Joan Mitchell, the American painter widely regarded as a pioneer of the Abstract Expressionist movement, was born in 1925 in Chicago. Claude Monet, the revered French icon of Impressionism, died a year later in 1926 in Giverny, France. At first glance, it is difficult to envision commonalities between the two painters. And yet, that is exactly what Suzanne Pagé, Artistic Director of the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, has done with the impressive exhibition Monet – Mitchellon view now through February 27, 2023.
Various scholars have made a connection between Monet’s later works and the origins of Abstract Expressionism, but there has never been a show that places Monet in direct dialogue with Mitchell. The exhibition, says Jean-Paul Claverie, Advisor to the President of the Fondation Louis Vuitton, was four years in the making. It is the latest example of the Foundation’s ongoing mission to connect different historical periods through commonalities between artists or artistic movements, and required collaboration with collectors and institutions such as the Musée Marmottan Monet, which has the largest collection of Monet works in the world.
One thing Monet and Mitchell shared was a subtly shifting but ever-present obsession with nature and landscapes—in some cases, the same landscapes. Mitchell moved from America to Paris in 1959, but in 1968 settled permanently in Vétheuil, the village where Monet had lived from 1878 to 1881. There, with a large studio at her disposal, Mitchell’s works soared not only in scale but also in ambition. At the Fondation, Pagé gives these canvases plenty of room to breathe and stand on their own in a complementary retrospective dedicated exclusively to Mitchell, housed in two large galleries on the lower level of the museum.
For the confrontation between the two artists, Pagé zeroed in on Monet’s famous Water lilies series, created in the last ten years of his life. Only then, Pagé believes, did Monet feel truly free. “He once wrote that during this period of his life he was able to set aside all the formal rules of painting and concentrate on capturing his sensation behind the landscapes he depicted,” he says. In these works, the lines are blurred, the edges of the canvases are often left untreated, and the colors come to life in contact with each other. Mitchell, for her part, described decades later her interest in “what one color does to the other and what both do in terms of space and interaction.” And, as it turns out, examining the “feel” of a place – the feelings he captured with paint as he mined memories and feelings anchored by particular physical settings – was also essential to Mitchell. (“I bring my landscapes with me,” he often declared.)
The exhibition also explores, among other issues, how friendships with leading poets of their respective eras influenced Monet’s and Mitchell’s compositions and how they dealt with reflections and transparencies. Paze cleverly removed the frames from all of Monet’s canvases, further allowing them to come together in their shared space and giving them a contemporary feel that only enhances the dialogue with Mitchell. The highlight is the reconstruction of the famous Monet Agapanthos triptych, depicting a water lily pond in three panels. (The panels were sold separately in the 1950s to three American museums and have not been reunited since.) To finish, there are ten dense, energetic examples of Mitchell’s famous La Grande Vallee series, which consists of 21 paintings created between 1983 and 1984. This is the largest exhibition of the series since its initial exhibition in 1984.
One could go on about the unexpected rapport between Monet and Mitchell. Ultimately, though, there’s no need to overthink it: the similarities are immediately apparent to anyone with eyes. “The works speak for themselves,” says Pagé. “It is the language of colors in a specific space. We’re just trying to create a dialogue between them.”