Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wondrously Lost in Water Lilies

I am certainly not the first artist to get my imagination tangled up in water lilies, and I doubt I'll be the last.  But certainly one of the most amazing intersections of water lilies and art came through Claude Monet.

Monet is particularly on my mind right now, because I took advantage of a rare opportunity last weekend: I  went to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City to experience in person the reunification of The Agapanthus Triptych.

This photo shows the current Kansas City installation, with a new frame.
Built specifically for this show, it was inspired by frames Monet approved
for other massive triptychs at l'Orangerie in France.  The curator standing in
front of the painting is Nicole Myers.  (photo from Art Knowledge News.)
Monet's lily pond at Giverny,
in a photo posted on deviantART
by "Cansounofargentina."
More familiarly called "Monet's Water Lilies," this trio of massive canvases actually is only one of the many works Monet devoted to the water lilies in his garden at Giverny, France.

Being in the presence of the complete triptych is an amazing, immersive experience.  Monet planned it that way, in fact.  He wanted his later series of enormous diptychs, triptychs, and four-part "quadtychs" to be housed in round or elliptical rooms created just for them.

A view of l'Orangerie in Paris shows
how Monet intended for his massive,
multi-part artworks to be seen.
This goal is reached with a collection of other Monet compositions in the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris.

The current display of the entire Agapanthus Triptych is unusual, however, because the work has been separated for most of the time since the canvases were split up in 1956.

That was the year when the St. Louis Art Museum bought only the central panel from a New York art dealer that had acquired the entire work from another dealer in Paris.  The French dealer had displayed the entire work to considerable acclaim, after acquiring it and several other, smaller works from Monet's son Michel.

At the urging of faculty and students from the Kansas City Art Institute, the Nelson-Atkins Museum bought the right-hand panel in 1957.  The Cleveland Museum of Art finished the process in 1960, when it bought the left-hand panel.  The last time the three canvases were reuinted as the complete triptych was in 1979, so this is genuinely a rare opportunity.

I went to see the triptych with friends. As a member of the museum's Friends of Art and a lifelong Nelson-Atkins Museum-goer, I of course had seen "our" section many times over the years.  Yet when one of my companions said, "I can't remember--do you recall which one is ours?" I was embarrassed to admit I could not.

Water Lilies and Agapanthus, 1917, by
Claude Monet (Musee Marmottan, France),
 shows what an agapanthus looks like,
when painted by Monet.   The one originally
 gracing the corner of the "Cleveland piece"
pointed right, not left. 
It would've been easier for us, if Monet had left the agapanthus in.  Ironically, the work is named for a plant whose image in the lower left-hand corner of the "Cleveland piece" was painted out by Monet at some point during his extensive revisioning and repainting process between when the work was begun in 1915 and Monet's death in 1926 (a photo from his studio in 1921 shows it was still visible then).

Experts aren't entirely sure whether Monet actually considered the triptych "finished," even in 1926, but his process of increasingly moving from representation to abstraction is a goodly part of why many people feel this is a ground-breaking work.

The Agapanthus Triptych remains in Kansas City through August 7, 2011.  After that, all three pieces travel to the St. Louis Art Museum for a display that is scheduled to run October 2, 2011-January 22, 2012.

The Cleveland Museum of Art also plans to display the three paintings together, but those display dates are less certain.  A blog post on the museum's website says the paintings will be shown together in Cleveland in 2015--exactly one hundred years from the time Monet started painting them.

PHOTO CREDITS: As noted above, the photo of the full triptych in its new frame is courtesy of Art Knowledge News, and "Giverny Water-Lily Pond" is courtesy of "Cansounofargentina."  The personal blog, All the Pages Are My Days by "Mike," featured the view of l'Orangerie.  The image of Water-Lilies and Agapanthus by Monet came from the Painting Mania website, where you can buy reproductions of the image.
ALSO NOTE: I found all of the historical information for this post from a lovely little well-illustrated book that I bought at the show,  Monet's Water Lilies: The Agapanthus Triptych by Simon Kelly, with Mary Schafer and Johanna Bernstein, published by the Saint Louis Art Museum.

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