Get Growing with Mickey Rathbun: A garden is a canvas: “Painting the Modern Garden: From Monet to Matisse” comes to Amherst Cinema

“White Water Lilies,” (1899) by Claude Monet.

“White Water Lilies,” (1899) by Claude Monet. COURTESY AMHERST CINEMA

Edvard Munch’s “Apple Tree in the Garden” (1932-42).

Edvard Munch’s “Apple Tree in the Garden” (1932-42). COURTESY AMHERST CINEMA

Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” (1906).

Claude Monet’s “Water Lilies” (1906). COURTESY AMHERST CINEMA

Joaquin Sorolla’s “Garden of the Sorolla House” (1920).

Joaquin Sorolla’s “Garden of the Sorolla House” (1920). COURTESY AMHERST CINEMA

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil” (1873).

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Claude Monet Painting in His Garden at Argenteuil” (1873). COURTEST AMHERST CINEMA

By MICKEY RATHBUN

For the Gazette

Published: 02-08-2024 1:35 PM

As the calendar page flips to the short but cruel month of February, I suspect that many gardeners, like me, are getting tired of the somber palette of gray and brown.

Just in time to rescue us from seasonal ennui, a wonderful documentary, “Painting the Modern Garden: From Monet to Matisse,” is coming to Amherst Cinema. The film is based on the 2016 blockbuster exhibition of the same title at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, which showcased the potent relationship between art and gardens from the 1860s through the 1920s. The film juxtaposes images of paintings with footage of the gardens of Monet, Bonnard and other artists as they exist today and provides excellent commentary by curators, artists, gardeners and landscape designers, each offering valuable perspectives on the works of art and their broader social and artistic significance.

As the film makes clear, the mid-1800s were a transformative era in the history of gardening. Darwin’s “Origin of Species” was published in 1859, bringing new understanding of the evolution of life forms. Unfamiliar varieties of plants like chrysanthemums and magnolias were arriving in Europe from Africa, Asia and the Americas and being hybridized for the rapidly expanding population of gardening enthusiasts. Gardens were no longer strictly the realm of royalty, Louis XIV and Versailles. Anyone with a plot of land could create a garden in a small corner of their property, and with the availability of new varieties of plants, many people did just that. Seasoned and novice gardeners alike flocked to flower shows, including that of the Royal Horticultural Society, eager to view the latest rhododendrons and dahlias being produced.

The linkage between gardens on the canvas and gardens as artistic creations appears most clearly in the work of Claude Monet, a major focus of the film. Monet was an ardent horticulturalist who once said that “apart from painting and gardening, I’m no good at anything.” Monet was not only a painter but a sculptor in the garden. His gardens were themselves works of art. He was obsessed by horticultural novelty and planted gardens wherever he happened to be living. A lovely juxtaposition of works in the show is Monet’s painting of his own dahlia garden at Argenteuil paired with Renoir’s depiction of Monet painting the same garden. Monet created compositions of dahlias in his garden that “broke all the rules of what goes with what,” in the words of one commentator. The head gardener of Monet’s Giverny said that the artist liked to use opposing strong colors in a way that would “shake you a little bit.”

The film gives ample attention to Monet’s creation of his water garden, considered to be one of the greatest achievements in landscape architecture. He diverted a river to make his pond and sought out waterlilies in unusual shades of deep pink and lavender to fill it. In his later years, he built a much larger studio in which he could paint huge canvases with nothing but waterlilies. Unlike his earlier garden paintings, these have no focal point such as a bridge or a gazebo. All you see are the shifting effects of light and color on the watery scene.

Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Avant-Garde artists often depicted gardens as settings for everyday bourgeois life. An outdoor breakfast table, children rolling hoops along a garden path, a housewife tending to her flowers. Renoir and Bonnard are among those painters who reveled in the ordinary lives of their subjects. But artists of the period, including the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla, also presented gardens as idyllic escapes from modern life, places for spiritual contemplation.

The film has so much to say not only to artists but to anyone who gardens. It makes the interesting point that as some artists age, it becomes more difficult for them to actually see what they are trying to paint. It’s as if they feel that they already know what they’re looking at because they’ve looked at it so many times. This is also true for gardeners, especially those of us who have created gardens over a long period of time. We make changes, sometimes incremental, sometimes substantial, but we are looking at essentially the same canvas year after year. Our challenge is to see our gardens with fresh eyes each season. The film urges us to look more closely and appreciate each moment, because the scene changes with every passing cloud or breath of wind.

The film also invites us to reexamine our use of color and form in the garden. Has my once pleasing arrangement of phlox and echinacea become a chaotic mess? Has my beloved oakleaf hydrangea taken over the shrub border? Could I add a touch of color, perhaps a colorful coleus, to a monochromatic shade garden? Am I sticking to hidebound rules about what colors and shapes go together? Impressionist artists broke rules on their canvases and in their gardens. Maybe we should too.

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As we await the emergence of snowdrops to punctuate the dull winter landscape, we can bask in the light and color in this extraordinary film. Don’t miss it! It will be shown at Amherst Cinema on Wed. Feb. 28 at 7 p.m. and Sat. March 9 at 1:30 p.m.

Mickey Rathbun is an Amherst-based writer whose new book, “The Real Gatsby: George Gordon Moore, A Granddaughter’s Memoir,” has recently been published by White River Press.