Review: Monet: Impression Sunrise, NGA

A new exhibition brings to light a Monet work previously unseen in Australia that launched the movement.
Review: Monet: Impression Sunrise, NGA

Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise [Impression, soleil levant] 1872, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris. Image by Christian Baraja SLB.

What else can be said about Monet? According to this new winter exhibition at National Gallery of Australia (NGA), there's an origin story to the French Impressionist that has never been seen in Australia before. On an exclusive loan from Musée Marmottan Monet – the painting seldom leaves the Paris gallery for longer than a month – Monet's Impression, Sunrise [Impression, soleil levant] is the progenitor of the Impressionist Movement.

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This exhibition is built around this key artwork which is hung in a fresh open space, viewed on a whole wall to highlight its significance. The work was owned by private collectors before being donated to the Musée Marmottan Monet so its influence is often forgotten beside better-known works. Of course the exhibition also includes the NGA's pair of Monets – Haystacks, midday [Meules, milieu du jour] and Waterlilies [Nymphéas] – purchased in 1979 and a popular part of the collection ever since. These are after all some of the best known Impressionist pieces in Australia so they are given clear sightlines on entering the latter Monet-focussed spaces. But the exhibition adeptly locates Monet and his work in the artistic context of British painters (JMW Turner is featured heavily, as Monet encountered his work when escaping to London during the Franco-Prussian War) who in turn influenced French painters of the Barbizon School. Both of these schools led to the popularity of landscape art along with the harbour images of both Monet and Turner. 

Impression, sunrise was at the centre of the 1874 exhibition that included Paul Cézanne, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and a roll call of who would become the Impressionists. The painting was particularly controversial with critic Louis Leroy sneering that 'wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape'.

As NGA Director Nick Mitzevich told ArtsHub, 'The critics when they first saw it in 1874 used the [Impression] title with a negative connotation, deriding it as unfinished and "merely an impression" but the title stuck. The group of artists and then the movement was labelled Impressionist so this is the painting that began the most loved and influential movement in art history.'

JMW Turner's Le Havre: Sunset in the port, from the Tate's Turner Bequest. Image © Tate, London

A new space with the new Director

Appointed to the NGA in July 2018, this exhibition is something of a calling card for Mitzevich, signalling the kind of stories he sees the gallery telling. He said, 'This is an exhibition that covers well-trodden terrain, but we hope that we tell a story that Australians haven't been seen before and we bring a work that has been unseen in Australia before.'

The exhibition space has been reconditioned for the exhibition, hanging the key works generously to allow for visitors to flow past but also take their time and consider every whorl of paint, every dot of detail. The design is sympathetic with architect Col Madigan's design for the NGA but has dark tones to the walls to bring out the individual works. According to Mitzevich, the space was only completed two weeks before the opening and sees a return to the temporary gallery space to open up two spaces to show work.

After 2018's Cartier, this exhibition establishes a pattern of winter blockbusters. But Mitzevich does not see the need to follow old timelines. He said, 'We're going to have exhibitions all the time. I'm not going to be defined by summer, winter or autumn. So you see Monet in our new second temporary exhibition space and it's very different look for the NGA.' As Impression, Sunrise is strictly loaned for short periods, the exhibition has a limited 3-month run but Mitzevich now has a promising second exhibition space to play with.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

 Monet: Impression Sunrise
7 June-1 September 2019
National Gallery of Australia, Parkes ACT
Tickets $20-$22

About the author

George Dunford is Content Director at ArtsHub and screenhub. He has written for Meanjin, The Big Issue, Lonely Planet, The Good Food Guide and others. He has worked in digital leadership roles in the cultural sector for more than 10 years including at the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and the Wheeler Centre.
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