Not far from a boisterous pack of blackjack tables, I contemplated Seacoast at Trouville (1881) by Claude Monet. What, I wondered, would the great French Impressionist paint if we could manipulate the laws of physics, snatch him from the 19th-century, and set him down on the Strip.
Would Monet chronicle the delicate neon reflections feathering the water jets at the Bellagio? Or would he head to the Wildlife Habitat at the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, and paint the pastel swatches of an ornamental Koi lolling beneath a preening black swan? Or maybe he’d arrange his easels opposite the Wynn Las Vegas and record the coppery facets of the setting sun in the luxurious glass exterior?
The more I thought about Monet painting on the Strip, the more I realized that the high art/low art divide in the city rivals the Grand Canyon. Reconciling legions of pole dancers with the patriarch of modern art seems an improbable task… which is why the “Claude Monet: Impressions of Light” exhibition at the Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art (BGFA) in the Bellagio Las Vegas resort is a triumph.
Deep inside the casino, in a perfectly respectable gallery opposite the opulent pools, I dutifully stood before Monet’s Road at La Caveé, Pourville (1882). No way could I decipher the canvas. Florals? A bank of shrubbery? The warm palette—those creamy whites and fleshy pinks, those savory celadon greens—exerted their sensual charms. I leaned forward, just enough to attract the museum guard, then took a step back, bumping a stout couple clutching giant M & M Store bags. Sorry…! Where’s the road of the painting’s title? I wondered. What’s Monet up to here?
Confusion and Impressionism are rare conceptual bedfellows in 2012. Arguably the most recognizable artistic movement in world history, Impressionism has long taken to the streets, gated and otherwise. It brightens umbrellas in Dusseldorf with water lilies and bedecks paper towels in Shanghai with haystacks. And that’s a problem for me—art isn’t supposed to be decorative. It isn’t supposed to blend into the waiting room at the insurance company. It is supposed to have mystery. Art is supposed to make you think.
At its origin, Impressionism made people think so much they got angry. Innovative paints, in bright never-before-seen hues! A new kind of “short” brush stroke! Planes instead of lines! A newspaper at the time attacked Monet for randomly throwing color on a canvas and signing the result. Another critic accused him, presciently perhaps, of making embryonic wallpaper. Hard to believe: the art today that best exemplifies accessible beauty was once interpreted as offensive, if not blasphemous.
Publicly ridiculed and impoverished by lack of sales, Monet tried to take his own life. If he had succeeded, the principal Impressionist works painted over half a century later—when Monet was in his 60s and 70s—would not factor among the greatest cultural achievements of all time. Road at La Caveé, Pourville (1882) would not be on display in Vegas.
I squinted, trying to make the image come into focus. If Monet titled the canvas “road,” I thought, then there’s got to be a road. A few steps forward, fractals. A couple steps back, something. At a distance of five feet, the subject of the painting finally came into view—hidden, as in nature, by overgrown grasses and teeming wild flowers, winding leisurely toward the sea.
I repeated the to-ing and fro-ing process with Flower Beds at Vértheuil (1881), Antibes Seen from the Plateau of Notre Dame (1888), and other works, the museum guard’s eyes yo-yoing along. While most of Monet’s canvases offer fresh revelations with every step—almost as if paintings are nested inside paintings—none shifts from abstraction to realism more abruptly than Road. No wonder Monet complained about getting oil paint in his beard. Laboring up-close on a pixelated canvas that makes representational “sense” at five feet is an impressive victory in its own right.
Far from being relegated to a coaster set and matching napkins, Monet, I realized, is as vigorous as ever. Global consumer culture may have succeeded in making him the Coca-Cola of the art world, but it will never diminish his achievement. I left the exhibit, trying to see the Las Vegas Strip as Monet might—in layers. There is great beauty and depth to be had in this city, but first you have to be able to get past the glare.