BOSTON — AMONG major exhibitions, there are great shows, and there are important ones. ``Monet in the '90s: The Series Paintings,'' which opened yesterday at the Museum of Fine Arts here, is an important one: In new and vital ways it not only illuminates Monet's contributions to the Impressionist vision during the 1890s, but for the first time in nearly a century reunites many of Monet's finest series paintings.
Among them are the famous Grainstacks (not Haystacks, as is commonly thought), Poplars, and Rouen Cathedral series, as well as the lesser-known series of the cliffs of Varengeville and Dieppe, Mount Kolsaas in Norway, and the Japanese footbridge over Monet's lily pond.
The show is not, however, a great one. For one thing, marvelous though the paintings may be, they appear to have been brought together at least as much for instructional as for aesthetic purposes. For another, the selection is limited by its theme to a very small portion of this great artist's incredibly diverse production.
``Monet in the '90s'' appears to exist primarily to fill a number of gaps left by previous Monet exhibitions; to present new insights into his work of the 1890s; and to clarify Monet's response to Post-Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. That's fine - especially since so many superb paintings are used to good advantage. It would be wrong, however, to assume that this alone places the show on a level with the much more fully rounded and truly great Degas and Vel'azquez exhibitions held in New York recently, or with the Museum of Fine Art's own Renoir show held here a few years ago.
I bring this up because of the massive publicity this show has received, and the implication that this is a more inclusive exhibition than it really is. Tickets, priced at $7 and $9 for adults, have been on sale through Ticketron since November.
What ``Monet in the '90s'' actually is becomes clear in the preface to the catalogue, which calls it ``the most comprehensive exhibition of Monet's series ever assembled.'' It continues, ``...The show recreates as fully as possible Monet's own exhibitions of the 1890s. For the first time viewers will be able to assess the works' collective impact ... and to investigate fully the role of serialized imagery in Monet's art.''
The show's 90 paintings represent 16 of the artist's series executed between 1889 and 1900, and are on loan from 30 museums and 25 private collectors. The Museum of Fine Arts has included 11 of its own 38 Monet canvases.
The viewer enters the museum's Gund Gallery to discover a solid wall of richly painted canvases that appear a bit darker and more somber than one would expect from Monet at so relatively late a date in his career. Each depicts the same geographic region but at a different time of the day and under different light conditions. Together they make up the ``Creuse Valley'' paintings, Monet's first true series, which he painted in 1889. Of the 10 known canvases in the series, seven are in the show.
To say that two or three ravishing paintings are included among them is to be guilty of understatement. Although this series is in many ways the most ``conservative'' of the 16 on view, it is also the most solidly painted and warmly felt. Much of that, of course, is due to the fact that it is the least purely ``optical'' and theoretical series of the lot.
Moving deeper into the exhibition, one encounters what is probably Monet's most famous series, ``The Grainstacks.'' Simple, effective, and about as revolutionary as anything he ever did, they not only celebrate the almost infinite variety of light that can be found in the country during different times of the day and during different seasons; they reaffirm Monet's pride in, and commitment to, French life and culture.
Of particular interest because of their elegance, decorative patterning, and daring painterly qualities, are the 11 canvases included here from the ``Poplars'' series (there are 24 in all). If everything else Monet produced were to disappear, these would still prove he was a master. And yet he almost didn't paint them. The village that owned them decided to cut them down and sell their wood at auction. Monet went into partnership with a wood merchant, promising to give him the trees if he shared expenses with him and allowed the trees to stand until Monet completed the series.
The ``Rouen Cathedral'' series also ranks high among art lovers. Of the 30 canvases in the series, nine are included. Painted between 1892 and 1894, these pictures constitute a high-water mark for Monet as well as for late 19th-century French painting. The artist focused almost exclusively on the shifting effects of light on stone, spending months studying and painting the cathedral from rooms across the square.
To do justice to the works in the show would require a book, and fortunately such a book exists in the form of the exhibition catalogue. Both the text and color reproductions are outstanding. ``Monet in the '90s'' was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts and conceived by guest curator by Paul Hayes Tucker, who also wrote the catalog text. Peter C. Sutton was responsible for supervising and administering the show.
Admission to ``Monet in the '90s'' is by ticket, for a reserved date and time of entry. They are available through Ticketron and at the museum's ``Monet'' box office. After its close here on April 29, this excellent and important exhibition travels to the Art Institute of Chicago (May 19-Aug. 12), and the Royal Academy in London (Sept. 7-Dec. 9).