Simon Kelly has studied Claude Monet most of his adult life — as a young painter growing up outside of London, as a doctoral student in art history at Oxford, as the author of books and essays about French painting. And still, Monet's water lilies make him go "wow."
"When you turn the corner and see them, you have that wow experience," Kelly said. "There is this visceral reaction that goes beyond the intellectual or cerebral that you get with Monet. I feel that."
Kelly is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the St. Louis Art Museum. He joined the art museum a year ago after serving as the associate curator of European painting and sculpture at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. There, he set out to reunite the three panels of the "Agapanthus" triptych as Monet intended. The 14-foot-tall panels are the centerpiece of the show "Monet's Water Lilies," which opens at the St. Louis Art Museum on Sunday. The exhibit, which debuted in Kansas City and travels to Cleveland, also features large-scale studies for the triptych as well as three paintings from private collections.
"When you look at the triptych, it has this inner light," Kelly said. "It's almost like stained glass. I wanted to bring that out."
The St. Louis Art Museum expects the exhibit to draw 100,000 visitors and is issuing time tickets to prevent overcrowding.
Few artists are so universally beloved. Monet's work hangs in prestigious museums, hotel rooms and above countless living room sofas. Why such devotion? Well, Monet was arguably more talented and dedicated than his rivals. He certainly was shrewder, Kelly says.
"Often, you think of Monet as this rugged artist being one with nature, but if you look at the photographs, he's extremely well-dressed in imported Savile Row suits," Kelly said. "He was quite urbane and shrewd about marketing himself."
Despite his success, many considered Monet's work radical.
"It wasn't until the 1950s that you start to see this renaissance of interest," Kelly said. "It took some time for contemporary art to catch up with what Monet was doing."
Even Monet wasn't sure. Kelly's research, documented in his book "Monet's Water Lilies: The Agapanthus Triptych," shows Monet repainted parts of the work eight times between 1915 and 1926, the year he died.
"He's painting layers, building up surfaces, changing colors," Kelly said. "There was this movement from naturalism to abstraction. If you look at an early incarnation of the paintings, there is a greater sense of space, and the lily pads were more precise. As he reworked it, there is a movement to flatness and diffuseness, a more abstract effect."
Kelly discovered these changes by studying paint cross sections, X-rays and archival photographs. Mary Schafer, associate painting conservator at the Nelson-Atkins and a contributor to Kelly's book, said Kelly's research marks a rethinking of Monet's work. The exhibit includes extensive technical information about the triptych's evolution.
"Visitors to our Monet exhibition really benefited from Simon's research and his interest in how a work is painted," Schafer said. "Using information about Monet's creative process and revisions, visitors were able to learn something new about the triptych, but also our individual panel which is a favorite here in Kansas City. Simon provided a new and exciting perspective."
Kelly urges visitors to get up close and really study the works.
"Everyone stands back at a distance, and that does give you that sense of panorama," Kelly said. "But I like to stand up close to see how vibrant the paintwork is. He was actually using these very large brushes, so you can see the brushwork itself."
A new experience
Kelly wants visitors to not only rethink Monet, but the rest of the vast modern collection at the St. Louis Art Museum. He already reinstalled five galleries: the Max Beckmann, realism, romanticism, impressionist landscapes and impressionist portraiture. Future galleries include the modern city, surrealism, 20th century still life and the modern body. Kelly gives the same attention to the small details (the color of the walls, the placement the paintings) as to the big questions (Which works are good enough to install? How should they be bundled thematically?). Kelly painted the romanticism gallery a rich red; the impressionist gallery now is a grayish-green.
"I wanted colors that are richer, warmer," Kelly said. "I also wanted to give the paintings more space and allow them to breathe. It totally shapes the viewing experience."
The expansion of St. Louis Art Museum, slated to open 2013, will allow Kelly to display 30 percent more work. Director Brent Benjamin says Kelly's galleries will challenge viewers to find new connections among painters and periods.
"The first thing he did was roll up his sleeves and spend time in storage," Benjamin said. "Already there are new juxtapositions of works of art. There are things that have been brought out of storage for the first time in years. A number of items have been reframed. There are many people who think they have never seen these things because they look so different in their new context. This is one of the wonderful things about the works of art here is that the best of them have endless possibilities about how they may be looked at and appreciated."
Ultimately, Kelly expects to install both of the museum's Renoirs, all five van Goghs and a double-sided Cezanne. One painting, a portrait of the Cezanne's sister, has been on view. The other side, a painting of Cezanne's mother, was on the back. When first discovered 50 years ago, the museum celebrated its "new Cezanne." However a conservator covered it again.
"His rationale was that it would give it more stability but we're going to put it out on a pedestal so you can see both sides," Kelly said. "Who knows why Cezanne would do that. I think this was early on in his career and he didn't have enough canvases."
Kelly also plans to install a work of French landscape painter Théodore Rousseau, the subject of Kelly's thesis. Monet and Rousseau shared a passion for nature, and Kelly does, too. He recently hiked Hadrian's Wall on a visit home to England. Locally, he has explored the Great River Road and Pere Marquette Park.
"I like places that fuse nature and history," Kelly said.
Kelly also devotes his free time to hustling for money. He's not complaining; every curator must raise cash for new projects and acquisition. So far he has raised half of the $1.3 million cost of an ambitious Andy Goldsworthy sculpture installation. He also would like to acquire a Jasper Johns, a Willem de Kooning and perhaps some work from 19th-century Scandinavian artists.
"To be given free rein to explore and conceptualize this collection is really exciting," Kelly said. "People ask why I came here (to America), but what you find is a lot of regional museums with strength and depth. Especially this one. You're not going to find that in the U.K."
'Monet's Water Lilies'
When • Sunday through Jan. 22
Where • St. Louis Art Museum, Forest Park
How much • $10, $8 for students and seniors, $6 for children 6 to 12 years old. Free on Fridays. Timed entry tickets are required.
More info • slam.org
Age • 41
Home • Clayton
Education • Bachelor of arts in history and art history from University of Cambridge; doctorate in art history from the University of Oxford