Thursday, November 06, 2008

Monet & the Impresssionists

After many travels and a myriad of art museums and exhibitions there's a big gap in my blog waiting to be filled. So many highlights - Marlene Dumas at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and Picasso & his collection in Brisbane come to mind - just a couple of the standout shows I've been privileged to see recently.

I'm going to start with the most recent however - Monet and the Impressionists at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. (11 Oct 2008 - 26 Jan 2009) An unexpected trip across the Tasman had me enjoying some warm Sydney sunshine and seizing the opportunity to see this popular exhibition. Rooms full of gorgeous Monet paintings are hard to resist! Actually, popular is an understatement - at 10.30am on a Monday morning the exhibition was already filling up fast. It is somewhat disconcerting after the relative emptiness of New Zealand to experience the crush of many people. Particularly so when one is transfixed by a flurry of colour and brushstrokes, only to step back and suddenly discover a wall of drones behind, ears glued to the insidious audio guides as they stand obediently absorbing the interpretation buzzing in their ear and proceeding from one painting to the next in somewhat robotic fashion as directed by their trusty audio guide. Forget that I say!

It's not difficult to fathom the enduring appeal of Monet and the associated Impressionists. All the plethora of bad reproductions and tacky tourist paraphernalia plastered with Monets fail to do justice to nor detract from the sheer beauty and shimmering colour of the paintings which after 100 years still look fresh and wonderful. Ironically these fleeting moments in time, "Impressions", have proven to be timeless in appeal.

It is rewarding to look closely at the works - forms dissolve into a web of coloured brushstrokes, colours become discrete. In a small work I have not seen before, "Poplars at Giverny" 1887, I discover the tree trunks are long lavender strokes. There is an intense feeling of light, freedom and energy in these paintings, particularly in the work from the 1880s and also in the in the later Waterlilies. The three works depicting the the Ravine of the Petite Creuse are very strong, slightly darker in tonality to the pastel shades of Morning on the Seine, near Giverny 1897 hung nearby. In the hands of lesser artists the riot of colour would descend into chaos but in Monet's assured hands he strikes the perfect balance.

It is interesting to see a contrast between the earlier works which appear to be painted quickly and confidently and the later series - Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral - in which the extensive reworking is clearly seen by the dense layers of paint and thick texture. Any artist can relate to the crisis of confidence and dissatisfaction with works in progress that this reworking indicates. Apparently Monet destroyed a number of canvases he was unhappy with towards the end of his life. One can only wonder what these were like and suspects that they would have been prized and valued despite the artist's misgivings.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Callum Innes

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney
11 December 2007 - 9 March 2008

I've visited this exhibition on a couple of occasions now and came away with different impressions both times. Considerable writing has already been devoted to the explaining and interpreting of his work so I think I will steer clear of adding to this unwieldy mass of interpretation. Sometimes the modern art world can seem like some big pyramid scheme feeding on itself and destined for an ungraceful collapse, and the proliferation of theory a symptom of this self-combustion and self-propograting.

Imagine a spacious gallery filled with really big abstract paintings with panels of white, purple and black. On the other side of the room in another painting a jewel green tone contrasts with inky black. The fashion equivalent is the striking jewel green silk dress in the movie "Atonement", currently making waves. In another area an intensely bright orange panel jumps out. A tall painting of rusty red tones with many channels of lines created by the use of solvents to dissolve paint impresses. Callum Innes' paintings are serious works, part of a now-established tradition of large-scale abstract paintings. The titles often refer to the colours used in the works - eg. "Exposed Painting Cobalt Violet". Many of the visitors struggle with the works, unable to connect or comprehend - large scale minimal abstraction continues to challenge and provoke. One could argue that Callum Innes is a painter's painter.

These works are actually a kind of de-abstraction, paint is stripped away, surfaces are dissolved. In a world where so much is wasted and polluted one can't help cringe a little at the large-scale use of toxic solvents to scour and strip away layers of paint. His is one studio I wouldn't want to spend too much time in! But the end results are beautiful, refined and worth taking time to ponder.