A(nother) Night at the Museum: Monet Retrospective at the Grand Palais


(c) Susan Brodie

Eager crowds waited hours for the chance to see this astounding show


Demand to see the blockbuster Monet show at Paris's Grand Palais was so great that when I tried to reserve a ticket at the end of November, the only times that remained were in the wee hours of the final weekend of the exhibit. So late Sunday night I took the latest possible metro to be in time for my 1:30 a.m. January 24 viewing slot. I had plenty of company: of the 913,000 visitors to the exhibit (more than any exhibit since King Tut in 1967), an estimated 40,000 came on the final weekend.


Arriving at the Rond Point des Champs-Elysees I found hundreds of people waiting patiently in the misty night. I was happy to join the shorter line of ticket holders, as the much longer line of those without reservations, mostly groups of young people, promised waits were estimated of 2-3 hours. People didn't really seem to mind–it was just another form of night life! Crowd control was unusually well-handled and provided a bit of theater as, over and over, guards patiently directed people into the appropriate holding area and deftly deflected attempts to win dispensation from joining the back of the line. Every so often women wearing chef hats and aprons over their winter woolies distributed packaged madeleines. A clarinetist with a boom box, completely indifferent to niceties of meter and phrasing, cheerfully butchered Vivaldi concertos.


Once inside, armed with an Acoustiguide I found the exhibit rough going for the first half-hour. Galleries were absolutely packed, as viewers squeezed their way through the dense crowds to catch a glimpse of an early seascape or read an biographical note. But the body-checking tapered off as visitors slowed down, stopped to savor a particular canvas, and developed a gentler technique of slipping through spaces with grace. The late hour and the self-selected crowd contributed to the mood–it takes a certain amount of purpose to visit a museum in the middle of the night. Strangely, though I usually tire quickly at museums, the late hour and the sense of calm made it easier to focus on the paintings.


Visually the show was overwhelming, assembling some 200 paintings from over 50 museums and private collections worldwide (the Musee d'Orsay lent a significant number of of paintings, though the Musee Marmottan, repository of the important collection donated by Monet's younger son, declined to participate). The masses of paintings, along with thoughtful notes posted in each gallery, provided a biography as eloquent as any monograph. Claude Monet (1840-1926) painted steadily for over 60 years, despite an array of setbacks. His experiments with painting light began early, though he produced plenty of commercially accessible figurative paintings — even some of the portraits and domestic landscapes painted during his 20s, while conforming to the tastes of the times, have a flat, abstract quality that reminded me of Alex Katz not quite a century later. Early rejection from the annual establishment art show created both financial crisis and creative opportunity: money woes led to frequent relocation, which in turn gave him new visual stimulation. Haystacks and railroad trestles became subject matter as alluring as mountains or seascapes.


 Later in his life, with more financial stability, he visited and painted distant locales, and was able to establish a permanent home at Giverny, where he spent the second half of his life, creating, tending, and painting his beloved gardens. But his enduring obsession was light: he famously set up multiple easels in front of a subject, like the Rouen Cathedral, so he could capture impressions from different times of day. Only in such a comprehensive exhibit is it possible to grasp the trajectory of a lifetime. I came away with a much expanded impression (as it were) of the man behind the art.


I spent over two hours hypnotized by images and atmosphere. It was hard to tear myself away, but at 3:45 I stumbled out into the misty night air, energized enough to walk the mile and a half walk home through deserted streets.