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visual art

A path to Monet's
not-so-secret garden

Vancouver exhibition, billed as most extensive Canadian showing of artist's work in years, looks at final, prolific period in Giverny

Claude Monet Les Roses, 1925–26 oil on canvas

I must admit I balked a bit at the title of the new summer blockbuster exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery: Claude Monet's Secret Garden. Because Monet's garden in Giverny, France – where he nurtured his water lilies and then painted them again and again – feels like not much of a secret, but rather the Western world's poster garden for artistic achievement.

Of course, before they decorated your first apartment or favourite mug, Monet's pretty water-lilies paintings, and his other oils, were transformative, radical works – for Monet personally, but also for culture, period. There's a reason they're so ubiquitous; they're magnificent. They are also seminal in the history of art.

Claude Monet by his waterlily pond at Giverny, 1905 © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY

The VAG's exhibition, which opened in late June, includes 38 paintings (and an exit-through-the-gift-shop experience that includes not only Monet mugs and posters, but also key chains, puzzles, pencils, placemats, knee socks and more). Billed as the most comprehensive exhibition of Monet's work in Canada in two decades, it was collaboratively organized by the VAG and the Musée Marmottan in Paris, which holds the world's largest collection of Monet works. This is where Michel Monet, Monet's only surviving son, bequeathed his collection of paintings he had inherited from his father; Michel died in 1966.

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It was a Monet work that gave Impressionism its name. With his 1872 painting Impression, Sunrise, Monet provided unimpressed critic Louis Leroy with a word the reviewer used as an insult; the work was an impression – meaning incomplete. "Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape," he wrote in his 1874 review. The word, initially meant derisively, became a name for the movement, adopted by the impressionists themselves. (Unfortunately – if not surprisingly – this painting did not travel to Vancouver for this exhibition.)

Their works were considered radical: The artists, rather than using traditional techniques, employed loose, fragmented brushwork and bright colours to suggest, rather than document in detail, what was in front of them; they also painted en plein air. They eschewed historical subject matter in favour of the beauty and progress before them – gardens, steam trains, people; everyday, modern life.

Claude Monet Champ d’iris jaunes à Giverny, 1887 oil on canvas

While the emphasis of the show is on Monet's final, prolific period at Giverny, the exhibition also traces his decades-long career. There are works from his periods in Argenteuil, Vétheuil and Trouville (where his beach paintings were embedded with bits of sand and seashell – that's en plein air for you). The exhibition also looks at the development of his serial approach – where Monet would paint the same subject at different times of the day in different lights.

Most of the works come from his period at Giverny, a small village on the Seine about 80 kilometres northwest of Paris. It was a remarkable period dominated by those water lilies – a motif he investigated nearly 300 times.

Monet moved there in 1883 – by this point he was with the woman who would become his second wife – and by the 1890s, he was in a financial position to buy the house and surrounding land, which he transformed into magnificent gardens, including the water garden and Japanese bridge he painted many times.

On the Beach at Trouville, 1870-71 (oil on canvas) by Claude Monet

"These landscapes of water and reflections have become an obsession," he said in 1908. "It's quite beyond my powers at my age, and yet I want to succeed in expressing what I feel."

In 1914, with dark times – the death of his oldest son, Jean, and the outbreak of the First World War – Monet embarked on his "great project" – mural-sized paintings of water lilies. He had a studio built on his property for their creation. Immediately after the Armistice, Monet offered two of these canvases to the State – a celebration of the Allies' victory and a monument to peace. The offer eventually grew to include the entire series, installed at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris in 1927, a few months after Monet's death.

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Claude Monet Nymphéas, 1916–19 oil on canvas

Those oval-shaped rooms still provide a unique, breathtaking experience in art visitation. The VAG show brings some of this feeling to Vancouver – especially three large-scale panels, Water Lilies (1917-1919), Wisteria (1919-1921) and Wisteria (1919-1920) installed in one gallery, inspired by the oval rooms at Musée de l'Orangerie.

One version of The Japanese Bridge (1918-1919) is installed on its own in a small gallery, surrounded by empty walls and a bench. "For Monet, the water garden and the Japanese bridge were important places for contemplation," explained the VAG's senior curator-historical Ian Thom, who co-curated the show with the Musée Marmottan's deputy director, Marianne Mathieu. "We placed it by itself to allow visitors a moment of quiet contemplation of Monet's imagery and the world of his water garden," he added.

Claude Monet Londres. Le Parlement. Reflets sur la Tamise, 1905 oil on canvas

I'm not sure how much quiet contemplation one might be able to find in these rooms; this show is a surefire summer hit and already a blockbuster (there was a lineup around the block late Tuesday afternoon, when admission is free). But it's worth the crowds.

The final gallery in particular is a stunner – installed with four Weeping Willow oils on one side, and on the other, three versions of The Path Under the Rose Arches.

And on the far wall, at the end of the gallery, is Les Roses, painted in 1925-26 – the year of Monet's death. It was his last painting, according to Michel. It is bigger and more colourful than the others in the gallery; beautiful and hopeful. With bursts of pink blossoms and green leaves against a blue sky, it feels alive, vibrant. It is a testament to the power of nature and art: The garden remained Monet's muse until his death.

Claude Monet's Secret Garden is at the Vancouver Art Gallery until Oct 1.

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