Painting the void: Monet at the National Gallery

The cavernous, windowless rooms below the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery might not seem the most apt place to exhibit the work of the exceptional painter of air and light, but Monet & Architecture is a tremendous success.

I wish I had gone on a quieter day, but judging by the reviews, there won’t be many. The £20 entrance fee didn’t seem to be putting anyone off, and after not more than a few minutes, the reason why had become clear: Monet’s painting, masterful enough to speak for itself, has been profitably contextualised, provoked and made exciting and beautiful.

Although the counterexamples would be numerous, Claude Monet (1840-1926) is not an artist traditionally associated with the painting of buildings. Normally, critics will talk of his sumptuous depiction of air and light, of his “eye” and his revolutionary strides which would anticipate 20th Century abstraction. In this exhibition, however, it is the subject of architecture in Monet’s oeuvre which is examined and valued. What is impressive is the way in which the curators have shown that buildings were important to Monet not just as subjects, but as poetic structures capable of reflecting art and representing history.

Antibes, Morning, 1888

The very first paintings we see on entering give a taste of all to come. The young Claude, at the tender age of 24, paints with firm grip the solidity of a medieval building in the coastal town of Honfleur, giving space to breathe all around it. His tendency from a young age to look to ancient buildings as a source of inspiration is evident here, but it was apparently unclear that Monet would go on to be fixated with the modern as well as the established. We are obliged by the curators to wait until several rooms later before we are allowed to see the application of his young gifts on a less picturesque subject, the fog-swathed steel lattice structures of the Gare Saint Lazare painting being the best example.

The Gare St Lazare, 1877

What else is clear from the start is that Monet was a painter of mass and counter-space. No solid form is produced without an equal and opposite void, the latter more often than not being the main focus of the painter’s skill and attention. Looming cliffs burst on to long and empty seas; church spires towering over a mass of town buildings are only seen from across the distant bend of a river. Only through, from afar, and always with an elemental intermediary do we see the distant subjects of Monet’s paintings.

Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1904

But they, the architectural subjects, are there. In London he paints a sunset with the dark ghost of Parliament structuring what otherwise would have been pure, formless colour. In Paris, the steel bridges and swamps of railway smoke and steam are the ideal inspiration for an artist who had such mastery of texture. In Venice, on its island stands the stately San Giorgio Maggiore, a vast rough mirrored substance which Monet paints from the side of the light, the sun and his gaze gilding and distilling their object into a golden moment. And in Rouen, Monet’s series of the cathedral, perhaps the only masterpieces to have been painted from a shop balcony, is ineffably architectural. In these last, the surface of the worn stone is analogue to the canvas, both capturing and recording light as time, according to his hand, the one laden with age, the other light with new life.

Rouen Cathedral, 1894

Looking at Monet’s work is like watching a silent explosion - a muted moment of calm before the sound of a firework reaches you. This is clearest in his most colourful works, such as those from Antibes and Venice. But if you leave this exhibition with anything other than the fleeting thrill of visual pleasure, it will be an appreciation of Monet’s gifts in his more tonally muted works, in which the presence of architecture makes us ponder the very project of painting, and of art. Are we here simply to witness Monet’s ecstatic communion with looking at nature, or are we here to have such an experience ourselves? Either way, one departs humbler and richer and hungry for more.

Monet & Architecture runs at the National Gallery until 29th July. Tickets are £20 for non-members.