It’s got Monet, it’s got water, and it throws in Turner and Whistler — Tate Britain’s new show is sure to make a splash, says Waldemar Januszczak
TurnerWhistlerMonet, as the logo has it, was the success of the season in Paris last autumn. Tout le monde bustled in to see it. The reviews were ecstatic. The audience responses were ecstatic. Before that, it was the success of the summer in Toronto, where hundreds of thousands of passionate Canadians fought like grizzlies to get in and taste the fog. Now you, too, have the chance to share in this fierce transcontinental thirst for elusive watery effects, because the show is coming to London next month.
The notion of putting three name artists into one exhibition, thereby tripling your reach, can trace its pedigree back to the unusually successful pairing of Van Gogh and Gauguin at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2002. It seems an obvious wheeze now for a blockbuster. Back then, nobody had previously thought to dilute two huge individual reputations by blurring them in one event. Yet the show doubled expectations, doubled its audience, doubled the coverage, doubled the earnings, doubled everything. It proved to be a bloody brilliant idea, and I rank it as one of the most inspired and inspirational exhibitions I have seen.
Van Gogh and Gauguin worked as well as it did because these two geniuses had actually lived and worked together in the period under examination — the mad couple of months they shared in Arles. Theirs was a natural union. But what the art world learnt from the success of the show was the crude structural value of doubling and tripling big reputations. It opened an endless new boulevard of exploration. As I write, someone must surely be plotting Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. Or what about Van Gogh and Rembrandt? Damn it — I think I can hear the cash registers tinkling already — they could even do Van Gogh and Monet.
The other obvious attraction of these federation art shows is that they enable you to display the same old pictures in an entirely new light. Turner must be, by my reckoning, the most frequently exhibited artist of all time. I have five shelves just of his catalogues. Monet cannot be far behind. Yet put these two together and you do, indeed, have a fresh equation. Combine them with Whistler, who is much rarer, and you have a completely new recipe. If, on top of that, you add water — the stuff most people want to find somewhere in their pictures, according to various clinical tests of these matters — you’ve concocted an irresistible dish.
TurnerWhistlerMonet seems, on the face of it, a random selection. Yes, they all painted foggy expanses of water, but since one was a mad Englishman, the second a pretentious American and the third a grumpy Frenchman, it is not immediately clear what brings them together. Their timelines, after all, take us from the middle of the 18th century to deep into the 20th. Turner was born in the age of the Enlightenment, in 1775. Monet survived to the jazz era, and only went in 1926. But a smart investigation mounted by the catalogue reveals that they were indeed interconnected. Whistler knew Turner. Monet knew Whistler. Thus, the ravenous appetite for gaseous watery effects that brought Turner to the edge of insanity was carried across the Channel to France by an American who first came to Europe because his father was building the railway between Moscow and St Petersburg.
Yet even if Whistler had never encountered Turner in London as a boy, and even if he had not gone to the same art school as Monet when he later moved to Paris, I suspect that these three moisture vultures would always have been drawn to water. Turner’s addiction to the stuff is well documented. When he died in 1851, he was found crawling across the floor in his house in Chelsea, trying to take a final look through the window at the foggy Thames below. Monet’ s final years, as everyone knows, were spent peering into his lily pond, twilight after twilight, year after year, as if the natural vaguenesses he found there brought him comfort as he went blind.
Whistler was another instinctive twilight fiend. For me, his work has nothing of the depth of Turner’s or Monet’s. There’s a slickness to Whistler’s pretty nocturnal generalisations that seems to have been borrowed from elegant subfusc effects found on oriental porcelain, rather than noticed in the flesh, on the river bank, while shivering in the dark. When Turner or Monet peer into the waters, you sense they are staring into chasms of gloomy truth about the human condition. There’s a cosmic bigness to their vision. Whistler sees with his eyes, but surely not with his soul.
I could be wrong about him, however. Only the show will tell. Although the exhib-ition looks at the treatment of water in all the paintings of the chosen fogaholics, there is a definite focus on three particular stretches of humid twilight — the Thames, the Seine and Venice. All three artists painted all three stretches at different times in their careers. Venice needs no introduction. Everyone has painted Venice. You can’t go there and not paint water. That effect you find all around you, of sky and sea and land blurring together into one inchoate smog of light, was surely engineered specially by God with Turner and Monet in mind (SkySeaLand by TurnerWhistlerMonet?).
The Seine is a trickier proposition, because it’s a river with so much happening on it. It changes identity every few hundred yards: urban one bit, rural the next; wider here, narrower there. Turner seems not to have found the bigness in it he liked in a vista, preferring the lakes of Switzerland or the sea off Le Havre. And when he does show us the Seine, it’s barely recognisable: wide as the Nile, with hot white houses lining the banks. I didn’t realise the Seine flowed through Egypt. Monet, of course, knew it best. Yet his Seine also feels unfamiliar, not because it traverses a foreign country, but because unexceptional bits of it are being watched intently at difficult times of day — grey mornings, winter teatimes, morose twilights — when the rest of us are never around to disturb him.
Don’t think me jingoistic, but it seems to be the Thames that most fairly inspired all three artists. And it did so for ghastly reasons. For the whole of the 19th century, and well into the 20th, the Thames was the most polluted stretch of water in Europe. The famous fog of London was an entirely chemical outpouring created by treacherous fumes and gases belching from countless chimneys. God only knows how many human lives the toxic peasoupers claimed and ruined. But painters loved them.
Monet was lured over on various important occasions to peer into the noxious gases, and always stayed at the Savoy. You could say that impressionism was invented under Westminster Bridge and along the Embankment. In Turner’s time, the London twilight started at about noon. So those great gaseous vagaries of his are an honest record of all he could see. Whistler, who had a nose for artificial concoctions, imagined the fog at Chelsea as a kind of visual perfume, splashed lavishly across the chimneys to hide their truth and make them pretty. He adored the way shafts of spluttering lantern light struggled to penetrate the darkness of a typical Chelsea morning. In London, when the lanterns were lit, a man could paint a starry night in the middle of the day without even looking upwards.