The current exhibition at the Royal Academy is all about gardens. The RA receives no state subsidy and relies on a regular series of blockbusters to bring in the crowds. This one, entitled Painting the modern garden, certainly fits the bill. When we went it was so crowded it was difficult to get near most of the pictures. If gardening is the British religion, looking at paintings of gardens must be an important rite.
For agnostics, though, it’s all rather cloying and hard to take. There are just too many gardens, too many flowers, too much paint. Acres of impressionists, whole rooms of obscure Spanish colourists, Max Liebermanns ad nauseam. Or could it be that it’s actually rather difficult to paint a really satisfactory picture of a garden? Even Monet, the artist who dominates the whole show, produced plenty of garish and even ugly paintings before arriving at his final interplanetary lilies series at the end of his life.
It was a relief to reach a room towards the far end devoted to the modernists. They finally hoed up the teeming borders and stripped down their palettes. The outstanding painting here is a Matisse, nominally a study of a single palm leaf and a few palm trees but really an improvised but perfectly balanced arrangement of flat oranges, greens and greys. There’s another, more sombre Matisse, a wonderful Dufy, and a brilliant Kandinsky from his early Murnau period, where the garden plunges violently and vertiginously, just as in his later pure abstracts.
The next room is supposed to be documentary. Round the walls are photographs of some of the artists featured in the exhibition, and a screen shows contemporary films, including one of Monet in Giverny in 1915. The master wears his Kirk Douglas hat and, in conformity with the expected image of a great artist, alternately glances up at the willow trees and dabs paint on his canvas.A few of the photographs suddenly catch the eye. Sometime in 1910 or 1911 Wassily Kandinsky poses, with conscious absurdity, as a contemporary artist/bohemian turned ‘Vasja’, a Russian peasant farmer (or avant-gardener?), in shirt sleeves, short trousers and braces. But the real star is another, even better joke, a photo of another non-gardener, the painter August Macke (one of his garden pictures, a not particularly interesting example, is included in the exhibition). It’s entitled ‘August Macke watering the plant of modern art’. It was taken in 1912 by Gabrielle Münter, the author of the Kandinsky picture. She was a fellow member of Der Blaue Reiter, or Blue Rider, the group of expressionist painters that also included Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Paul Klee.
It’s a striking, and a strikingly modern image. Münter was a keen photographer, but this must be one of her best pictures. Macke, formally dressed but hatless, sits on a wooden chair on gravel outside the wall of a house. (The caption says, ‘on the balcony of Kandinsky’s and Münter’s house in Ainmillerstrasse 36, München’, but it doesn’t look much like a balcony.) His legs are splayed and his head is tilted. He peers intently at the small watering can he holds in his right hand. Water is being sprinkled over a near invisible seedling that sits in a bathetic flowerpot on the ground. The flowerpot looks no more stable than Macke himself, who points downwards with the index finger of this free left hand, as if to offer some semblance of firm direction to the operation. The photograph, with its over-long exposure, captures the jerky movement in Macke’s puppet-like body. ‘Modern art’ may be getting a soaking, but it doesn’t look to be in great health. Could it already have withered to death, beyond the help of water?
The Blaue Reiter artists were serious enough – their speciality was linking painting with the spiritual and with music – but they also had their jokey side, and this image seems to prefigure the playful but destructive iconoclasm of the Dadaists, a few years later in Switzerland.
The playfulness was not to last. Macke had only two more years to live. His annus mirabilis was 1914, when with his friend Paul Klee he visited Tunisia for two weeks in April, and the two of them discovered the delirium of colour there. In north Africa both painters found a new freedom in their art, produced some of their best work, and returned as changed artists. The experience fed into much of Klee’s later work, but Macke was called up to fight in the First World War and was soon killed, in France in September 1914.
Paul Klee, by the way, seems to have shared Macke’s fondness for watering cans. A long-spouted example plays a central role in his 1910 watercolour, now in Munich, called ‘Garden still life / Flower stand, watering can, and bucket’. It has a very similar technique (running colours), perfectly balanced structure and feel to Macke’s Tunisian period watercolour ‘Garden gate’.