Art review: ‘Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals’ at LACMA

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Sometimes a museum exhibition that sounds like a natural turns out to be anything but. That’s the odd case with a new show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which juxtaposes five gorgeous paintings by Impressionist icon Claude Monet (1840-1926) with five handsome ones by Pop master Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997). For all the visual firepower of the individual works, as a show it’s strangely flat and uninvolving.

By all means don’t miss it — if not for the Lichtensteins, which have been shown at LACMA before (they belong to L.A. collectors Eli and Edythe Broad), then for the Monets. I doubt that five paintings from his pivotal series showing the soaring Gothic facade of Rouen Cathedral have ever been seen at once in Los Angeles before, and these five are fantastic. (The Getty Museum also owns a beautiful example, painted in the silvery light of morning.) They come from major public collections of Impressionist paintings — two from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which co-organized the show with LACMA, and three from Paris’ Musée d’Orsay.

The Monet cathedral paintings occupy two walls. On a third wall to the right are Lichtenstein’s 1969 cathedral views -- larger, sleeker and painted by hand in small dots, the artist’s familiar adaptation of modern commercial printing techniques. Each Lichtenstein is a two-color painting.

Some, such as the ones composed from interlocking red and yellow dots or blue and yellow dots, read as crisp, clear images of the church. Others, like the ones in yellow and white or blue and black, are so close in color values as to require scrutiny to make out the image. The yellow and white allude to blinding sunlight, the blue and black to the dead of night -- extreme daytime and nighttime interruptions in the ordinary practice of seeing.


The five pictures, each more than 5 feet high and 3 1/2 feet wide, are installed close together, side by side. Appropriately, the lineup is almost like sheets rolling off an assembly line or proofs from a printing press. In a media environment, reproduction rather than light creates or obscures the view; Lichtenstein refocuses attention on painting.

The Monets do too, but in a dramatically different way. In the late winter and early spring of 1892 and 1893 he painted about 30 versions, finishing what he started on site in Rouen back in his Giverny studio, closer to Paris. (Rouen is about 80 miles northwest of the capital.) These canvases, often intense, are smaller than the Lichtensteins — no dimension is more than 40 inches — and more chromatically diverse. In painting the effects of light and atmosphere at different times of day and under various weather conditions, Monet’s broken brushwork used just about every oil color in the painter’s arsenal.

The cathedral facade, seen here at a slight angle from the picture plane, nearly fills the entire composition. Only a small patch of sky is glimpsed at the top between the two front towers. Rouen offered Monet an intricately detailed stone surface, built over six centuries and marked by a seemingly infinite array of nooks, crannies and shadow patterns.

He chose to represent that surface — strong, sturdy, magnificently articulated and inseparable from his nation’s long and splendid cultural history — by drawing a direct comparison between the church facade and his own painting’s surface. Each work is heavily encrusted with densely layered colors, asserting the artist’s lengthy labors in constructing the picture. It swallows up extreme nuances of dramatic visual knowledge gained over time. It represents the spiritual glorification of secular faith.

Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings transfer the enduring power of epic masonry from religion to art. In their vibrant, light-filled stylistic innovation, they put dynamic change on an equal footing with heroic constancy.

So, given these two major artists, why doesn’t the exhibition resonate? Partly it’s just a matter of unequal weight. The balance seems out of whack.

The Lichtenstein paintings are very good, but his best works are the comic book and advertising paintings he began in 1961, as well as the reflection-free mirror paintings he started work on at the same time as the ‘Rouen Cathedral’ series. Monet, by contrast, is in peak form here: He made other paintings just as great, but none greater.

Poor Lichtenstein. Monet’s voluptuary, arduous surfaces keep drawing you away.

More inexpedient is the show’s forced point. Was Lichtenstein putting his work in direct dialogue with Monet’s, as is implied here? Not really. Whatever conversation there is between them is only indirect.

Monet’s paintings didn’t inspire Lichtenstein; photographs did. Monet was responding to the surface realities of light on the facade of Rouen Cathedral; Lichtenstein was responding to the surface realities of mass reproduction. For Lichtenstein the Monet cathedrals, while not entirely incidental, are just a distant background story. They’re almost like academic footnotes.

A wall text explains the show’s rationale. In 1968, Pasadena Art Museum curator John Coplans organized a famously influential exhibition titled ‘Serial Imagery.’ Lichtenstein saw it. He was impressed by artists who, rather than making singular masterpieces, were engaged in exploring paintings and sculptures in series.

Coplans’ artists were as diverse as Josef Albers, with his precisely nested color squares, and Morris Louis, who poured rivulets of paint. The curator traced their origins back to Monet, whose ‘Rouen Cathedral’ paintings are offered as a foundational masterstroke of serial imagery.

But are the Monet’s really serial images? Critic Brian O’Doherty once noted that Coplans didn’t make the necessary distinction between series (paintings on the same theme or subject) and serial (paintings based on systems). Therein lies the essential difference between the cathedral pictures of Monet and Lichtenstein. Monet explored multiple permutations of one theme, while Lichtenstein investigated mass-media systems, jolting life into otherwise deadened reproduction techniques.

Ironically, when I saw the show a work from LACMA’s permanent collection happened to be installed in another gallery just around the corner, and it resonates in a more revealing way. In 1971, Andy Warhol silk-screened 100 plain wooden crates to look like corrugated cardboard shipping cartons that contain boxes of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. Warhol was nearing the end of his most innovative period -- the 1973 portraits of Chairman Mao would be his last hurrah -- but the boxes still exploit the sharp visual puns that dominate his great ‘60s work.

What’s the pun here? Coplans made waves with his incisive notion of serial imagery, while Monet’s hyper-modern Gothic cathedrals spoke to the sustained cultural glory of France. Warhol’s boxes managed to do both at once: In choosing Kellogg’s corn flakes, his mass-produced painted-sculptures stack up all-American virtues that reside within, yes, cereal imagery. ‘Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals,’ Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through Jan. 1, 2012. Closed Wednesdays.


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— Christopher Knight