Through May 4, the El Segundo Museum of Art is showing two small fragments of late Monet Water Lilies paintings as part of the exhibition “Silence.” The Monet swatch above is 18 inches wide. The gallery iPads don’t say anything about their history and instead pose the Socratic question: “Would you need to know that this was done by a famous painter to be interested in it?”
During Monet’s lifetime and for decades afterward, the Water Lilies panoramas were not the crowd pleasers they are today. Their wispy abstraction and titanic scale was judged, at best, to be peripherally relevant to the new century’s avant-garde; at worst, to be the result of an elderly artist’s declining faculties.
That opinion changed dramatically in the 1940s. American artists began to paint mural-scale gestural abstractions. Jackson Pollock’s 1943 Mural, which goes on view at the Getty Center March 11, is 20 feet wide. The Museum of Modern Art had always maintained that modernism began with post-impressionism. It revised that opinion in 1955 when it bought an 18-foot-wide Monet Water Lilies (below). That became the largest painting in MoMA’s permanent collection. It was an instant hit and must have inspired New York Schoolers to paint bigger and faster.
An April 1958 fire at MoMA damaged the mega-Monet irreparably. It had been too large for curators and firefighters to move to safety, as they had with other threatened works.
A then-unknown Dan Flavin wrote the museum, “I will so miss the large picture but any portion of it which can be saved will be enough for me. My heart still aches over the loss.” Others wrote the museum asking whether they could have an unburnt scrap as a souvenir. Of course the museum had to say no. What was left of the painting was archived and sent into deep storage. Perhaps they’ll one day sit alongside the fragments of the American Folk Art Museum facade.
The two big Water Lilies now at MoMA are different ones, acquired since the fire. About 1968 Norton Simon bought the relatively small (not quite 7 feet) 1919 Water Lilies you see below. But Simon auctioned it in 1971. He saw himself as an arbitrageur of art, selling high and buying low. The Water Lilies sale looks like a goof. Simon got $320,000 at Sotheby’s in 1971. In 2008 the same painting went for over $80 million at Christies, setting a Monet record.
In recent years fragments of late Monet Water Lilies have appeared on the art market. Their source is a Monsieur Blin, son of the Blin who was Monet’s gardener at Giverny. Creating the Water Lilies panoramas was apparently an improvisatory process, like editing a film. Much was left on the cutting room floor, and Blin saved the scraps. The fragments that have been sold through the big auction houses are trimmed to neat rectangles, a foot or two across, and have been authenticated by the Wildenstein catalog. Some have sold for incredible prices, despite that fact that everyone, presumably, understands that they’re relics and not art. Last month a 29-inch fragment was auctioned for $474,000.
Some of the fragments include whole blossoms and counterfeit a Water Lilies composition on micro-scale. Confusing the issue is that Monet did earlier, easel-size Water Lilies paintings such as the c. 1897 one at LACMA (right). Other fragments are mere color and brushwork swatches, as the two at ESMoA. They may resemble a non-objective painting, though of course that wasn’t the artist’s intention.
For these reasons the Water Lilies fragments are problematic for museum display. But ESMoA founders Brian and Eva Sweeney prefer to call their institution an “art laboratory.” That calls to mind Dr. Frankenstein’s monster mash-ups of unrelated parts. The two Monet scraps are shown as a sort of rebus with Ellsworth Kelly’s 2012 print, Color Squares 4.