Think of a famous painter. Now search your memory, or a database, for a subject he or she painted several times. If you’re a museum curator and you can find a thesis to link those paintings, you might be able to pull together a show of works by a major artist whose stuff may not even appear in your collection.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton did this trick last year when it staged a significant small exhibition of Paul Cézanne’s apple paintings, which included not a single thing owned by the AGH. Now it’s the turn of the National Gallery of Canada, which has just opened a compact show of 12 bridge paintings by Claude Monet, leveraged with a good idea and just one canvas in the NGC collection.
The exhibition, called Monet: A Bridge to Modernity, posits that something important was happening in the mid-1870s while Monet was painting landscapes in the little town of Argenteuil, now a suburb of Paris. Eighteen of the many Argenteuil landscapes he made during the six years he lived there feature one of the town’s two bridges over the Seine.
A third of those paintings were done in a single summer, in 1874.
Eighteen paintings of one thing constitute a minor obsession in the output of Monet, who had many more repeat encounters with haystacks, cathedrals and especially waterlilies. But clearly the bridges caught his eye, and did so in ways that curator Anabelle Kienle Ponka links to his interest in disrupting the conventions of the picturesque.
At a time when people still expected artists to paint sylvan rustic scenes crowned with craggy peaks and dotted with ruins, the new railway bridge at Argenteuil was about the least picturesque thing you could plop into a canvas. It was a real engineer’s structure, just a straight length of iron thrown across the Seine on a row of concrete piers. But a straight line is also the shape of the horizon, and horizons make us think of the way ahead and the future. In that summer of 1874, Monet painted a perfectly nice image of a sunny promenade near the river, with a church steeple in the distance, and his wife and young son ambling along the shore, and then stuck the railway bridge right in the middle of the picture, slicing that poor steeple in two. He could have left the bridge out or found a different view, but instead he inserted that cast-iron industrial horizon just above the natural one, spoiling the view but also telling us about things to come.
In a way, the bridge isn’t just an element of that painting, it actually frames the way we see everything else. Monet did this more pointedly a couple of years earlier in Le pont de bois, a rather murky image of Argenteuil’s highway bridge being restored after it had been blown up during the recent Franco-Prussian War. Monet painted the structure from on the river and close up. The bridge deck and two pillars, and their reflections in the water, form a second frame within the frame, through which we peer at a grey fusion of water and sky relieved only by a streak of pink. The man-made horizon is near the top of the canvas this time, with people and vehicles moving darkly across it.
Monet became interested in the close-up view after discovering, a year before reaching Argenteuil, the tight-cropped perspectives of Japanese woodblock prints, four of which Kienle Ponka has included in this show. The painter was also aware of the many photos and stereoscopic images of bridges, buildings and just about everything else that fed the documentary craze of the early photographic era. We can see how he borrowed from the framing style of camera and woodblock in another painting of the bridge being repaired, from a viewpoint on the shore chosen to show all of the wooden scaffolding and almost none of the bridge. It’s hard to imagine any painter choosing such a perspective before photography came along.
The NGC owns a set of Jules Andrieu’s Disasters of War photos, which document the devastation of the Franco-Prussian debacle, and Kienle Ponka has installed a selection that includes photos of the war-ravaged bridges at Argenteuil. They look almost nakedly detailed, and say something about how Monet thought about the objects of his obsessions. “To me the motif itself is an insignificant factor,” he said in 1895, while he was knee-deep in haystacks. It was the air around the motif that interested him, he said, which is another way of saying that he was a painter of light, not of objects.
He wasn’t a political artist, though this show tries to present him as one. Le pont de bois, writes Kienle Ponka in her catalogue essay, was partly a symptom of Monet’s grief at France’s losses during the war, and is “imbued with a great sense of patriotism.” In his catalogue chapter, art historian Richard Thomson says that by painting bridges, symbols of material progress, Monet “articulated an agenda of nationalistic renewal.” These fanciful claims seem to me only to articulate a curatorial agenda of binding these images, many of which portray Argenteuil at leisure, to a narrative more dramatic than that of a painter finding new ways to see and depict.
For drama, it would be hard to beat the moment when you enter the room near the end of the exhibition that is occupied only by Waterloo Bridge: Effect of Sunlight in the Fog, painted in 1903 and astutely purchased by the NGC in 1914. This really is a painting of air, as an active mass of lavender, blue and pink, with the reddish orange disc of the sun shimmering over the water, and the bridge a barely visible dark mass. Important as they are, the more solid images of bridges that have led to this point suddenly feel like preparations for what is known in TV land as the big reveal. The National Gallery has held this canvas for more than a century, and has probably never before found a way to show it with such éclat.
Monet: A Bridge to Modernity continues in Ottawa at the National Gallery of Canada through Feb. 15 (gallery.ca).
Source: The Globe and Mail