In the Galleries: Monet's Water Lilies at the Saint Louis Art Museum, closes January 22

Monet's Water Lilies Before collectible magnets, waiting-room posters, silk-screened mugs, T-shirts and hotel wallpaper turned his work into deplorable kitsch, Claude Monet was a bona fide revolutionary. A proto-abstract expressionist (and before that a rough-hewn countercultural innovator who literally re-imagined the way we see), the Father of Impressionism can lay claim to a staggering number of not-ready-for-gift-shop achievements, despite considerable efforts to persuade us of the contrary. Seeing the three massive panels of Agapanthus (1915-1926) reunited for the first time in 30 years communicates an almost jarring order to stop, look closely and reconsider all of one's rigid preconceptions. One of his "Grand Decorations" (as he referred to them), the seven-by-forty-two-foot depiction of the artist's beloved water-lily pond is wild, rough and, at the same time, luminous and narcotically tranquil. Allow your eye to see beyond the teal and lilac that we long ago made crass with our consumerism, and he palette is for the most part muddy, the pond's murky depths occasionally shot through with mad swipes of yellow or cadmium red. Confronted in person rather than via reprint, the scope is staggering; it dwarfs and engulfs the viewer, creating a spectacle that bears no relation to turn-of-the-century plein air painting. The exhibition prefaces the triptych with a display of studies, which give a sense of the final work's agonized evolution. Tracing the process from its descriptive, fathomable beginnings to an endpoint that's depthless and nearly abstract, the viewer is able to appreciate the enormous risks the artist embraced as he moved from the comfortably conventional to the twilight zone of invention. Not everyone will leave a convert, but it's impossible not to absorb this effort — so huge, strange and, yes, beautiful. Through January 22, 2012, at the St. Louis Art Museum, 1 Fine Arts Drive (in Forest Park); 314-721-0072 or www.slam.org. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sun. (10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri.)

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