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Monet's robust genius unfolds

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Oct. 15--RALEIGH -- Think you know Claude Monet? Think again.

The "father of impressionism" is famous and well-loved for his light-flooded, breathily evoked paintings of waterlilies, cliffs and seas. But for the jaded viewer, they can all start to look the same after a few pictures. As Raleigh expatriate David Sedaris recounted by phone from Paris, he walked into the Art Institute of Chicago this past spring, saw the walls of Monets and thought, "This [expletive] again?"

The revelation of "Monet in Normandy," the blockbuster exhibit opening today at the N.C. Museum of Art, is how diverse Monet's works -- and working methods -- really were.

The 50 paintings in the show trace the artist's evolution, starting from his earliest village scenes and seascapes. Most were acceptable but don't come close to transcendental. The early pictures seem to absorb light instead of radiate it. Even paintings of tourists, dressed in Second Empire finery as they stroll sunny boardwalks, have a flat, matte quality.

As the show unfolds, Monet starts to experiment. He dapples light and dark together in "Garden at Saint-Adresse," the 1867 painting that's considered his first masterpiece. For the vibrant "Port of Le Havre," he limits his highlight colors to coral and blue, opposites on the color wheel that radiate energy when placed near each other.

The experiments continue in a succession of pictures of waves in the English Channel, showing just water and sky. Over and over, Monet zooms in on the Manneporte, a grand limestone arch at Etretat, and the three paintings in this exhibit depict different times of day, weather conditions, and radically different brushwork and color palettes.

With the luxury of hindsight, it seems natural that Monet's obsession with capturing similar scenes under varying light and atmosphere would lead to the "series" paintings he undertook in the 1890s. The show includes at least one painting from each of the most famous series he painted in Normandy: the poplars, the mists on the Seine River, the grainstacks and the Rouen cathedral.

But these paintings -- particularly the grainstacks and the cathedral -- don't look like the work of the same artist from the exhibit's opening gallery.

The early paintings may show some fat brush strokes, but nothing that even foreshadows the surface of "Rouen Cathedral Facade and Tour d'Albane (Morning Effect)": thick, stiff, dry paint almost pushed into place. The effect, which looks like sponge-painted drywall, is particularly evident in the bull's-eye of blue and pink that evokes the church porthole. Monet uses shades of just those two colors to summon the cathedral in all its Gothic glory. Up close, the blue and pink never merge neatly, but back up eight feet and you see perfectly formed architectural details, such as the corner of a ledge on the church tower.

The sheer technical fireworks of this painting are worth the price of admission. As Monet's friend Lilla Cabot Perry recalled in the documentary "Memories of Monet," the Cathedral paintings "are sublime, not a drawn line anywhere. They make anew the art of painting."

"Grainstack (Sunset)" comes at the problem of evoking light and atmosphere quite differently. Monet covers the canvas with a rainbow of confetti streamer strokes. There are unexpected colors everywhere, particularly in the glowing pinks that highlight the left edge of the grainstack and imply the setting sun beyond.

Monet was just getting warmed up. By the turn of the century, he was focusing on the subject that would occupy him the rest of his life: his pond, strewn with waterlilies. In the show's sampling, Monet decides to stop using horizon lines and fill the canvas edge to edge with water. And "Wisteria" moves to utter abstraction on a grand scale, foreshadowing the rise of abstract expressionism later in the 20th century.

"Monet in Normandy" demonstrates not just the artist's painting prowess but also his enduring appeal. Monet is one of the most accessible artists in the Western art canon. As with Georges Rousse, the French photographer who visited Durham last month, Monet's work has a certain fool-the-eye charm that makes him easy to understand if you're 8 years old or 80.

Viewers don't need to know mythology, history or religious iconography to decode these paintings. Monet kept all that out of view, along with any hint of the passage of time. He was an avid early owner of the automobile, but he never painted one. World War I was fought in his backyard, but he never painted that either.

Instead, what we see just past the frame's edge is Monet himself. His brush strokes and lines are so pronounced and gestural that the work feels immediate, intimate. It's easy to picture him standing in front of the canvas, dragging his brush across the surface, genius close at hand.


Copyright (c) 2006, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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