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Avant-garde dans le jardin: “Resting In The Garden” (1914) by Pierre Bonnard (©Nasjonalmuseet for Kunst, Arkitektur og Design/ DACS, London 2015)

When Claude Monet started painting corners of his garden at Giverny, in Normandy, and in particular the pictures of pools and waterlilies that came to define his last years, the First World War had just started. As he worked on those meditative and unruffled scenes he could hear the guns only 50 kilometres away: “If those savages must kill me,” he wrote, “it will be in the middle of my canvasses, in front of all my life’s work.” They didn’t get him — he lived until 1926 — but his garden pictures, the “Grandes Décorations” as he termed them, were for him both personal and patriotic.

Monet’s pictures of water, lilies and weeping willows — symbols of mourning — were made in defiance of the Germans, to remember the dead French soldiers and to allay his fears when his son Michel was called up. Immediately after the war he offered two of the waterlily paintings to the nation through his friend, the prime minister Georges Clémenceau, “to honour the victory and peace”. These great, immersive works, now in the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, and three others now in America (the Agapanthus Triptych), were the final fruit of Monet’s long love affair with the garden. In 1883, when he first moved to Giverny, he created the garden there specifically in order to give himself something to paint. He saw his demesne as being an equal participant rather than just a backdrop for humans in the informal scenes of Impressionism. In 1904 he stated: “Aside from painting and gardening I’m good for nothing.” Indeed he claimed he owed his painting “to flowers”.

Monet had a substantial botanical library, gave his gardener detailed instructions of what to plant and when, and imported waterlilies from Japan, but if he was the most thoroughgoing of the artist-gardeners of his era he was not the only one. Pierre Bonnard, not far from Giverny, Wassily Kandinsky, Emil Nolde and Max Liebermann in Germany were among other aficionados. The intertwining of the garden with avant-garde art is examined in Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at the Royal Academy from January 30. The exhibition has gathered 120 works to show just how widespread was the fascination with horticulture, and includes pictures by, among others, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet, Kandinsky, Van Gogh, Matisse, Sargent and Klimt.

What the collection highlights is something of the range of reasons that attracted the artists to the blooms. Monet’s 1864 Spring Flowers, for example, shows assorted cut species, from roses to hydrangeas, in a version of Dutch Golden Age still life painting. It is a picture of careful colour harmonies rather than of the fecundity and watery verdancy that later fascinated him. Kandinsky’s Murnau, The Garden II (1910), on the other hand, is an exercise in dynamism and clashing hues, while the paint in Nolde’s Flower Garden (O) (1922) is so thick in places that the petals are almost three dimensional.

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