Visiting Monet and Mitchell at the Louis Vuitton Foundation
From 10 May 2022 to 27 February 2023, the Louis Vuitton Foundation showed an interesting exhibit examining two great French painters: Claude Monet (1840 to 1926) and Joan Mitchell (1925-1992). For the first time, these two are placed alongside one another.
Though they almost perfectly missed each other on earth, they both contributed greatly to the development of Western art. And because both of them frequently turned to the natural world for their subject matter, there is a certain rhyme between their oeuvres. That’s not to mention they both spent large portions of their career in the French countryside — in homes built right next to each other!
Interested to see the exhibition and discover what, if any, connection there is between these two important artists, I decided to visit.
Because the Louis Vuitton Foundation is a privately owned space, I can’t give tours there. That’s why I’ve put together this article. This gives you my take on the exhibit, so it’s like I’m right there with you, giving you the interesting bits of information to help you better appreciate the wonderful art on display.
[Note: If you can’t get enough of Monet, check out my Claude Monet: Ultimate Artist Tour that tells the story of his life and art.]
At the end of this article, I give you some final thoughts that I took away from this show, deciding whether or not the curators at Louis Vuitton Foundation made a convincing case in their Monet-Mitchell exhibit.
What is the Louis Vuitton Foundation?
Before we look into the exhibit itself, it’s worth taking time to understand the Louis Vuitton Foundation. This is quite an organization, one born out of the immensely popular fashion brand, and finding its home in a now famous work of postmodern architecture.
At its heart, the Louis Vuitton Foundation is an art museum run by the same company that owns the apparel company — though the Foundation is a nonprofit promoting art and culture.
Plans for the building began as far back as 2001 when legendary architect Frank Gehry was consulted on the design of an art museum in the massive Bois de Boulogne park on the outskirts of Paris. Bernard Arnault of Louis Vuitton had just seen the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. He wanted to create something similar for Paris.
But the museum hit a snag with legal challenges pushing the date back. The daring design and the historic nature of the park was a concern for some.
The museum didn’t break ground until March 2008, and on 27 October 2014, the Louis Vuitton Foundation was finally opened to the public. The entire process is said to have cost somewhere around €800 million — a staggering price tag. Today, it welcomes millions of visitors every year.
1 - The building of the Louis Vuitton Foundation
Like a boat floating among the trees of the park, Gehry’s design plays with the glass that iconically forms so many important Paris architectural achievements, most importantly the Grand Palais. From this, he takes us on a deconstructivist journey, making the glass wave and float in surprising forms. The building seems to be either floating apart or drifting together, somewhere between existing and not existing.
It emerges from the trees like a whale broken apart into simplified, gleaming forms. There is something effortless about the way it side steps expectations and delivers surprises at every corner.
The building contained 3,600 glass panels in total, created using an automated process to fabricate them according to a 3D model. It is a futuristic looking building made in a futuristic way, an unexpected choice for a new building in the City of Lights, but it works.
In a way, it reminds me of the glass Pyramid by I.M. Pei at the Louvre. Like Gehry’s design, it shocks the visitor when they first see it, but it is that shocking quality that brings you back into your surroundings, able to appreciate the world around you that much more.
2 - The Art of the Louis Vuitton Foundation
The collection at Louis Vuitton Foundation is impressive for such a new museum. But that shouldn’t be a surprise — if you want to draw visitors in Paris, you have some steep competition!
For this to work, it needed to begin with major names and pieces, which it did. And since opening, they’ve steadily evolved the collection.
The museum breaks up their ever-changing offerings into four major categories:
Music & Sound
There are captivating and ethereal installations like Pierre Huyghe’s L'expédition scintillante Acte 2 (2002), as well as stoic modernist paintings like Daniel Buren’s Peinture aux formes variables (1966) — and many, many more.
They also commission a variety of site-specific installations, like Olafur Eliasson’s Inside the Horizon (2013) and Katharina Grosse’s Canyon (2022).
If you are looking for a contained and highly contemporary collection, this is a great spot to visit. The building itself is fantastic, and inside these spaces, the curators give their works a gracious space to present themselves, whether the pieces are joyful, enigmatic, playful, or insightful.
As part of their outreach, the Foundation also hosts workshops that give the public ways to engage with the incredible architecture and artwork on display.
3 - The Auditorium of the Louis Vuitton Foundation
The Louis Vuitton Foundation runs a wide range of cultural events in their auditorium, a concert venue with extravagant natural light. The space can seat up to 1000 people, though many configurations offer more intimate set-ups.
Programming ranges from jazz to classical, including contemporary compositions. When you visit Paris, it is always worth seeing what shows are playing here during your stay.
4 - The Louis Vuitton Foundation in the Paris Art Scene
Though it is a relative newcomer, this private institution has managed to establish itself as a vital part of the always thriving and highly competitive Paris art scene.
Its importance will likely continue for generations to come. While Louis Vuitton will operate it in the near future, there are plans to hand over ownership of the museum to the Paris city government in 2069. It’s still a far way off, but it ensures that the mission of the Foundation — to promote art and culture in Paris — will continue in the same stunning building for a long time.
And their current exhibition, Monet-Mitchell, is an example of their attempts to bring more cultural opportunities to the people of Paris. So that’s where we turn to next.
Comparing Two Legendary Artists
It is always an interesting challenge to bring two major voices together in a single exhibition. With more than two artists, balance is not as difficult to attain, as you can spread out the emphasis across many painters.
But here, Monet and Mitchell must stand together, looking each other eye-to-eye. One rocked the 19th century art establishment with his radical approach to painting. The other helped launch a pivotal movement of the 20th century with her striking, fresh style.
So right out of the gate, we can say that the exhibition is bold. The curators sought to create a new way of seeing Mitchell’s work, one of an American coming to France to pick up where Monet left off. At the same time, they tried to define Monet as the true founder of American Abstract, with the popularity of his work sparking innovations that built off of his own.
Whatever your opinion on these two core ideas, it is at least interesting and worth the attention of art lovers. Because even if they are wrong, these premises give us fresh eyes to look at the work of these two artists.
Of course, Monet needs no introduction. But Parisian people haven’t yet heard of the American Joan Mitchell, despite her status in the world of art. For that reason, let’s dive into a brief biography of her to understand where her art came from and how it might relate to Monet.
1 - The Life of Joan Mitchell
Joan Mitchell was born on 12 February 1925 in Chicago, Illinois. Her mother was the poet Marion Strobel — who would inspire a connection to poetry that would continue throughout the daughter’s life.
As a child, Mitchell took up art and athletics with equal enthusiasm. She took weekend classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and even spent summers at the Ox-Bow art colony as a teenager.
After getting her MFA from the Art Institute, she moved to New York to pursue her career. In these early years, she also spent a great deal of time in Paris thanks to a travel stipend. Her paintings in this time already explore the new and exciting techniques of abstraction gaining steam in the New York avant garde.
This is also a time when Mitchell made many visits to the luminaries of the mid-century. Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Philip Guston all welcomed her into their studios. These connections gave her an insider’s look into the latest developments in art.
2 - The Ninth Street Show and the Launch of a Movement
In 1951, she was included in the famous Ninth Street Show in Greenwich Village — what is widely considered to be the kickoff event of American Abstract Expressionism.
The show was organized and led by the artists, forming a debut of the style and also marking New York as a new world capital of art. The names of the exhibition read like a hall of fame for mid-century abstraction, including Barnett Newman, Helen Frankenthaler, and many others.
Being at the center of this emerging New York School, Mitchell made a name for herself with large abstracted paintings.
In 1955, she moved to Paris. Here, she went even further into merging figurative and abstract approaches in the same pieces. It’s also during this time that she produced many of her polyptychs — works composed of several canvases. Later on, she would bring this form to new heights, composing the pieces separately and then spending long hours arranging and rearranging them until she found the perfect combination.
Mitchell’s work never settled into a steady sameness. Instead, she kept experimenting, often with the way she worked her paints. She would thin them with turpentine, apply them directly from the tube, use rags to apply them, along with many other techniques. This gives some of her pieces a staggering vitality and urgency, a quality that never diminished over her career.
By the end of the 1950s, Mitchell’s profile began to rise considerably. She was featured in a number of major exhibitions, and she became an established figure in the Parisian art scene. From her studio on Rue Fremicourt, Mitchell created important works through the 1960s. But it was her fateful move out of the city that would mark her career forever.
3 - Mitchell coming to La Tour
In 1967, inheritance from the death of her mother allowed Mitchell to purchase a small estate in the town of Vétheuil — a quaint little community close to Giverny, where Monet spent much of his career (in fact, you can even see Monet’s house from Mitchell’s). Called La Tour, this rural sanctuary would not only be her home but a constant source of inspiration for her.
Almost as soon as she moved in, her work reflected her surroundings. Much like her teenage hero Vincent van Gogh, she started off painting the sunflowers that circled her house.
Mitchell also expanded out beyond her land, painting the farms that are all over Vétheuil. But she always approached the subject matter in unique ways. Unlike Cézanne obsessively capturing the countryside from his point of view, she takes her paintings into more fantastical dimensions, sometimes even giving us views from the sky.
Though she kept a few close friends, some of whom would come to stay at La Tour from time to time, she lived and worked alone for the vast majority of her life.
Even throughout her final years, Mitchell was productive and her paintings energetic. These pieces seem to come from a much younger hand — electrified as they are with an artistic passion to create.
Bringing together Monet and Mitchell
The Foundation’s show seems to really be built off of a comment Mitchell made to the art critic Irving Sandler in 1957. Apparently, she told him that she admired the late works of Monet.
And so, this exhibition seeks to find those connections, made all the more compelling given how close the two artists’ retreats were.
There are many fine pieces that lead up to the final two showstoppers: the Agapanthus triptych (1915 to 1926) by Monet and ten works from the La Grande Vallée (1983 to 1984) cycle by Mitchell.
Agapanthus, in particular, is a stunning feat. Its extraordinarily wide view of water with the titular flowers (also known as Lily of the Nile) shows off his impressive control of color and light. By balancing the dazzling hues with grayer tones, he gives the viewer space to contemplate and stand back from the action — much as the scene at the pond must have given him the same space to think.
But one also immediately sees major differences between Monet’s three Agapanthus paintings side-by-side and the massive polyptychs by Mitchell. Her works recombine into new expressive forms, using the arrangement of canvases to produce unique effects. But Monet adds canvases together to expand the view. He is clearly seeking more space, rather than trying to create conversations between multiple pieces.
Many similar comparisons between the artists fall apart, also. There are certainly many noble works on display, and the two presenters at the Foundation told the story of the works well, but what was the real relevant connection between the artists?
Let’s explore that question in depth.
My final thoughts
In the end, it is difficult to really take hold of the ideas this exhibition was presenting.
Sure, Monet was one of many artists who helped give rise to Abstraction, given how he and his co-conspirators brought a new freedom of approach to their canvases. By pursuing new ideas outside of and beyond the limits of the Academy, they created the conditions that would later allow someone like Mitchell to make her work — something unthinkable in Monet’s time and certainly before him.
The Louis Vuitton Foundation bridges the two islands of Monet and Mitchell with a few key points:
similar palette and color choices
shared interest in light and the way we perceive it
the rustic spaces of Monet’s garden at Giverny and Mitchell’s La Tour studio
It isn’t convincing art theory, but it does make for a somewhat coherent show. The painters are so different, and they come from much different points in time. And yet, the similar colors, fascinations, and geographic location give them enough overlap to start to have a real conversation.
Really, it is the conversation between the works that is interesting and stimulating, even if the underlying reasoning is far-fetched.
Of course, Mitchell would have seen Monet paintings, and she said herself that his late work was an inspiration to her. By her time, Monet was an international renowned celebrity whose profile extended far beyond the art world. And he painted so many works that, if you are interested in art at all, you’ve seen a Monet... And whom amongst us hasn’t been inspired by his paintings?
We should highlight their clear differences too, which offer up their own points of interest that only add to the experience of the exhibition.
Mitchell used the rhythms of music and poetry to guide her abstract work. This is very important to understand her art, because abstraction often needs to reach for non-visual cues to guide the underlying process away from the literal interpretation of the subject matter.
Monet, on the other hand, did not suffer this constraint, and so his paintings are very much rooted in his keen observation of light, atmosphere, movement, and color. And as for subject matter, nothing kept his attention like the sights at his beloved Giverny — flowers, reflections on the surface of a pond, the lazy Sun glistening over a long summer afternoon.
What drove the subject matter and approach of their work is very different. Mitchell used her art to process her own life, giving her works a confessional feeling. For instance, when she experienced grief, her paintings became racked with melancholia.
Monet, on the other hand, had a stoic remove from his work. He returned again and again to the rather non-emotional content of landscapes and the effects of light and atmosphere on perceiving them. Once he locked onto this, he never really wavered — despite plenty of personal tragedy. (It should be noted that he did occasionally tap into his personal experiences, as when he painted his dying wife in Camille Monet on Her Deathbed in 1879).
It feels like a painter like Mark Rothko or Jean-Paul Riopelle (a close personal friend of Mitchell) would provide more fruitful comparisons for understanding Mitchell’s work, but those are perhaps a bit too obvious. All that being said, it’s always nice to see more Monet. So it’s hard to complain!
Like the Louis Vuitton brand, this exhibition provided cultural mediators and tour guides (for free) They explained the beauty and the exquisite quality of Monet and Mitchell — but they offered us nothing deeper about the connection between the two artists.
A fun jaunt if you want to take in some art, but the story it tried to tell never gave us any meaningful new understanding of either artist.
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