Why Monet Still Matters — Nicole Pekarske
I didn’t know until I saw them live, in situ, that the greatest Waterlilies were not flat, rectangular paintings but huge curved panels muraling a series of oval rooms. You go to the Orangerie museum and sit or stand in the center of the room, surrounded by this incredibly active, vibrating tranquility. A sign outside asks visitors to please be quiet, as this is a place of meditation, offered by Monet explicitly as a monument of peace, both the military peace after the Great War and the human peace inside the mind and heart of man, against the daily agitations of the modern world. Monet called the installation an “asile,” a refuge or place of asylum. An isle of calm. A kind of holiness.
Monet knew all the blues, every one of them. Every possible hue and shade and saturation appears on these walls, in symphony — a swirling, rippling library of blue, of sky in water. But the paintings are equally green. These visions are made what they are by the great drape of willow fronds that half hide, half reveal the water, sheltering us as if we were standing near the trunk, under the tree’s celadon veil. From this secret space, both sky and water become wafting ribbons, undulating in the warm, close air, and the horizon that demarks land from sky is obscured, giving a sense of womblike unity. This could almost be a place from before the Fall from Eden, before the separation of mother and child. From this, the individual lilies gasp open, white and pink lungs, trailing blue stem umbilici.
Water is always different, moving subtly and showing the ever-changing sky. The lilies, too, open and close, grow to cover new sections of water and then die away. No doubt this is why Monet produced 260 paintings of his waterlily garden, the canal he built and planted by hand, down to the Japanese bridge; even the stillest things in nature change constantly with the hour, the season, the breeze, the light. When Monet first set out to paint them, he said he had “taken up something impossible.” [Courthion, Pierre. Realites: The Impressionists. Realities USA Publications. Horsham, PA 1980, p. 18]
Like actual water, the paintings seem to change, in part because of their sheer size; as you move around the room, each painting changes with your focus and perspective. And because of the impressionistic painting style, the paintings look very different up close than they do from a middle distance, and different again from across the room. Then there are the hills and valleys of the thick paint – as the minute shadows alter with your position, you notice new details, new effects. A streak of orange against a particular shade of purple – why had you never noticed that orange before? They change with your moods, as well, seeming now cheery, now wistful.
Texture is part of what is missed when you see only prints rather than viewing the paintings “live.” The rougher the paint, the less prints do the work justice. Someday neuroscience will adequately explain why seeing an original painting is such a different experience from seeing a print. I have a private theory that paint stimulates the brain in some way differently from ink. Renoir, in particular, is utterly different first-hand. I’d always found the Renoir prints I’d seen a bit twee, a bit cutesy – then I saw “Portrait de deux fillettes” (also at the Orangerie) and lost my breath. The way the light touched the girls’ skin and dresses, their hair imbued, radiating, with sun — no reproduction I’ve seen has begun to capture this.
If the Waterlilies’ grotto of the Orangerie is a temple, it’s in worship not of nature but of a certain element of humanity – that a man did this, made this. That someone felt moved to do it, and that he had such overwhelming mastery of his craft. To make art at this level is a uniquely human activity, and in my mind art is the most extraordinarily human of all our activities because it is not about eating or surviving or procreating, which behaviors we share with all living creatures, nor even about attracting a mate (though I believe most artists do ok on that front) – as Oscar Wilde and others have pointed out, art serves no practical purpose, and that’s what makes it art. (Surely Marcel Duchamp, who famously signed a urinal and showed it in a gallery, would agree that a urinal can’t be art when it’s being used.)
There was a moment, touring one of the great Robber Baron mansions in Newport, Delaware, when I welled up over some peach damasked wallpaper. It was silk, and I understood that the stuff was in part a mere display of wealth, conspicuous consumption, but I was moved nonetheless by that fact of wallpaper itself — how many hours, how many hands involved in making the stuff, and it doesn’t hold up the walls or add physical warmth or do anything of use. I love humanity most when I see wonderful wallpaper – a whole industry for mere beauty! – and these Waterlilies are, if you’ll excuse the comparison, the most wonderful wallpaper of all time.
But the question before us is: Why does Impressionism, and Monet in particular, still move us, after the hundreds of times we’ve seen the images on calendars, coffee mugs, dorm walls and umbrellas? Why is Monet still relevant after a hundred years of innovation and changing fashions in art? After all this, are the Waterlilies not kitsch?
According to Milan Kundera, kitsch is the denial of the fact that humans shit. Does Monet present to us a sanitized, prettified world, the world as it “ought” to be rather than as it is? No. These paintings are not without conflict, tension. In three of the eight Orangerie panels, the long horizontal lines of the canvas are set in tension with bold verticals of tree trunks. In the majority of the panels, tension exists in strong contrast between dark and light areas of the canvas. In all the paintings, particularly “Reflets des Arbres,” which is the most uniform in color and darkness, terrific tension springs from the difficulty of making out the image and understanding what we are seeing. And the images are not idealized. One of Monet’s directives was, “Paint what is true.” He shocked many by painting the St. Lazare train station and engines billowing smoke, and many of his depictions of Giverney’s rose arbor are dark and furious. The Waterlilies show a landscape that Monet designed especially to be beautiful and paintable, but the very roughness of the paint and boldness of the unblended lines (visible when you stand close) convey not just a speed and vigor – almost a lust – that is unabashedly human, but a distinct lack of concern for mere prettiness. It’s as if Monet had almost attacked the canvas with color. These paintings are not pretty but passionate.
You walk up the grand central stair at Musee Marmottan and as you round the curve you are struck by a shaft of sun, orange with twilight. The shaft is flowing, molten, down the side of the Houses of Parliament and gilding the Thames. It is spectacular against the purply-blue-green of the gothic building, which is just a silhouette. The painting is so bold it’s almost cartoonish, yet utterly real, and fills you with awe like no actual sunrise or sunset you’ve ever witnessed.
Monet endures because he gives us back the world, yes – comprehensible – but changed, altered to fit our interior experience. The world in harmony with human-kind – half our input, half that of the universe (the great Other) – a kind of fair balance between us and the world. We aliens in the world have been given a corner that feels like home. Hence the overall peacefulness we feel from the paintings. But it’s a heightened, enlivened peace.
The poet Greg Orr, a teacher of mine, introduced me to the notion of each artwork as a negotiation between order and chaos. Monet in particular seems to have struck just the right note, the right amount of chaos so that we are excited but not overwhelmed.
Perhaps we, our inner world of perception, are the order and the outside world is the chaos in its Otherness. Or perhaps between photographic order and the chaos inside us, or the chaos of passing time. Maybe we are the chaos, our fleeting, time-bound selves, and the world of haystacks and waterlilies is order – after all, those objects move slowly. Notice that when we think of Monet we don’t think of his painting people. (Van Gogh too, though he’s just a smidge further toward the side of chaos – when I was a child, I found the Dutchman’s paintings too violent.) Or we are a good chaos, against the deadening order of reality.
In “Impression: Sunrise,” the painting that gave name to the whole artistic movement of Impressionism, Monet gives us a world almost entirely monochrome, almost invisible, built of a blueish fog. The light throughout is so suffused it is tender. In the background, vertical and horizontal strokes suggest buildings, a dockside or harbor; in the foreground, the simple punctuation of a diminutive black boat. Balanced against all this is a smallish tangerine sun and its tail laid on the water. The brilliant orange set against all that tenderness – it aches, it keens. The eye almost cannot take in both kinds of color at once, so like the flickering water your attention, your vision, trembles.
The subject of the paintings – all Monet’s paintings – is light, light in all its moods, with all its intricate changes.
Why this urge to record what one sees? Of course when you record something you’ve seen you’re recording the fact that you were there, seeing it – the artist preserves himself, just as the poet does through her writing. But is the urge there just because the images in our eyes are so fleeting and we are so mortal, or it there something else, something more? Certainly there is celebration as a motive, as if the painter is thinking, “This scene is so devastatingly lovely, so heartbreaking, that it mustn’t be lost or limited to my eyes, but must be preserved and propagated so that everyone may see.” To capture the True, the thing that moves us. Is it about capturing, about ownership? To paint or write about a thing is in some way to make it your own, to acquire it, because in order to represent it you come to KNOW it in an almost Biblical sense – to “have” it as we say you “have” a sexual partner. But one can have someone in that sense without owning them – and perhaps this is the proper, ideal relationship between self and world: to know without dominion. The paintings give us this. In my view, Realism comes too close to giving us its subject as a present, a toy or treasure that we, having seen the complete image, now possess. Impressionism, on the other hand, lets the object retain its mystery. Monet evokes the object all the way down to its core, but lets it keep its clothes on. This is because he depicts the object in interaction with light – he shows us the core by showing the object in action, the way we know people by their deeds.
He painted what was precious to him – not that haystacks or waterlilies were sacred, nor even light itself, but vision, sight, was sacred. Impressionism captures not the thing but the seeing of the thing – seeing is the true subject. In this way the paintings celebrate not their objects but life itself, the fact of sensation. The rough brushstrokes of Impressionism also capture gesture, showing the movement of the painter’s arm — compare a Monet to the silky flatness of a Renaissance painting, which hides the brushstrokes, and the difference is clear. Movement, motion — another celebration of life. It is for this reason, ultimately, that Impressionist paintings still matter to us. They make us fall in love with humanity, with our own senses, and thus with our lives.
Nicole Pekarske teaches writing at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her collection of poems, Intermissa Venus, was published by Cherry Grove Editions in 2004. This is her first published essay.