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Seeing Monet as a Precursor to Digital Art

Art* A Swiss museum draws a painterly line from the pioneering Impressionist and his waterlilies to today's vibrant new works.


BASEL, Switzerland — By the time he died 75 years ago, Claude Monet's late work had been more or less dismissed by many avant-garde artists.

Critics dubbed him an anachronism, a man who had outlived himself. For Lionello Venturi, a leading Italian art historian, he was a "gravedigger of Impressionism," the movement to which a Monet piece once gave its name.

But after World War II, interest in Monet surged again, chiefly in the United States. It centered on his famous waterlilies and other "series paintings," depicting on various canvases the same subject under the changing effect of light and weather.

With advancing age, he had evolved a diffuse style, bordering on the abstract. Suddenly, Monet's late oeuvre was recognized as an important landmark in the evolution of modern art.

Now, a major Swiss exhibition sets out to show a path leading from these masterpieces to the video and computer art of the 21st century.

"Claude Monet ... Up to Digital Impressionism" is the title of the show expected by organizers to draw a quarter of a million visitors to the Beyeler Foundation Museum in suburban Riehen.

Museum founder Ernst Beyeler said it is seeking to "trace the dominant role of Monet's work as a preliminary stage to abstract painting." It is also, he said, trying to explore the link between Impressionism and present-day "electronic aesthetics."

More than 40 of Monet's color-saturated works, some never before seen in public, are on view. The spotlight is on his heavily textured landscapes with blurring contours and neither horizon nor perspective.

They are displayed along with almost equal numbers of modern and contemporary exhibits. Lenders include museums and private collectors in the United States and eight European countries.

Featured are many from Monet's garden series at Giverny, his home after 1890, with its legend-inspiring waterlily pond that became the most important subject in his late career, culminating with the "Grandes Decorations," a decorative cycle of murals in the Paris Orangerie.

The dazzling eight-part panorama of a lily pond, Monet's gift to the French nation, was opened to the public seven months after his death. But it soon was neglected as critical esteem shifted.

After visiting the Orangerie on his return from U.S. exile a quarter-century later, French painter Andre Masson praised it in a widely cited article as the "Sistine Chapel of Impressionism."

Contributing to the postwar "Monet Revival" was also a comprehensive 1949 Impressionist exhibition in Basel, focusing for the first time on several late waterlilies that had remained rolled up in the Giverny studio since Monet's death. They were lent by Monet's son, Michel.

Writing in a catalog for the show, art historian Michael Leja credits the paintings of American abstract expressionists as playing the key role in the rediscovery of Monet. He named Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko as artists "who had educated the vision of contemporary viewers to recognize the achievements of Monet's late work."

Paintings by them are displayed in the show's "Modernism" section. Leja's German colleague, Karin Sagner-Duechting, who initiated the project, says that for many of the more than 300 American artists who went on a pilgrimage to Paris in the 1950s, "the immediate experience of Monet became a catalyst."

Works by modernists on view range from a 1910 study by Wassily Kandinsky to a 1995 canvas by Anselm Kiefer. Kandinsky had been one of the few turn-of-the-century avant-garde artists to sense the importance of Monet's late style.

In a prologue to the section displaying analytical and digital art, Monet's wintry "Misty Morning, Floes Melting" hangs opposite a series of white monochromes by Robert Ryman. It is the only direct juxtaposition allowing observers to judge the affinity of their styles. The section also includes a work by video artist Diana Thater, featuring Monet garden impressions and an eroticized installation by Pipilotti Rist called "Sip My Ocean."

For Markus Bruederlin, chief curator of the Beyeler Foundation, the concept of "Digital Impressionism" transports "the painterly visions of this ancestor of modern art [Monet] into the 21st century."

The foundation's own Monet, a monumental "Water Lily Pond" triptych that, at more than 9 yards wide, is also the largest of the show, was moved from its regular room, where it faced a real lily pond, to be temporarily replaced by the latest work at the show, which is only slightly smaller.

Olafur Eliasson's 2002 "Your Spiral View" is a 26-foot tunnel of highly polished steel with a dazzling kaleidoscopic effect.

Beyeler, who also owns one of Switzerland's most highly reputed art galleries, said at the opening that, despite the expected large influx, the show is certain to run up a "tremendous deficit" before it closes Aug. 4.

With Monets selling at auction for up to $33 million--and other leading artists also selling well--insurance premiums are skyrocketing. Proceeds from the gallery allow him to continue to mount important shows, he said in an interview with the Basler Zeitung newspaper.

"In the future, the very great exhibitions are likely to be reduced in scale, because it is becoming increasingly difficult to loan high-quality pictures," Beyeler said. "Therefore, we are trying to run ahead of this trend and will continue to organize such shows as long as possible."

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