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All About Joan

Reflections on the Monet–Mitchell exhibition at Fondation Louis Vuitton

by Margie MacKinnon

Issue 3, Spring/Summer 2023

Installation views of Joan Mitchell Retrospective. Courtesy of Fondation Louis Vuitton

When I told an artist friend about my (then) upcoming weekend in Paris, the highlight of which was to be a visit to the Monet–Mitchell exhibition, she briefly deflated my spirits by saying she had found the show disappointing. The juxtaposition of the American’s works next to those of the great French master, she opined, did not enhance Mitchell’s paintings, but made them seem ‘derivative’. I am happy to report that my own impression was quite the opposite. The exhibition was a wonderful showcase of Mitchell’s works, and she had no trouble holding her own when viewed ‘in dialogue’ with one of Impressionism’s greatest exponents.

FLV’s artistic director, Suzanne Page, a visitor to Joan Mitchell’s home in Vetheuil in 1982, claimed that the artist “hated” being compared to Claude Monet, but such comparisons were all but inevitable given that, for many years, Mitchell lived in a house whose terrace overlooked the residence where Monet spent the final years of his life. Her view was the landscape that he often painted. Many Abstract Expressionist painters, including Mitchell, were inspired by Monet’s large-scale works, such as his celebrated water lilies series. Perhaps Mitchell, who was intensely competitive, thought she could not come out on top in such a comparison, given Monet’s exalted stature in the art world.

Born in 1925, Mitchell grew up in a well-to-do family in Chicago. According to Mary Gabriel in her authoritative chronicle Ninth Street Women, Joan’s mother was distant, and her father was so disappointed she was not a boy that he wrote the name ‘John’ on her birth certificate. Perhaps in a bid to win her father’s approval, Mitchell took up a variety of sports – figure skating, diving and tennis – at which she excelled. She attacked her art studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with equal determination. Upon graduation she won a travelling fellowship and a print prize that led to her first mention in ArtNews. By 1950, Mitchell was in New York where she soon wangled an introduction to Willem de Kooning, who would have a major influence on her early work. She joined the group of artists, including Grace Hartigan and Elaine de Kooning, that congregated at the Cedar Bar. In 1951, the three of them, together with Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler would be the only women to be included in what would become known as the ‘Ninth Street Show’, a seminal moment in the American Abstract Expressionist movement in art.

I arrived at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, some thirty minutes before the time designated on my ticket. The clear skies promised by the weather forecast gave way to a grey drizzle, but even this didn’t dampen my spirits. The Fondation’s Frank Gehry-designed building is a mesmerising confection of geometric curves and lines. The architect took his inspiration from the lightness of late nineteenth-century glass and garden architecture, and the building’s twelve glass sails play with the light and reflections of water from the basin in which it stands, creating an ideal setting for this exhibition.

Claude Monet, 1916-1919. Nymphéas, Huile sur toile, Courtesy of Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

I hadn’t realised that, as well as the Monet–Mitchell dialogue on the upper floors, the museum was also hosting a retrospective of Mitchell’s work, beginning with an untitled abstract painting from 1950 that was quite similar to the one she exhibited at the ‘Ninth Street Show’. Nearby was The Bridge, 1956, Mitchell’s first polyptych, which became her signature form from the early 1960’s onward. A note beside the work explains that the title “invokes a mix of references, to the bridges her grandfather built in Chicago, her first New York apartment under Brooklyn Bridge, and the bridges of Paris … as well as her frequent transatlantic crossings.”

Installation views of Joan Mitchell Retrospective. Courtesy of Fondation Louis Vuitton

Yellow diptych on the right is Two Sunflowers, 1980

While some of the early paintings are almost monochromatic, many of the later works are brimming with colour. Ode to Joy, 1970-71 combines vibrant yellows and blues in what could be an abstract bouquet of flowers. The title invokes the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as well as a poem of the same name by Frank O’Hara. Mitchell would say that, “music, poems, landscape and dogs make me want to paint. And painting is what allows me to survive.” Plowed Field (1971) is a monumental triptych combining blocks of earthy greens and deep yellows. Highlights of pinks, maroon and teal unite the three panels in what Mitchell said was a “homage to Vincent perhaps …”

When Mitchell moved permanently to Vetheuil, late in 1968, the landscape surrounding her large property had a dramatic effect on her work. Describing the huge sunflowers, almost three meters high, that surrounded the house, she said, “they look so wonderful when young and they are so moving when they are dying. I don’t like fields of sunflowers. I like them alone, or, of course, painted by Van Gogh.” Her admiration for him is evidenced in Two Sunflowers, 1980, a large diptych of brilliant golden yellows.

The dialogue between the artists began on the upper levels. Monumental works by each of them, placed side by side, allowed visitors to draw comparisons between them, noting obvious similarities as well as areas of divergence. There was a familiar magnificence to Monet’s watery landscapes of blues, greens and violets – for who has not seen at least a reproduction of some of the many paintings of his gardens at Giverny? Monet worked for ten years on the huge canvases of his Agapanthus triptych, brought together here for the first time since 1956. He had been “wild with the need to put down what I experience. To render what I feel,” he said, “I totally forget the most basic rules of painting – if they even exist.” Monet’s last works, painted when his eyesight was failing, became ever more abstract. Though he could barely see, he continued to paint from memory and imagination. The influence on Mitchell’s works, in form and colour, is evident but, in her hands, the landscape dissolves into pure abstraction.

The final room contained the dreamlike experience of Mitchell’s La Grande Vallee. Painted between 1983 and 1984, the cycle is made up of 21 paintings. As curatorial notes explain, “they are characterised by the density of the pictorial surfaces. The sparseness of the whites and the lack of perspective are unique. The artist’s distinctive chromatic range is evident: cobalt blue and rapeseed yellow prevail alongside a multitude of greens, pinks and purples.” This series of works was exhibited in two stages by Mitchell’s gallerist, Jean Fournier, in 1984. It has never been shown in its entirety. At FLV, ten of the paintings had been assembled, making it the largest display since the cycle’s first presentation.

The inspiration for these paintings was a memory twice removed from the artist. Mitchell had never seen ‘la grande vallee’ herself. It had been described to her by a friend as a special place she had visited in childhood with a cousin, who, shortly before his death, had longed to return there. “Painting is the opposite of death,” said Mitchell. “It permits one to survive. It also permits one to live.”

Joan Mitchell, 1983. Detail, La Grande Vallee XIV (For a Little While), Centre Pompidou, Paris

Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre de création industrielle © The Estate of Joan Mitchell

For me, La Grande Vallee was the highest of the exhibition’s many highlights. To stand immersed in the colours bursting from Joan Mitchell’s canvasses was a life affirming experience. Nothing derivative about it.

Further reading: Gabriel, Mary, Ninth Street Women, Little, Brown and Co., New York, 2018


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