GALLERIES by Leigh Hafts
"I I'S saved our bacon," says Royal Academy secretary Piers Rogers, commenting on the Monet exhibition attendance figures.
Both the recent Italian Modern Art and the Royal Treasures of Sweden made heavy losses. The latter probably failed because word soon got round that it was not the real Swedish crown on view.
The Digital Equipment Corporation must be a happier sponsor. Indeed at the Monet launch the managing director was unusual among sponsor spokesmen in speaking with some knowledge and awe of the show and its curator Professor Paul Tucker.
For once it is no public relations hyperbole to say that this Impressionist exhibition will not be reassembled in our lifetime or at any time in the coming century. The idea for this show goes back to a desire by Professor Tucker to unite a single Monet cathedral painting on his US college wall with all the others.
Four years ago he began the task which required the patience and cunning of Sherlock Holmes. The trail of one picture now in London was still warm when the exhibition had its first showing in Boston. Professor Tucker has flown back and forth across the Atlantic following up every rumour that might lead to a known or unknown work by Monet.
He has pursued Elizabeth Taylor with success and turned seemingly wild goose chases into eventual triumphs. On one occasion he went specially to Paris on a tip only to be rebuffed. On a hunch he did not leave the building but strung out the conversation talking about other subjects until he had jogged a memory and obtained a new lead.
In Switzerland a tender took the professor through his house into a recreation of Monet's garden complete with Japanese bridge. It is perhaps the garden paintings which are drawing most visitors for just as Constable's Suffolk and Salisbury views can be visited today so can Monet's garden at Giverny.
The exhibition is a study of method for it concentrates on the decade at the end of the last century when Monet worked on .his series of sequences. The themes of haystacks, poplars, the cathedral front and his garden capture the changing effects of light and shade. He deliberately exhibited these sequeoces together and so the Royal Academy exhibition presents Monet's pictures as he intended them to be seen. They are all together and not each alone in an inaccessible boardroom. The Giverny paintings came at the end of the decade and during the period that Monet came to London to paint the foggy Thames from the Savoy. Those Embankment canvases were completed at Giverny.
The cornstacks at the beginning were worked on in the country and the studio where the stacks were often shifted to improve the composition. Although the Poplars on the River Epte project again rejected exact representation it did explore the relationship of nature with the pattern of light on trees, sky and water. The on-site 1892-4 cathedral project is the most faithful scientific record.
Georges Clemenceau, writing on the front of his newspaper, described the cathedral paintings as "a moment for mankind, a revolution without a gunshot". Rouen's gothic cathedral is distinctly French and Monet exhibited 20 of his west front versions at a time of religious revival.
In London the Rouen pictures are hung round the far end of the RA's longest gallery allowing you to stand back and see the morning light spreading down the tower and across the west front as your eyes move along the wall. This series has the most consistent focus despite three enforced changes to his south-west viewpoint a hotel room was not always vacant and the draper's shop window became unavailable. Standing close to the pictures it is clear that Monet had the same problem as Dennis Creffield does today in trying to see an entire cathedral frontage in one go. It is impossible and Monet does not attempt to show the awe inspiring Rouen given us by Turner or use up valuable space with foreground. Instead it is a close-up of a changing building with as many as 12 canvases needed for a day's work.
In the souvenir shop the Monet ties, T-shirts and jewellery seem contrived and expensive. One of the best books on sale is Joachim Pissarro's Monet's Cathedral (Pavilion £20) which reassembles for the first time the complete Rouen series. The RA is showing 11 but all 30 have never been seen together in public.
Joachim's grandfather, Camille, and Clemenceau were among the many guests at Monet's 11.30 lunches he dined early to catch the afternoon light according to Monet's Cookery Notebooks (Ebury £16.95) which provides a surprising insight into the painter's private life. He loved good food and earlier had often painted his own meal table and picnics. At Giverny the ingredients were largely drawn from the garden he painted.
The only edible items on sale are sugared almonds but you can purchase a packet of Giverny seeds. Monet sowed seeds so as to have something for painting when weather was bad.
Monet In The '90s continues at the Royal Academy of Arts until 9 December. Open daily admission £5 (concessions £3.40). Advance tickets, allowing entry without queuing, are available on credit card line 071 287 9579.