leave it to audiences to parse how much weight to give it. Meanwhile, we can be thankful for the adventures in color found in the late “Weeping Willow” series, some so full of dark greens that they seem to be from a swamp in Louisiana or Mississippi, others suggesting the fresh new greens of spring, or the blue light of dawn, and yet others more like fireworks or an explosion of ribbons against a cool, bleak sky. Some of the late Japanese bridge paintings become so clotted with reds, yellows and oranges that they feel both autumnal and apocalyptic — a final, brilliant conflagration of a beloved place, as if the torrid heat of the Sword of God had already blazed over paradise.
Of course, Monet was at work throughout much of this time on the magnificent Orangerie paintings that would become his gift to the nation of France, and are now an overcrowded shrine on every tourist’s art pilgrimage to Paris. The exhibition includes work closely related to those paintings, and it is a pleasure to report that even when Monet is in his most generous and accessible mode, even when he gives you everything you already think you know about and want from him, there are still surprises and delights. The magic is indestructible, impervious to cynicism and survives replication and repetition. And no matter what Monet was up to, it is also true that his risk-taking during these years gave permission to later artists to take even greater risks.
But I had a curious sensation looking at these magnificent paintings, and it wasn’t connected to Monet’s daring or modern vision. Rather, I sensed his ownership of the garden where he made his late work, his pride in it, his reluctance to leave it behind and, perhaps, even his anxiety that his lifelong horticultural project wouldn’t long survive him. Perhaps he was radical during these years, but he was also bourgeois, and in every iris and water lily and blade of grass, you can faintly hear the old, essential bourgeois passion for the world: Mine, mine, mine!
Monet: The Late Years Through May 27 at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition will be on view at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth from June 16 to Sept. 15. deyoung.famsf.org.