Art Documentary Exhibitions Features Live Action Movies

Exhibition on Screen:
the Modern Garden
– Monet to Matisse

Director – David Bickerstaff – 2016 – UK – Cert. U – 93m


The relationship of Claude Monet’s late water lily paintings to the history of horticulture, along with a few other artists and their gardens – out in UK cinemas for one day only on Tuesday, February 27th

Originally made to coincide with the Royal Academy’s 2016 exhibition of the same name, this basically does what it says on the tin. With Exhibition on Screen’s excellent series of documentaries about art and artists receiving brief cinema outings in recent years, this entry from the back catalogue is given a big screen outing. While the exhibition has long since been and gone, French Impressionist painter Claude Monet is one of those figures from the history of art who is incredibly popular, especially the late garden or water lily paintings, so a documentary about those late paintings ought to be a fairly easy sell.

Those Monet works and the garden he built at his house in Giverny – rented from 1893, owned from 1900 thanks to a loan from his dealer – are very much the spiritual centre of the film, along with Monet’s skill as a horticulturalist, which is explored at quite some length. The thesis here is that everywhere he lived, he applied himself to his gardening as much as to his painting, never more so than when he became an owner-occupier. That may be historically accurate, but quite how it will sit with the present day younger generation, who are too poor to get onto the housing ladder, is anyone’s guess.

Nevertheless, there is much informative material here about both Monet’s development of his garden – his problems facing opposition from locals and obtaining planning permission, his development of it as what was in effect an outdoors studio for practising plein air painting – and the fact that the exhibition brought together three landscape-shaped lily paintings on public display in their intended triple screen, panoramic display alongside one another in one room for the first time since the artist’s death in 1926.

Unlike later Exhibition on Screen entry Mary Cassatt: Painting the Modern Woman (Ali Ray, 2023), which clearly draw its title from this film, the essentially conservative nature of the subject means this is less willing to take bold chances. Looking at the exhibition as here presented, it feels rather like some reasonably compelling Monet bits augmented by some rather less compelling material on other artists and filler footage in which the camera wanders round the exhibition and its punters. That may well reflect the exhibition itself.

The explanation of the rise of the middle class in the 19th Century and ordinary people spending more time tending to and relaxing in their own gardens is helpful in terms of overall context. Indeed, the film is as much about the development of the garden in that period as it is about art, and may well draw in a whole other audience who know little about art or painting but care deeply about plants and gardening. And clearly it will be of particular interest to anyone keen on both.

Alas, the film founders as soon as it wanders away from Monet onto other artists and their gardens. You find yourself wanting to learn about the artistic portrayal of horticulture through the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, which this barely touches apart from contemporary artist Tania Knowles (of whom, I must admit, I’d never previously heard) who proves fascinating for the short amount of time she’s allotted. Instead, as it skims over other late 19th and early 20th Century artists including Henri Matisse, Emil Nolde and many other, less well-known names, you can’t help but feel they are a distraction to the main event of Monet and his water lily paintings.

While many will be drawn in by the populist art subject matter, there is neither the same degree of extensive research nor startling revelations that can be found in more recent productions from the same stable (among them Vermeer: The Greatest Exhibition, David Bickerstaff, 2023; Tokyo Stories, David Bickerstaff, 2023; and Hopper: An American Love Story, Phil Grabsky, 2022). Still, a rare chance to see this back catalogue entry on the big screen is most welcome.

Exhibition On Screen: Painting The Modern Garden – Monet To Matisse is out in cinemas in the UK for one day only on Tuesday, February 27th.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *