Monet and me

The first in what will hopefully be a new weekly series, in which I will attempt to explain my interest in a particular artist, writer, historical or political figure or other cultural icon. To kick us off: the good old Monster…

Monet and I go back a long way. Not literally, you understand, since our dates don’t exactly match up (what with him dying a good sixty odd years before I was born), but he’s just one of those icons whose work I’ve always known. There was the reproduction poster of one of his Japanese bridge paintings that was forever falling off the wall at my grandma’s flat, and the rather blotchy painting job that I did in primary school where someone knocked a dirty brush on the top corner of my template of the picture with the poppies and the elegant women, so I ended up with some rather ominous clouds and the suggestion that said women had full on golf umbrellas rather than dainty parasols…

So, he’d always been there, hovering in the background of my cultural awareness, one of those painters whose work I could actually identify on University Challenge. And then I went to Giverny.

I’m not a garden novice either, particularly after this summer, and the first thing that strikes you there is the sheer scale of the place in terms of numbers of plants, and the organisation that it must take to keep it in tip-top condition. I mean, there were guys walking around discussing on walkie talkies whether they needed to leave the watering system on for another five minutes. At the time, I was working at a chateau whose gardens had been abandoned for so long that the weeds were above head height and we spent hours at a time ripping out huge clumps of thistles and scything through patches of nettles (and I still have the hands to prove it!), and so I was delighted to spot one or two rogue weeds and a single snail…

But the other thing that I really loved about the garden, and what I imagine Monet did too, was the way the flower beds blurred into one another to make a massive patch of shimmering colours, but when you approached the different textures and petal shapes and individuality of each plant became visible. As for the water garden, I could’ve spent days there just staring at the trees and the waterlilies and their reflections. In fact, I actually found it frustrating that I can’t paint or sketch, because I wanted to capture everything that I could see and how it made me feel, and although I took dozens and dozens of photos, it somehow wasn’t quite enough.

I was also lucky that when I went to Giverny, the impressionist museum had a special exhibition by Hiramatsu Reiji, a Japanese artist who had visited the gardens several times and had produced a series of works that were simultaneously a homage to Monet’s lilies and his own response to the gardens. He seemed to have been attracted by the same juxtaposition of the tiny details and the broad picture that had struck me, and so he’d made these beautiful screens with incredibly delicate patterns of leaves, each with their veins individually picked out in gold paint, interspersed with washes of beautiful blues and greens, or the most amazing canvas of poppies that blended seamlessly from blurry red blobs to shapes so finely defined that you could see the individual seed heads.

So, since that trip, I think it’s fair to say that Monet has both fascinated and haunted me. I desperately wanted to see some more of his work, and yet I was somehow worried about being disappointed. So although the Musée de l’Orangerie is five minutes’ walk from where I live, somehow I never quite got round to going there. But in the spirit of bullet-biting, I finally decided to go to the Marmottan museum in Paris’ 16th arrondissement, which houses the most ‘important’ collection (whatever that’s meant to mean) of his paintings in the world.

There was, when I arrived and headed down into the basement where the Monet collection is housed, a horrible moment of disappointment. It opens with three pictures of his sons, and while I admire the man immensely, let’s just say that portraits of children were not his strength. And then there’s the picture of the Tuileries. I didn’t even know he’d done any paintings of Paris, but here he’d done that same thing with his splodges of colour that shouldn’t represent anything and yet capture the scene perfectly, yet combined with some serious architectural precision that made those pavilions completely unmistakable. What is even more impressive though, and the thing that really fascinates me about Monet, and makes me think that he must have been a true genius, is the photographic quality that his paintings have once you step back from them. The blotches of colour that seemed evocative and atmospheric suddenly form a perfect, precise image. How did he know? How did he do that?

It’s the same with so many of his works: the early morning paintings of reflections of bridges in water, all pale pastel pinks, I initially dismissed as a bit wishy washy, until I caught sight of one out of the corner of my eye and thought ‘wow’! That is truly a beautiful image of a misty morning. Then there’s the one with the fiery red reflections in the water around the lilies, which if you get too close makes you wonder why it’s such a funny shape, but somehow lets you forget that when you step back…

The final room of the collection is round and covered with a dozen or so enormous paintings some clearly unfinished, with the edges of canvas showing through. These are his last pictures, from the time when he was almost blind, and I’d always thought that they were a bit too bold and bright, and that it was a shame that he’d lost that delicate touch that characterised his early works. In a way, of course, it’s inevitable: I suppose that he, like me, was fascinated by everything that he saw and wanted to catch every detail of that in his early works, and it was because of that that he painted the ‘same’ scene (although it was never exactly the same, of course, since every day the light changes, the water flows in a slightly different way, leaves have fallen or changed colour, there are clouds, or perhaps not…). When he was nearly blind, maybe he felt that he had to try to capture the impressions of colour that came to him, even if the details of the shapes still eluded him, or maybe he was merely painting from memory. But don’t stare too closely, let your eyes wander and be caught by whatever interests them, and you’ll find that there’s some amazing power in those last paintings. If nothing else, those colours are amazing, and the idea of an eighty year old man having the energy to make those big confident brushstrokes gives us all hope.

But it is that Tuileries painting to which I return, and its curious power to seem so precise, drawing you in for a closer look, only to disappoint you by dissolving into indefinite blurs of shapes and colours. How did he do it? I don’t know. I know only that I can’t get it out of my head, and that it will keep drawing me back because this is something that no book or postcard can capture, and that this is the greatest power that art possesses: to captivate and inspire and motivate us to create and haunt and annoy us because try as we might we can’t quite understand it. Give me a few weeks to get my head around it and I might be ready to tackle that orangerie after all…

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3 thoughts on “Monet and me

  1. Pingback: Rashmi’s Art | My Butterfly Effect

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