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Tourists' guides to Monet's world

— September 2012

Associated media

Tourists on the familiar Japanese bridge in Monet's garden at Giverny

Adrian Lewis looks at three recent books that promise to guide you round the key sites

Living Monet, the title of the seductively designed volume from Prestel penned by Doris Kutschbach, involves a deliberate ambiguity meant to suggest that not only is Monet’s art still alive to us but that we can quite literally live and breathe Monet at Giverny. This house, with the garden he created there, was his home for the second part of his career from 1883 until his death there in 1926. The book is essentially a popular text aimed at the general reader, synthesizing the array of research on Monet’s Giverny that has been produced over the last three decades.

The book includes a lovely plan of the gardens and explanation of planting schemes and of the variety of monochrome bedding, beds with contrasting colours and ones with graduated colouring. Our eyes are opened to the temporal sequence in which the garden’s flowers appear, starting with the tulips and irises during the spring. Wonderful large images and details of the paintings are often overlaid on or bled into colour photographs of the flowers and gardens today, to suggest that being there today as a tourist involves the possibility of a total identification with Monet’s time. The lifestyle-orientation of the photographs of interior design schemes and the two pages of recipes from the house’s carnets de cuisine produce the effect that we are reliving Monet’s world.

There are various ways in which that is an illusion, at the deepest level because of the distance between us and relevant late 19th-century ways of thinking (recalcitrant individualism, anti-statism, anticlericalism, militant positivistic materialism). More concretely, the fact that Giverny last year received 611,000 visitors in seven months means, of course, that the experience of walking its gardens is substantially different from that of Monet on his post-prandial strolls. We need to know about other factors making our experience of Giverny different from Monet’s. The whole house is not viewable today and the impression of the large studio, with its mural-sized Waterlilies, is affected by its present-day use as a gift-shop. Monet’s cherished Japanese woodcuts are spread throughout the house whereas on the first floor in Monet’s day one would have seen Monet’s own collection of paintings by other artists as well as a mini-retrospective of his own work in another space.

Kutschbach herself points to several changes. Slightly different varieties of dahlias are available today, and a copper beech now stands where Monet’s tree peonies once were. Also, whereas on the east side of the Grande Allée Monet initially planted the so-called paint-box beds with one variety of flower per bed, now mixed planting is used for a longer span of flower-bloom. Today the varieties of waterlily have all become mixed up in the pond and the wisteria is kept off the lower part of the Japanese bridge. The most important change in the garden experience is probably that in Monet’s day one could walk straight down the Grande Allée and through a tunnel beneath the railway into the water-garden, whereas today the latter is entered from the west corner at an angle. A whole range of new logistics are in play today to accommodate Giverny to the new world of mass tourism. Kutschbach’s book may not address these problematics, but it serves well as an overview of what a visit to Giverny yields.

Giverny is well covered by the new Museyon publication Impressionists and Post-Impressionists: The Ultimate Guide to Artists, Paintings and Places in Paris and Normandy. This book is clearly aimed at the cultural tourist visiting France who might well want to have lunch at the Hotel Baudy in Giverny, as the photograph of its fare suggests, and will want to find the main pictorial plaques marking where the artists painted (which are themselves illustrated in the book). The series must know its marketing well: half the book is devoted to a biographically oriented art history (with as many racy bits about the artists as possible) and more than another third to Paris, its main museums and a series of walking tours that take in (as an example) the Restaurant au Petite Riche, even though it has no connection with the art involved.

Being a gazetteer, it can claim perhaps to avoid responsibility for suggesting what one might learn from what the artist did with the motif. Nonetheless, it does tend to go where tourist boards with their plaques had been before. You can lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise, immortalized in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party (1880–1) without knowing that the café-less La Grenouillère, perhaps the crucial site in the development of Impressionism, is but a short walk along the river.

The guide’s coverage of Normandy omits various plaque-less sites around Pourville and Varengeville that are practically unchanged since Monet painted there. There is no commentary on the difference between sites that are still very much as they were (such as the Place de l’Europe as painted by Caillebotte and others) and others that are not, such as the carpark in Le Havre where 100 years previously, from a high quayside hotel window, Monet painted the famous Impression: Sunrise (1872/3). Some such site visitings will fall rather flat without more research or enquiry. Museyon has done its due diligence, though, with researching where the artists worked and where various venues such as cafes and galleries were located, and that might justify its claim to be the ultimate guide, although various competitors in English and French do exist (such as Patty Lurie’s A Guide to the Impressionist Landscape, Bullfinch Press, Seattle, 1990, £23.95).

The Museyon guide richly illustrates Impressionist images of Rouen, including a half-dozen of Monet’s famous serial images of the façade of the Cathedral in different lights and seasons, plus the view from today’s tourist office, which is the only one of Monet’s temporary studio spots visitable today.

To get the full spendour of the Rouen paintings, one needs to buy Marianne Alphant’s Claude Monet: Cathédrales de Rouen (NB text in French only). Here the series is shown in jumbo-sized reproductions, similar to Joaquim Pissarro’s Monet’s Cathedrals: Rouen 1892­–1894 (Knopf, 1990, no longer in print). Full-page details and Monet drawings of Rouen are included, as well as mesmerizingly beautiful details of 19th-century photographs of the cathedral. The shortness of the 15-page French-language text indicates that the book is aimed at the general reader. Written by the author of today’s standard Monet biography, it tells the story of the artist’s progress on the series. Biographically oriented, it does not discuss the art itself or provide a discussion of reception or cultural context. It does, however, briefly focus on the order of the Musée Marmottan sketchbook completed at Rouen and its indication that Monet really explored the cathedral from far and near, and tracked around it from each side, until he quite literally zoomed in to the final engulfing experience of phenomenal shiftingness that this massive historical monument became.

Living Monet by Doris Kutschbach is published by Prestel, Munich, 2012. 144pp. 215 colour and 25 mono illus, £16.99. ISBN 978-3-7913-4695-3

Impressionists and Post-Impressionists: The Ultimate Guide to Artists, Paintings and Places in Paris and Normandy by Kiril Penusliski, Michael Dougherty, Charlie Fish, April Isaacs, Cindy Kang and Lelia Packer is published by Museyon, New York, 2011. 328 pp. 817 colour illus, £15.99. ISBN 978-0-9822320-9-5

Claude Monet: Cathedrale(s) de Rouen by Marianne Alphant (French text), is published by Editions Point de Vues, Bonsecours, 2010. 96pp. 28 colour and 14 mono illus, £21.60. ISBN 978-2-915548-54-9


Adrian Lewis
Art historian and artist

Media credit: Photograph: Adrian Lewis

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