June 11, 2012

Giverny in the Bronx

There’s a truism in the art museum world that, when attendance starts to flag or publicity has been sparse, curators have a ready, foolproof solution:  mount an Impressionist exhibition.  Borrow some Renoirs and Monets, throw in a Cezanne or a Pizarro, and the public will be standing in line every morning.  Impressionism sells.

I’ve been lured to a couple of those exhibitions.  A few were outstanding but most simply recycled the same highly overexposed paintings.  So, I was understandably dubious when Betty and I went to the New York Botanical Garden Saturday morning to see “Monet’s Garden”.  Why did NYBG, an institution with no dearth of resources or lack of visitors, feel a need to put on a six-month-long tribute to Claude Monet? 

What you see when you enter
the exhibit.  Double-click on any
photo to see it at full size.
I had a right to be suspicious.  Two years ago, there was another attempt to recreate a much-beloved nineteenth-century figure’s garden.   That time, it was Emily Dickinson and, in my opinion, it fell flat (I wrote about it here).  This time, however, my doubts were misplaced.  I love being proved wrong and, even more, I appreciate leaving an exhibition with more knowledge than I had going in. 

Straight ahead, the Japanese
“Monet’s Garden” has a simple premise:  In the latter half of his life, Claude Monet (1840-1926) worked in plants the same way he worked in paints.  Giverny, to which he moved in 1883 and remained until his death, became a canvas imbued with as much care, imagination and skill as the paintings that lined collectors’ walls; and bellflowers, hollyhocks, wisteria, water lilies and snapdragons were a palette as endlessly versatile as the one he carried when he painted.

The surprising part of the above paragraph is that it is written by someone who has made the trip to Giverny.  I have seen the Grande Allée, the pergolas, the Japanese bridge.  I thought it was very beautiful.  Somehow, though, it never connected in my tiny little brain that Monet’s garden was his passion and that he devoted as much time to it as he did to his painting.  Now, after a trip to the Bronx, I do.

Turn around, and there's a glimpse
of the main house at Giverny
“Monet’s Garden” unfolds in multiple parts.  As you enter NYBG and walk toward the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, you see placards bearing poetry that was written during Monet’s painting years.  Once in the Conservatory, you hear music; uniquely French and from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Ravel’s Bolero is a terrific accompaniment).  You go through a pair of glass doors and you are assaulted by colors.

Monet was meticulous in his record-keeping.  He documented his purchases of plants and his instructions to his gardeners.  His garden was extensively photographed in his lifetime.  NYBG brought in Scott Pask, a Broadway scenic designer, to create, in a few thousand square feet, a set piece that is both accurate and representational.  The Grande Allée has been condensed to approximately 250 feet but is packed with thousands of annuals and perennials, each true to Monet’s time and vision.  Overhead, on metal arches painted the ‘Monet Green’ used in Giverny, roses are beginning to climb.

Is it Giverny or the Bronx?
What is stunning is that a) everything in the Grande Allée is in perfect bloom and that b) growing in NYBG’s greenhouses are replacement plants to parallel the march of the seasons between now and October.  This day, the snapdragons were eight feet high, the bellflowers were in full purple flower and the hollyhocks had not a single spent petal.  According to the NYBG literature, more than 150 varieties of annuals and perennials are on display.  By October, the count will exceed 600.

It is an exhibit that encourages you to keep looking around.  If you turn around to admire the garden behind you, you see a two-story fragment of the main house at Giverny, perfect in its pink and green accents, the carriage lamps beside the shuttered doors just as they are in Monet’s paintings.  Ahead of you, through a double gate (again, in Monet Green, is the iconic footbridge, swathed in wisteria, bamboo and willows.

An abundance of water lilies.  Alas,
it was a different Ray Davies.
The second part of “Monet’s Garden” is outdoors.  The two pools in the Conservatory’s courtyard have been given over to water lilies.  I learned that  Nymphaea odorata underwent an seismic change in the 1880s as colorful North American specimens were cross-bred with their hardy European cousins to produced new cultivars with colors never before seen on the Continent.  Monet collected these lilies and overwintered them.

I thought for a brief instant that I had discovered a previously unknown footnote to the genius of Kinks founder Ray Davies.  One of the water lilies in the pool has the cultivar name, ‘Ray Davies’.  Alas, some research showed that the cultivar in question is named for the founder of Stapeley Water Gardens of Great Britain and not for the lead singer on Sunny Afternoon.

Amazingly, there is more to see.  We walked over to the Mertz Library where photographs and a pair of Monet paintings were on display.  In another room, Monet’s gardening notes, lists and letters were laid out and translated, with small photos providing visual reference points. 

It was while perusing his extensive notes that everything fell into place: this man was a passionate gardener who created a private Eden far from Paris.  Here, he could garden and paint (his series on the Rouen cathedral, poplars, and haystacks were all products of Giverny, as well as the masterpiece ‘Les Nymphéas’ now in the Musée de l’Orangerie).  Here he entertained friends and dignitaries.  Here, he was at peace.

Maybe it’s one of those ‘duh’ moments – everyone on the face of the earth already knew these things.  But I didn’t, or at least I didn’t know I knew it.  Now, I do.  Thank you, NYBG, for a lovely education.

*  *  *  *  *

We also spent time at the Rockefeller Rose Garden at NYBG.  It is at its peak in June and, on this day (June 9), it is as though every single one of the 1700 varieties were in simultaneous sensual bloom.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect trip.

No comments:

Post a Comment