With more than 60 paintings by Hodler, Monet and Munch the Pierre Gianadda Foundation shows a surprising exhibition. The Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918), the French painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) and the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Why bring them together? The three of them, even though they have never met, have tried to paint with the same constancy until the limit of despair motifs which seemed to be impossible. “I have taken up things impossible to do: water with grass that undulates in the dephts, it is admirable to see, but it is enough to drive one mad to wish to do it“. These words were written by Monet concerning his picture The Row Boat, Nr. 28.
They made the effort to fix on the canvas their subjective impressions of nature. They observed the colourful and changing phenomenon of nature so difficult to paint: movement of water, gradation of snow, sunrays with their blinding effect on the eyes, heights of the mountains.
Although from different countries and generations, they all belong to the same period and space: Europe in the second half of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, a time of modernity, of scientific discoveries and technological progress, of political and economic changes. These affected the way they lived and the way they made art and developed as artists. They were the men of a new world and they invented a new kind of painting, one that used experimental serial methods inspired by the sciences to explore subjects that were at once simple and yet, it was thought, impossible to capture in paint on canvas: the movements of water, the subtleties of snow, the dazzling light of the sun viewed directly. What this exhibition shows and compares is their constantly renewed experiments as they grappled with these questions.
In the beginning was the study of nature. Like Courbet before them, Monet and the other Impressionnists, Hodler and Munch took their first motifs in familiar places, near Geneva or in Saint-Cloud, on the banks of the Seine. Attentive observation was their primary imperative: they focused on the reality oft he landscape, avoiding picturesque additions or anecdotical elements that would distract the viewer from the essential. We can know nothing about Hodler’s bourgeois walker in the forest, nr. 3 or Munch’s Norwegian peasants, nr. 6. But we can gauge the difference between what is seen by day and what is seen by night, and how space grows deeper in shadow, or again, how the simple reflection of Mount Salève in the waters of a pond, nr. 26 accentuates the impression of its height and mass.
After the second half of the 19th century water becomes an important subject mainly for the impressionist painters: reflexions of the light on the surface, the movement of waves, rivers, streams, canals, fjords, lakes and bays. Monet is constantly aware of the difficulties when he says “I have taken up things impossible to do: water with grass that undulates in the depths”. The struggle with water was his foremost obsession, one that he wrestled with right up to his very last series of Water Lilies. Not many people know that Hodler and Munch also took on this elusive motif. Although very different stylistically, both followed the same imperatives of being as close to the motif and using the immobile lines and colors of paint to suggest the constant mobility of the water’s surface, currents and reflections.
Munch goes further when painting 1908 Waves, nr. 34, more a developed sketch than a canvas intended for exhibition, he positioned himself facing the rollers. He composed in parallel bands with different colours and widths. The lower one indicates the shore, the upper one a sky that is just as turbulent as the sea. Between them, tiered, are blues, greens and purples of varying intensities. They are applied in striations, hatchings or zig-zagging lines, not as representation but as a rhythmic transcription of the noise of waves that roll and break.
SUNS AND MOONS
The subtitle Painting the impossible comes to its outmost when it happens to the artist to paint the sun. Nothing is more dangerous than to face the sun at mid-day. Impression, Sunrise nr. 50 by Monet and The Sun nr. 51 by Munch: two confrontations with the most dangerous motif, in that the eye cannot bear to behold it for more than a few moments when it is at its most dazzling. Other solutions therefore had to be found. Monet and Hodler preferred sunrise and sunset or days when it was filtered by mist or cloud. Munch was the only artist of the three to risk this confrontation and try to find a way of representing the expansion of light rays and their chromatic effects. He carried out various experiments, pushing painting to the limits of its analytical capacities. The nocturnal light of moon and stars was less painful for the retina, but it was still difficult to capture. For how could one paint when there were only tiny points of light in the sky?
The systematic developpement of rail transport, the beginning of mountain climbing in France and Switzerland, the first tourist resorts: there were among the effects of technological progress. Where before painters had only been able to observe the alpine heights from a distance, from down below as Turner experienced when he travelled to the Swiss Alps in 1802, now the mountains were increasingly accessible, as they also were to their new rivals: photographers. They could explore and study them at first hand. Panoramic views of near or distant chains, aerial or bird’s eye views of lakes, seas of clouds or mist, and even glaciers, all seen at different times and in different weather; geology and meteorology were increasingly represented in painting. The task of the artist - Monet, and above all Hodler, who was the main agent of this revolution - was to invent the compositions and chromatic effects that would capture his observations.
How to paint snow? The Old Masters of Northern Europe, among them Pieter Brueghel, had tried to capture its whiteness and its brilliance; the subject came back to the fore in the second half of the 19th century. This was due in large part to Courbet’s paintings of winter landscapes in Franche-Comté, but Monet, Hodler and Munch would take an even more sustained interest. Having captured the snow in Paris and around Vétheuil, Monet travelled to Norway in 1895 to study the subject in an uncomfortable struggle against the wind and the cold. For the Swiss Hodler and the Norwegian Munch, snow was an obvious subject, one they worked on many times. When it came to painting snow, its changing density - its different thicknesses and the variations of its luminosity - all three concurred: a simple layer of white was not enough. Snow contains many more colours and shades than is generally thought.
LIMITS OF THE GAZE, LIMITS OF PAINTING
Perceptual capacities: we have seen how much Monet, Hodler and Munch conceived their work on the basis of an experimental, serial and deductive model which was the one that organized and legitimized the scientific research being carried out around them.
For two of our painters, ocular accidednts gave a tragic and symbolic twist to the critique of human perceptual capacities. Monet suffered from cataracts in both eyes, diagnosed in July 1912. After a treatment that would slow down the illness he had recovered most of his visual faculties and was able to continue and develop the Japanese Bridge and Water Lilies. In May 1930, Munch suffered a hemorrhage in the vitreous body of his right eye. It slowly recovered and by the end of the summer he was able to take up his instruments once again. He now studied this accident, working systematically to graphically recapture the impressions of his impaired retina.
In experiments and in series, colours reveal the full extent of their power. They are the visual substance of nature and the language of sensations and emotions. Their suggestive power is such that it can stand alone, gradually removing the need to represent the details of reality. Monet’s almost impenetrable gestural variations, Hodler’s regular geometry of chromatic relations, and the studio paintings of Munch’s in which rain is red and sand is pink: all three painters were contemporaries of the Fauvism of Matisse and Derain and the Expressionism of Nolde and Kandinsky. All are part of the history that embraces the artistic avant-gardes from Impressionism towards abstraction.