Monet – Mitchell at Fondation Louis Vuitton is the year’s most joyful exhibition

It is January 1923, a century ago. A worried dealer, Joseph Durand Ruel, visits Giverny to find a studio “crammed with Monet’s last garden series.” It is clear that he no longer sees anything and no longer registers color.” The paintings are “atrocious” and unsaleable — although Monet’s earlier, crystalline pictures had made this very garden famous.

In the Japanese bridge paintings of 1918-24, the wisteria-laden arch is hardly discernible beneath ragged clumps of paint. In “The Artist’s House Seen from the Rose Garden” (1922-24), the once elegant pathway is an overgrown tunnel, muffled beneath strange curlicues and glorious impasto coils. Everything is yellow, crimson, fiery, unreal. Agitated swirls and scrawls, loops and trails of pigment, assert their own strength and beauty beyond representational intent. “I will paint almost blind, as Beethoven composed completely deaf,” Monet wrote. Wrestling with fading sight, he painted “motifs inscribed upon the brain”.

For decades hardly anyone looked at these canvases, but now we know it was the dealers who were blind. Monet in old age magnificently mixed memory, imagination and observation, pushing towards abstraction. This first began to be understood in 1950s America, and no more dazzling conversation followed than the one celebrated this autumn in Paris at the Fondation Louis Vuitton’s stellar exhibition. Monet — Mitchell.

Claude Monet’s ‘The Artist’s House Seen from the Rose Garden’ (1922-24)

Several of Monet’s lily pond and flower garden paintings from 1914-26 have been yanked out of their frames and thrust head-to-head against vast panels by one of the greatest exemplars of American abstraction. Joan Mitchell was born in Chicago in 1925, the year before Monet’s death. In 1968 she relocated to a house with lush grounds and a Seine view in Vétheuil, where Monet once lived. Stroke by stroke, we see how he matches her as a gestural 20th-century painter, while she rivals him in luminosity and improvisational technique, evoking water and foliage in rhythmic though free-flowing choreographies. It is the year’s most joyful exhibition.

Downstairs, a version of the Mitchell retrospective shown this summer at the Baltimore Museum is a prelude. It begins with “Minnesota”, yellows in differing densities and intensities, diffuse, layered, loose, thick, recalling the sun melting snow on the lakes of her childhood. Blossoms, trees, glimpses of the river from her garden, are transmuted into all-over rainbow hues in the prismatic “South”. In “Sunflowers”, she scoops paint into glowing spheres, then scatters it — life blooming and dying. These ecstatic compositions wrought from memory and “a feeling that comes to me from the outside, from the landscape” demonstrate how she fused a response to nature with abstract mark-making.

Abstract painting of multiple brushstrokes dominated by shades of blue, orange, green and yellow

Joan Mitchell’s ‘La Grande Vallée’ (1983) © The Estate of Joan Mitchell

Abstract painting of green plants with red flowers and an orange sky

Monet’s ‘The Garden at Giverny’ (1922-26)

Then, as Monet — Mitchell begins its flight from ground floor to roof in Frank Gehry’s glassy, ​​cloud-form building, her emphatic postwar American diction confronts refined old Europe. “L’heure des bleus”, the opening section, pairs a group of Monet’s water gardens with Mitchell’s fluid panorama “Quatuor II for Betsy Jolas”. Monet’s paintings are introduced by a stunning, privately owned “Water Lily Pond” (1917-19), horizon-less, pink flowers dissolving in comma-like brushstrokes on a blue-violet reflective surface, while Mitchell’s blue, green, white knots and blocks conjure water, vegetation, sky. Smaller pieces here span her career: the tangled yet airy abstraction “Cercando un ago” (1959), the purple-green swaths of “Champs” (1990), like rolling fields, with light pouring through white accents. They declare from the first moment what she shares with Monet: expressiveness, chromatic harmonies, tension between formlessness and pattern, vitality of movement.

But even Mitchell’s palest colors are somehow shriller, more defiant. Her hard energy (a childhood nickname was Bullethead) contrasts with his softer veils of color. This is true even when the dialogue heats up in the next gallery. Mitchell’s scintillating yellow chords in “Two Pianos”, suggesting beating sun on flowers (the title refers to her musician friend Gisèle Barreau), face an inflamed monochrome “Water Lily Pond” (1918-19, from the Musée Marmottan Monet) where everything takes on the hues of the cupped scarlet flowers, as well as voluptuous near abstractions such as the Japanese bridge pictures and “The Garden at Giverny”, dominated by stark, dark red slashes.

Black and white photo of Monet standing in front of two large paintings of water lilies

Monet in his studio, 1926

Black and white photo of Joan Mitchell sitting and smoking, staring into the camera

Mitchell in 1954 © Walt Silver/Joan Mitchell Foundation Archives

Like a cooling stream, the display then calms with Mitchell’s symphonic “River”, evoking the Seine and its banks in darting zigzags, and a scribbled breeze of swaying plants in a sketchy “Water Lilies”. You feel the exhilaration of wind on water, and also the moment’s transience and fragility. For what unites Monet and Mitchell even beyond approaches to picture-making is feeling — the way melancholy is enfolded into every one of these rapturous transpositions of nature.

Monet began his final water lily series in 1914 as a memorial to his wife and son, both recently deceased; it took on the context of national grief during and after the war. “Weeping Willow and Water Lily Pond” and “Water Lilies, Willow Reflection” — ephemeral, drifting lilies, fat black willow trunks and downward coursing branches — are images of mourning and loss. The counterbalance is comfort and renewal: a garden growing, nature’s enduring rhythms.

Abstract painting of plants against a cloudy sky

Monet’s ‘The Agapanthus’ (1914-17)

The show’s high point (of so many) is Monet’s “Agapanthus”, a mauve-green-gold 13-meter triptych in which reflections of plants and clouds interplay, plunging you into a cycle of light and darkness. It changes the mood, stilling a huge gallery where visitors wait to sit and gaze in front of it, as if at a shrine. The three panels, sold to separate American museums, were last shown together in Paris in 1956. Monet worked on them for nearly a decade, and the immersive effect and rejection of traditional perspective was unprecedented. Although “a bit ashamed to be considering little investigations into forms and colors while so many are suffering and dying for us”, he was entirely absorbed, and more experimental than ever. “Wild with the need to put down what I experience,” he said that “to render what I feel, I totally forget the most basic rules of painting — if they even exist.”

Mitchell’s grand 1980s paintings, too, were made during a period of grief: her break with her lover, painter Jean-Paul Riopelle, a cancer diagnosis and several bereavements. “Edrita Fried”, a radiant seven-meter passage from brushy ultramarine sweeps to streaks of gold, also about light and darkness, change and sorrow, is named after her psychoanalyst and friend who died in 1981. “If I don’t feel it , I don’t paint it,” Mitchell stated.

Abstract painting of multiple orange and purple brushstrokes
Mitchell’s ‘Two Pianos’ (1980) © The Estate of Joan Mitchell

The exhibition concludes with her series “La Grande Vallée”, painted after her sister’s death and inspired by a friend’s memory of a secret, happy childhood landscape. These are torrential paintings, characterized by pools of cobalt blue and rapeseed yellow, with wisps of greens and sparse whites. Versions of pastoral, of the transition of the seasons, they remake a lost paradise through the presence of paint. “Painting is the opposite of death,” Mitchell said. “It allows one to survive; it also permits one to live.”

To February 7,

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