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Art Review

Double visions

Five of Monet's Rouen cathedral paintings and the Lichtenstein images they inspired are on view at the MFA -- and put into perspective

By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / July 10, 2011

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Sometimes it’s the fate of objects of adoration not to be taken quite seriously. Ask, I don’t know, Justin Bieber, or Julia Roberts, or my 4-year-old.

Something like this, anyway, describes the predicament of Claude Monet, and it’s not just a recent thing. During his lifetime, as we all know, his radical new way of painting attracted ridicule. Today, through overexposure, his name is as likely to elicit contemptuous yawns. (“Monet, Monet, Monet,’’ as a friend of mine once sighed over his opening night champagne, “it’s a rich man’s whirl.’’)

Was there ever a period when critical opinion united and gave Monet his due?

It’s very hard to say. For even as his radical method of painting was finding acceptance later in his life, his confreres in the avant-garde were busy finding fault. Impressionism, they argued, may have let in light and unleashed color, but it lacked solidity, permanence, the ability to articulate deeper meanings.

This perceived lack, of course, powered the forward lurches of the Post-Impressionists Van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat, and Gauguin. It was also the subtext behind the backhanded compliment of Cézanne, who famously described Monet as “only an eye, but my God, what an eye.’’ Replace the word “eye’’ with “body’’ or “face,’’ and one can imagine the same thing being said of Elle “The Body’’ Macpherson or Kate “The Face’’ Moss.

Monet answered those who accused him of superficiality by setting out, in the 1880s, to paint in series. He painted the same subjects from the same vantage points at different times of day and in different weather. In this way, he converted postcard views criticized as ephemeral and arbitrary into haunting and resonant works united by an implied duration.

Treating time instead of space as a third dimension, he showed subjects truly “in the round.’’

Of all Monet’s series, the greatest - indeed, one of the high points in the whole history of Western art, an achievement of staggering beauty, gravitas, and philosophical depth - was his series of paintings of the facade of Rouen cathedral.

The Museum of Fine Arts is lucky indeed to own two of these pictures. For its new exhibition, “Monet/Lichtenstein: Rouen Cathedrals,’’ it has borrowed three more from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (yet another indicator of the close cooperation between these two powerhouse museums). They hang in a row in a small gallery opposite a matching series of paintings by the lovable American Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein.

The Lichtensteins - actually one five-part work called “Rouen Cathedral (Seen at Five Different Times of the Day) Set III’’ - have been borrowed from the collection of Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe.

Bostonians had the chance to see this work back in 2003, when it was included in an MFA exhibition called “Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art From the Broad Collection.’’ MFA director Malcolm Rogers has been trying ever since to arrange to have the works hung right alongside the Monet paintings which inspired them.

He got his wish. But was it worth it?

Of course. Never mind the Lichtenstein. It’s appealing enough, but has an inbuilt pathos akin to a grinning boy flexing his biceps in front of Muhammad Ali. The chance to stand in front of five of Monet’s cathedrals is alone worth crossing continents for.

They are arranged here from left to right to reflect a movement from penumbral dawn to maximum daylight. Lichtenstein’s five canvases reflect the same movement from light to dark, and each one is placed directly opposite its matching Monet.

Before I continue, a word about the hang.

In short, it’s madness. The room is far too narrow. It’s enormously interesting to get up close to the Monets, but as everyone knows, they work best when seen from a distance. The Lichtensteins are less interesting up close, but even more than the Monets, they require considerable distance for their dot patterns to resolve adequately into images of the cathedral façade.

I spent more than half an hour in the gallery and saw no fewer than four people backing into the Monets as they tried to see the Lichtensteins. It was incredible. How could this be allowed to happen?

Each time it did, an alarm went off. But in two cases, the person was unaware for several seconds that he or she had set it off. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. What’s more, the works that have been roped off are not the Monets but - dismayingly - the Lichtensteins, presumably at the insistence of Mr. Broad.

Welcome to topsy-turvy land! What’s more valuable - five of the most scintillating paintings produced during one of history’s most fertile periods of artistic creation, or a flippant riff on those paintings made 75 years later? I can only think that the d’Orsay is getting a little too cozy and trusting with the MFA; it’s hard to believe they would be content with the situation as it stands.

The whole joke behind this Lichtenstein work is that, where Monet mobilizes a veritable orchestra of independent colors to achieve his naturalistic effects, Lichtenstein restricts himself to just two or three, communicating a very different, mass mediated effect.

Where Monet dares to transpose a hulkingly three-dimensional, centuries-old piece of architecture into an arrangement of encrusted, colored paint that all but dissolves the distinction between figure and ground, Lichtenstein inverts the process: Rather than start with an object out in the world, he starts with an image - Monet’s paintings. Using an idiom renowned for its flatness - silkscreened graphic design - he delights in the mind’s dogged impulse to divide even the simplest patterns into figure and ground.

The first in Lichtenstein’s series is an almost invisible yellow on white. The second - becoming clearer - is red on yellow. The third is a distinct blue and red on white. The fourth is blue and white on yellow. And the fifth - defying the mind to read any image in it at all - is black on deep blue.

I like Lichtenstein, a lot. He was, as the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik wrote after the artist’s death in 1997, less an ironist than a faux-naif. “The ironist,’’ he continued, “believes in his own knowingness; the faux-naif believes in someone else’s innocence.’’

It’s a beautiful and - in the context of Lichtenstein’s entire oeuvre - an important distinction. But when Lichtenstein’s “Rouen Cathedrals’’ (by no means his best work) are placed next to the actual masterpieces that inspired them, you sense that it may not matter too much: Knowingness and innocence - being in on a game or not - are terms that simply don’t adhere to the greatest art.

In the first of the Monets here, the MFA’s “Rouen Cathedral Façade and the Tour d’Albane, Morning Effect,’’ much of the building’s defining lines are lost in purple and blue shadow. One can just make out the ribbed arches over the main entrance.

The second, from the d’Orsay, is called “Rouen Cathedral: The Portal and Tour Saint-Romain, Morning Effect, Harmony in White,’’ which is odd, because it’s hard to find any white in the picture. It’s dominated instead by more blues and purples. Pigeons flutter around the tower, and, as in the first picture, town houses are visible over to the left.

The third, also from the d’Orsay, is slightly smaller than the other four, and the view is more closely cropped: The town houses disappear, as does most of the tower. The colored light is warmer and more various, creating opalescent effects higher up. An orange light seems to emanate from the entrances at ground level.

The fourth, the MFA’s “Rouen Cathedral Façade,’’ contains a vivid patch of blue sky. That same hue of blue appears all over the façade itself, like puddles of water, and seems to eat away at its substance. The caverns that are thresholds to the building’s interior positively glow, like fire from a dragon’s mouth. The overall blue-orange harmony is exquisite.

In the final painting, the d’Orsay’s “Rouen Cathedral: The Portal and Tour Saint-Romain, Full Sun, Harmony in Blue and Gold,’’ the sky is a less brilliant blue, but the shadows across the white stone of the building are sharp, creating an impression of real depth. One could almost be looking at Petra, the ancient city carved into rock in the Jordanian desert.

These astonishing pictures combine as theme-and-variation, creating a dreamlike beauty that has often been compared to music. They are celebrations, yes, of the warmth and splendor of color and light. But Monet’s light here, more than in any of his other paintings, also has a corrosive, acidic quality, which nibbles away at these medieval monuments, turning their surfaces into encrusted, pockmarked ruins. Even as they soar upward, they seem like harbingers of death.

And yet how silent, how timeless they seem! Like our entire fragile civilization, they seem doomed. But I find something weirdly reassuring and peaceful in the way they dissolve into their atmosphere, as a ruin nestles into the grassy fields that surround it.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com

MONET/LICHTENSTEIN: Rouen Cathedrals At: Museum of Fine Arts, through Sept. 25. 617-267-9300. www.mfa.org