MoMA Now II — Monet’s Water Lilies

tryptich monetMonumental. Sublime. Enveloping. Inescapable. Soothing. Disorienting.

There are a lot of words that I can think of to describe those epic Water Lily paintings, but they all seem inadequate. I didn’t want to like the Water Lilies. Their celebrity and their ubiquity made them feel cliched. Their pastel palate made me think of kleenex boxes.

Boy, was I wrong. And boy, am I enamored with those canvases.

I blame my misguided judgments on the fact that the last time I saw the Water Lilies at MoMA they were hanging in the atrium — a loud, busy space where the lighting and the people made it hard to spend any time with the work. Now, and for the first time since MoMA’s makeover, the dominating triptych, the large-scale panel, and two more late Monets are being exhibited together in their own space, where they can be appropriately appreciated. (one of the greatest oversights of MoMA’s multimillion dollar rennovation was that a Water Lilies gallery was never added. tisk tisk)

The history of the Water Lilies, both in France and at MoMA is fascinating, and is worth spending a few minutes getting acquainted with. Here’s the short version: Monet painted 40 of these 6×13-19′ canvases between 1914-26; they were supposed to be a gift to France; no one wanted them; MoMA bought 2 in 1951, and helped make them important, canonical paintings; MoMA lost the two canvases in the early 60s in a fire (wooops); MoMA bought the triptych and another large canvas to replace them. phew.

Visiting the Water Lilies is less of an exhibit viewing and more a physical experience… which is exactly what Monet intended. You’re sucked into the depths of the canvases, enveloped by the layers upon layers pf paint, plunged into the center of these shimmering plays of light and dark. You think you’re going to walk in and walk out, but 20 minutes later you’re still there staring at them. They demand your attention.

The Water Lilies will remain in the 2nd floor gallery (convieniently located next to the uber-delicious cafe) until April 2010, but here’s hoping this becomes their permanent home. But with their fate still undetermined, I have to quote New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl here and tell you “last one in’s a rotten egg.”

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