Audio transcript

Claude Monet 'Water-Lilies'

Narrator: This room looks at the influence of Monet's water-lilies on subsequent generations of artists. The large water-lily paintings are some of Monet's best known works - the version here was made in around 1916 but they were largely overlooked in Monet's lifetime. The semi-abstract style and unusual viewpoint, in which the surface of the pond fills the entire canvas, was too radical for the tastes of the day. It was only decades later, in the 1950s, that their importance was finally recognised. The works by American and British artists in this display can be seen as following in Monet's footsteps. The paintings are now wholly abstract, but they still manage to evoke the sensory experiences of nature. John House of the Courtauld Institute considers the impact of Monet's Water-Lilies paintings.

You can relate Monet's water-lily decorations to things that came later, particularly to certain sorts of free abstract painting after the Second World War, but one's always got to remember what this project was originally intended to be. It's one of a set of huge canvas panels - two metres high - that were intended to be part of a gigantic decoration running round a room in Paris. Ultimately, some of these were installed in the Orangerie in Paris and a large number of other canvases that were part of the original project then became separate works of art and were sold off after the Second World War. And it was after the Second World War that they acquired this whole new context, because they came to be viewed - with their very free brushwork and the extraordinary improvisatory colour - as pioneers of post-war abstract painting.
There are two really different ways of viewing Monet's water-lily decorations. If you stand away from the pictures - and particularly in the Orangerie in Paris - and stand in the middle of the room, you get this extraordinary sense of space opening out all around you. But in normal gallery situations when you're standing quite close to the picture, you come up and find this very very insistent surface and you're acutely aware of the brushstrokes, the coloured marks. Each individual gesture isn't part of a three-dimensional space, it isn't part of an overall representation, but it's a mark on the surface of the canvas and your eye tracks those marks across that flat surface and views it very much in two-dimensional terms.