Monet the Revolutionary

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To paint something the way it felt, instead of the way it looked, was completely deviant

To most art lovers, the name Claude Monet brings up images of art that is easy on the eyes. This is a show you can go to see without having to feel like you’re missing something. Monet doesn’t push the boundaries, he doesn’t make things political and he keeps it about the aesthetic. It might surprise you to know that none of these things are true. They only appear so in today’s art market which is flooded with Impressionist painters who are generations too late. Impressionist painting is no longer pushing the boundaries, however, in Monet‘s day, he was a revolutionary. To paint something the way it felt, instead of the way it looked, was completely deviant, and it was only later in life that Monet found success as an artist as the art world began to recognize the Impressionist movement as significant.

It was Monet’s painting … that was the origin of the word Impressionism

The term Impressionism was adopted by Monet‘s contemporaries after a review by art critic Louis Leroy, which used the word as a disparagement. The show he critiqued was one that Monet and his group, including Renoir, Pissarro and Sisley, organized independently of the exhibit at the Salon de Paris after they were turned down for their dissident style of art. It was Monet‘s painting titled, Impression, Sunrise, that was the origin of the word Impressionism. Some say this was the beginning of modern art. As art began to break away from a precise representation of the physical world, it became a tool for subversion. Every new art movement after this was defined by how it turned structure on its head rather than how it served the hierarchies and power structures in society.

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Impressionism attempted to portray the world as it felt, rather than how it looked. After this, Pablo Picasso and the cubist began to break down the actual structure of the physical world so that all the parts were there, but in the wrong order. Then artists like Jackson Pollock in New York brought Abstract Expressionism to the world. Art moved away from any kind of recognizable object in the physical world and became about direct expression from the artist to the canvas.

Perhaps history will highlight only a few, but our modern age seems to offer an art movement for the subversion of every kind of power structure

After this, art that pushed the boundaries started to move away from traditional art altogether, and began using new tools and media. Barbara Kruger starting using words and text to subvert our ideas of what it is to be a woman. Installation art and graffiti art was adopted along with film. Artists like the Guerrilla Girls worked anonymously and adopted performance art and billboard ads to get across their message of equal opportunity for woman artists. Art movements exploded after the Abstract Expressionists. Perhaps history will highlight only a few, but our modern age seems to offer an art movement for the subversion of every kind of power structure.

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Although this is just a tiny brush across the surface of modern art evolutions in the Western world, it puts Monet‘s work in a different light. Understanding the context he was working in changes the way we look at his work. Monet triggered a chain reaction that we are still feeling today. Yes, art history has many flaws, including the exclusion of woman artists and the marginalization of non-Western art movements. Perhaps writing this post is my own way of coming to terms with what is still missing from the history books.

Perhaps writing this post is my own way of coming to terms with what is still missing from the history books

When I walked into the opening of Claude Monet’s Secret Garden at the Vancouver Art Gallery, I think I was a little hesitant. Did I really want to come see another male artist that supposedly changed art history? What was special about this one and where were his female contemporaries represented in all of this? But to recognize where we are right now, and the opportunity women have to participate in defining art movements, it was important for me to recognize and appreciate what Monet has done for art; and it is, in fact, very significant.

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Monet refused to follow the mold of his time; he chose to paint the world as he felt it. Up until this point, an artist’s skill was primarily a commodity in service to the highest bidder and as such, the artist had to offer realistic portrayals. After the Impressionist movement, the value in the work began to be about how the artist saw the world. So, although Impressionist painting is no longer revolutionary, it was at the time, and it was the beginning of something very important.

Imagine that it is April 1874 and you are walking into an independent exhibition in Paris and seeing these paintings for the first time ever

So when you walk through the doors at the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the Monet show this summer, try to imagine that all you have seen are paintings that look like photographs. Then imagine that it is April 1874 and you are walking into an independent exhibition in Paris and seeing these paintings for the first time ever. Now imagine what kind of impact this is going to have on the future of art in the Western world. Those idyllic scenes start to look pretty revolutionary, don’t they?

The details of Monet’s life that I reference in this post were found here: www.claudemonetgallery.org

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