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Retrospective of Monet’s later works leaves a blurry impression of the artist.

TIMES ART CRITIC

The career of Claude Monet (1840-1926) has been sliced, diced and picked apart in every conceivable type of exhibition during the past several decades. The American public’s appetite for French Impressionist painting is seemingly insatiable, and Monet is Mr. Impressionism.

Before and after the full, sprawling retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum 13 years ago, we’ve had focused studies of his cathedral pictures, London scenes, paintings of his famous garden at Giverny, his images of the Normandy coast, grain stacks, the serial works in general, and on and on. What could possibly be left?

How about this: “Monet: The Blind Years.”

Seriously. The official, rather more august title of this exhibition, which is packing them in at the San Diego Museum of Art at 15 bucks a head, is “Monet: Paintings of Giverny From the Musee Marmottan.” (Or, as the catalog title more accurately puts it, “Late Paintings of Giverny From the Musee Marmottan.”) But “the blind years” are its focus, in a thumbnail sketch of paintings produced under severe physical limitations.

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Monet struggled with vision problems for a good deal of his life, and 19 of the 22 pictures on view date from the years after 1912, when he suffered debilitating problems with cataracts. A rather surreal moment arrives near the show’s final room, where a big, ugly, probably unfinished picture of a rosebush set against a blue sky (from 1925-26) hangs on a wall opposite a vitrine displaying a pair of Monet’s thick, tinted eyeglasses. One pretty much explains the other.

The Musee Marmottan is a former private residence on the edge of Paris’ Bois de Boulogne that was bequeathed to France in 1932 by a wealthy art historian to showcase his family’s Napoleonic collections. It is most famous, though, as the home of a 1957 gift: Monet’s little canvas, “Impression: Sunrise” (1872), a harbor scene of dappled gray and orange that gave Impressionism its name. (Thieves made off with the picture in a notorious 1985 heist, but it was recovered largely unscathed in Corsica five years later.) In 1971, Monet’s son, Michel, donated 65 works by his father that had remained in his estate.

Today, the Marmottan has more Monets than any other museum. But Monet enthusiasts know the Marmottan as a place to go for rather specialized pursuits. Its holdings include several important sketchbooks, unusual early caricatures made when the artist was a teenager in Le Havre, considerable correspondence, revealing documents and the historically notable “Impression: Sunrise.”

The other paintings are another matter. Most of them simply aren’t very good. In fact, some of the worst paintings Monet ever made are proudly displayed as masterpieces in this trumped-up show, which reprises an exhibition that originally toured New Orleans and San Francisco three years ago, and which will be recycled yet again for another North American tour in 1999.

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Late Monet has always been problematic. By the teens and ‘20s, the artist was a veritable cultural monument in France, a wildly successful painter who enjoyed official sanction and whose every scratching on canvas was fawned over. Compared to the rambunctious activities of Picasso, Matisse, Duchamp--younger artists making waves up the Seine a piece in Paris--Monet was hopelessly old-fashioned. His eye problems didn’t help.

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The waterlily scenes painted at Giverny between the early 1890s and the artist’s death in 1926 were retroactively embraced for their affinity to big, mural-size, American abstract painting of the 1950s. Some of those decorations are extraordinary in their evocation of a material world in perpetual, scintillating flux. (The waterlily murals painted for L’Orangerie in Paris and the triptych now in New York’s Museum of Modern Art are examples.) Part of what makes them miraculous, though, is knowing how, in order to succeed, they demanded all Monet’s otherwise failing capacities.

Nothing even remotely close to that caliber can be seen in the San Diego show. And gruesome works such as “Daylilies” (1914-17), “Iris” (1924-25), “The Roses” (1925-26) and the small mural “Waterlilies” (1917-19) are useful mostly as demonstrations of what Monet was up against late in his career.

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The presentation has been padded with a variety of things. In addition to his eyeglasses (and another vitrine in which a small palette is enshrined), there are a dozen blowups of pretty color photographs of Giverny, by gardener and author Elizabeth Murray; period black-and-white photographs of Monet working at his elaborate garden site; 11 of his youthful caricature-drawings; two woodblock prints by Japanese artist Hiroshige, of the sort Monet adored; and 11 paintings by so-called American Impressionists, including Guy Rose, Theodore Robinson and Lilla Cabot Perry, who journeyed to France early in the century to work with the master.

Most worthwhile, however, is an introductory room with loans from public and private collections of seven Monet easel paintings from the 1860s through the 1890s. Two are knockouts: the shimmering “Vetheuil in Summer” (1880), borrowed from the Met, and a rigorous “Poppy Field” (1890), from Smith College.

Spend time with those two if you want a fix of first-rate Monet; then, leave the museum and go next door to wander in Balboa Park’s lush and extravagant arboretum. That, I suspect, might be where you would have found the artist puttering about on a bright summer day.

* San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, (619) 232-7931, through Aug. 30. Open Sundays-Thursdays 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Tickets available at the museum box office and through Ticketmaster: adults, $15; seniors, $13; young adults (18-24) and active military, $7.50; students (6-17), $5; children 5 and under, free. The show travels to the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum, Sept. 20 through Nov. 22.

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