Painting The Modern Garden


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Painting The Modern Garden
"Painting The Modern Garden sets itself an almighty challenge and rises to it with remarkable skill."

To produce a good documentary about painting requires expertise in both filmmaker and interviewees. Imagine the additional difficulty, then, in producing a good film about painting that also has intelligent things to say about horticulture and about the history of both. Painting The Modern Garden sets itself an almighty challenge and rises to it with remarkable skill.

To appreciate the art on display here requires a further appreciation of the art of filmmaking. Rather than relying on its subjects to take the strain, this is a film which contributes strong ideas of ts own. It begins in Monet's famous garden at Giverny, immediately recognisable to anyone with even a passing knowledge of impressionism. Familiar images of flowers and water and captured on film, with wonderful attention to finding the right light, so that it becomes difficult to tell what is photography and what is a painting. Apparent watercolours suddenly move. Filmed images soften their focus and segue into painted works. The effect is mesmerising. Director David Bickerstaff has the sense not to overuse it, but returns to it intermittently, mixing in his own poetic images of nature to remind s that gardening, too, can be an art.

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The film centres on an exhibition of the same name held at the Royal Academy in London earlier this year. Panning shots move us around the museum, dwelling long enough on individual paintings to let the viewer uncover some of their secrets but not long enough to bore the casual viewer - there is always something new and beautiful to see here, with a well balanced score helping to link different visual strands. At the heart of the exhibition is Monet's water lily triptych, its constituent pieces brought together for the first time in an age and made still more luminous by being displayed against a dark wall, visitors moving through shadow to gaze at them. As we move around we are always aware of the crowd in the gallery, and of its quietness, which illustrates something of the awe felt in encountering such works in person - a substitute for the one thing the film can't do.

Richly informative without ever telling viewers what to think, the film incorporates contributions from present day artists Tania Kovats and Lachlan Goudie, bringing its themes up to date and complementing the notion of the garden as the ultimate in long-term artistic thinking - something which may not reach the apogee of its creator's vision until after that creator is dead. Film, paintings and horticultural creations come together as fluid, interacting elements in the artistic conversation taking place across centuries. Adding to the richness of this are potted biographies of the artists themselves - sometimes painting one another amongst all those plants - and photographs showing them at work or with their families, their other cultivated creations. Monet gets the most attention, the timeline of his developing work providing the film's chronological backbone and, in its way, carrying us through to the border of the early modernist period.

A film full of detail and replete with beauty, Painting The Modern Garden is a piece of art that is itself likely to be treasured over time. It's a must for those with a pre-existing love of impressionism, and a fascinating introductory piece for others.

Reviewed on: 07 Jul 2016
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Painting The Modern Garden packshot
A tour of the exhibition of the same name with additional documentary content looking at the history of garden paintings.

Director: David Bickerstaff

Year: 2016

Runtime: 93 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: UK


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