Despite some underwhelming curatorial choices, the National Gallery of Australia’s Monet: Impression Sunrise has its moments of transcendence. By Tai Mitsuji.

Monet: Impression Sunrise

Exhibition centrepiece, Claude Monet’s Impression, sunrise [Impression, soleil levant] (1872)
Credit: Christian Baraja SLB

When Claude Monet’s Impression, sunrise (1872) was first exhibited in 1874 alongside the works of Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Pissarro, Morisot and Cézanne, it was singled out for a critical thrashing by Louis Leroy in the satirical newspaper Le Charivari.

Latching on to the painting’s name, the critic skewered the work in his article, titled “L’Exposition des impressionnistes”. But in his critique of Monet’s seemingly unresolved depiction, Leroy unwittingly gave name to the group of artists and marked the start of the Impressionist movement.

Seeing Impression, sunrise is the synaesthetic kin of hearing just the first chord of Debussy’s Clair de Lune or Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit”. Alone it holds little to no significance. There is familiarity, of course, but the base desire is to push towards hearing the entire composition unfold – in all its intricacy and iconoclasm.

Monet: Impression Sunrise, the latest exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, hinges on this single painting. As I entered the exhibition, my question was how much more of the Impressionists’ sprawling oeuvres would be allowed to play out?

The first room asks more questions than it answers. To the left hang paintings by British artists Joseph Wright of Derby and Richard Parkes Bonington, both of whom seem to have no obvious connection to Impressionism or Monet. The humble plaques placed beside the works, purporting to explain their meaning, have been left to bear the brunt of an unachievable task – attempting to collapse the distance between Monet and these Englishmen.

Yet they make a valiant effort. One describes how the ideas in Wright’s work “were also important for [J. M. W.] Turner who, in turn, inspired Monet”, while another recalls how “the Realist artists who preceded the Impressionists acknowledged Bonington as one of the first naturalistic landscape painters active in France”.

They read like the museological equivalent of the parlour game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – at once precarious and a little impressive. While teasing out these kinds of invisible connections is what the best curation aspires to, one gets the distinct sense there are not enough works, in this section at least, to fulfil such ambitions.

As the exhibition continues, this connective tissue becomes increasingly persuasive. The works of Johan Barthold Jongkind and Eugène Boudin afford the audience an insight into the men who helped make Monet. Both are ancillary characters, deployed to give our protagonist more texture and life, yet their presence feels worthy and, more than that, justified.

Some works can’t help standing apart, however, such as James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne in grey and silver, the Thames (c. 1872-74) and Turner’s Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning (c. 1845). These transcend their supporting roles, as their strength demands an engagement untethered from the Impressionist maestro.

Impression, sunrise comes about halfway through the exhibition. While the previous rooms build something of an artistic preamble to Monet, here the story suddenly pivots towards Le Havre, where Impression, sunrise was painted. All of the works nearby seem to have been painted in the French port, and maps on the walls orient the viewer so they can pinpoint the geography and proximity of these artistic efforts.

This display is a great intellectual exercise, one that shows the impressive research from the Musée Marmottan Monet, the museum from which many of the paintings, including the exhibition’s centrepiece, have come. Yet it also feels artistically inert, as if these paintings are exhibited merely for their place of conception – rather than for their artistic vigour.

The next room greets gallerygoers with a second iconic piece of Impressionism, Monet’s Haystacks, midday (1890). This was what I had previously been looking for and not seeing. Here, the artist is at the height of his powers, animating the most dormant of earthly objects, and reframing them within the vocabulary of fugitive and ever-shifting light.

However, the focus in this room is not on the Impressionists but on their collectors. Large pieces of text on the wall break the room into two basic sections – works from the Georges De Bellio collection and pieces from the Michel Monet collection. It feels like a strange choice. The demarcation limits curatorial options, clumping seemingly disparate works together and prioritising the collectors’ stories over the art itself.

It is the final room that delivers on the unspoken promise of every Impressionist exhibition – waterlilies. Walking towards them, I wonder whether I asked too much of this exhibition. It is a feat to wrench paintings from collections on the other side of the world and pull them across the oceans to our nation’s capital. Somewhere in the multiverse, I’m sure there is a more compassionate and empathetic review I’ve written, accounting for this reality.

I stand briefly with the crowd in their collective reverie, but eventually move on to one of Monet’s lesser-known pieces, The rowing boat (1887). The work, which depicts an empty rowboat floating on a bed of underwater grass, is dark, kinetic and rough. It is perfect. The painting reminds you of the depths and dynamism of Monet, whose work adorns a few too many tea towels, placemats and tote bags to feel provocative. And it reminds us of why we still return to these exhibitions, whose likeness we have undoubtedly seen before. Here, the idea of yet another tired Impressionist exhibition falters, and we are reintroduced to the artist-provocateur who once painted a rising sun.

Monet: Impression Sunrise is showing at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, until September 1.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 22, 2019 as "Mixed impressions".

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Tai Mitsuji is an art critic and art historian.