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Seeing 'Monet's Garden' With Lens of Insight


SANTA BARBARA — This town is renowned for floral fecundity. It's hard to imagine an exhibition about a garden that would get this community's mind off the real thing. Showcasing Eden might do it. Failing that, how about the garden that is certainly the most famous in the world of modern art, Claude Monet's Giverny? Oh boy, an exhibition of Monet's famous paintings of his famous garden? Well, not exactly. What I had in mind is the Santa Barbara Museum of Art's "In Monet's Garden: Photographs by John Batho."

Somehow the idea of Monet's garden photographed by somebody is a bit of a letdown. Doesn't seem like the genuine article. On the other hand, who says an artist can't get a masterpiece from somebody else's model?

As it turns out, very considerable charm wafts from this little summer show. The photos closely resemble Monet's paintings while coming across as piquantly different. For anyone somehow unfamiliar with Monet's images, they offer a photographic experience of an extraordinary place. For those up to speed on the most pure of the Impressionists, Batho's two dozen theme-and-variation Cibachrome prints proffer comparative insight.


Giverny was, in a very real sense, Monet's Eden. He bought the house in rural Normandy in 1893, finally financially stable after years of struggling to establish the new art he crucially helped create. He cultivated the gardens and ponds to a verdancy that made the whole property look like a huge bouquet. He was so fond of the look of the place he paid a bounty to local farmers so they would not cut down a stand of poplars bordering the road.

Giverny increasingly became Monet's sole subject. Plagued by failing eyesight, he painted trailing willows, waterlilies and reflections repeatedly, in series. He refined his quest to get at the pure optical effects of light and color on the human eye. By the time he died in 1926 at age 86, his work was so sophisticated it was all but abstract, prefiguring American Abstract Expressionism as well as Light and Space art.

Batho is a French photographer born in Normandy in 1939. As a boy, he fell in love with Giverny, which is open to the public. During the '80s, he established a reputation as a colorist photographing the garden and other subjects. This exhibition was organized by Santa Barbara Museum of Art curator Karen Sinsheimer from works loaned by the Zabriskie Galleries.

If there is a graphic trademark image of Giverny, it's surely the arched Japanese footbridge that was Monet's first subject there. Batho's version is instantly recognizable but startlingly original emotionally. The contrast reminds us that Monet, for all his decorative elan, was basically a kind of optical scientist. Batho, touchingly, photographed the bridge with the eye of the enchanted child he must have been when he first saw it, with the sharpness of the age when reality itself seems like magic. Monet painted, so to speak, out-of-focus.

There is no more basic contrast on view than that between the capabilities of photography and painting. We tend to think of the brush as the vehicle of imagination, the camera as the robot servant of the real. Evidently that formula can be reversed.

Monet's paintings make liberal use of unlikely shades of fuchsia, lavender and Oz-like greens. We're inclined to ascribe them to artistic license. Batho's photographs (even if it's a darkroom trick) make a convincing case that these hues are real. He's equally revelatory about some of Monet's most apparently abstract works. What seems impossible in his paintings becomes all the more bewitching when Batho's images point out, for example, that a topsy-turvy canvas is a real record of the sky turned upside down in a pond reflection.

There's never a hint of nostalgic exoticism in Monet's paintings. By contrast, Batho's photographs have the feel of a serene, misty Japanese garden. In actual sites this effect is achieved by rigorous artifice. Giverny, like the classic English garden, looks natural at first, only revealing its own careful planning by doing what's seemingly impossible, improving on nature.

The photographs remind us that Giverny is itself a work of art from which other works of art were derived. Batho doesn't dwell on this. His work touches us by the heartfelt modesty of his homage to Giverny and the revelation of his tender feelings for it.

* Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1130 State St., through July 21, closed Mondays, (805) 963-4364.

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