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In Washington today, I stepped out of my hotel and on to K Street. 105° F. Is that possible!? It was decidedly not a day to spend outside. It was oppressive. Getting to my destination, I sat down, got a bottle of water and closed my eyes. And immediately I was in a garden world, filled with green grass, flowers, water and lily pads. It was the world of Claude Monet. Suddenly the world seemed right; nature was in harmony with humanity. It was serene and soothing. Not the blazing inferno I had just passed through.
It seems to me that the first art history lesson I ever had involved the Impressionists and it started with Claude Monet’s lily pond. As art it’s immediately approachable. What’s not to like? It has a direct appeal to the senses. It was Claude Debussy put on canvas, something like the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, or like a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé. It was not the image, but the idea behind the image that counted. There was something alluring, but also restful about it.
After a while I came to dislike Monet for his very approachability. How can this be art? Doesn’t art require suffering? Wasn’t Monet just too successful, too rich? Wasn’t his climb to success too immediate? Monet was a silly middle class sort of artist. He was getting dangerously close to Muzak. In my mind Monet faded away. As an artist he was too established, over-rated, trite.
This past weekend, however, I made the trek out to Williamstown in the Berkshires to see the new Monet exhibition at the Clark. The day was perfect: the skies were a brilliant azure, the countryside was explosively green, but the air was still fresh, even under an intense sun. It was close to being a Monet kind of day, I thought.
The exhibition has a sprinkling of Monet paintings, mostly to show how the pastels and drawings were used as studies for major works in oil and canvas. But it is mostly about the lesser medium graphics. The first room consists of a series of early caricatures which were, as one of my friends said, just the sort of thing that a very accomplished high school student might craft today. Clever, but hardly brilliant.
The later rooms get quickly into the more familiar sort of Monet. Ladies and gentlemen in a garden party (Déjuner sur l’herbe), wonderful scenes of the Normandy coast, the harbor at Honfleur, his garden at Giverny, those magnificent vanilla-sky Great War era paintings of London and in the end those enormous magnum opus lily ponds.
I remember years ago being enthralled by some of the Giverny paintings. Where, I wondered, did he find those amazing multi-hued iris? I spent time tracking them down. No, Monet was not taking artistic license with a flower. They really exist. (I know. In the meantime, I’m growing them in my own garden).
The exhibition will teach you a lot about Monet, about the trajectory of his career, about his dazzling commercial success. Monet was decidedly an entrepreneurial artist. He was also an artist conscious of the benefits of political patronage, as his extraordinary relationship with Georges Clemenceau revealed. But the key point that the exhibition made—to me at least—was of an artistic vision that moved patiently, steadily from line to color and light. On this score the difference between the first and final rooms couldn’t be more dramatic. Monet is a master of color and light; his sense is extraordinary. Sometimes it struck me as wrong, however. In the urban landscapes, and especially of a Gothic cathedral, the feel struck me as completely wrong. The sharp lines of tracery belong to the essential image of the Gothic. Their dissolution into coral and pale blue swirls produces something pretty but absolutely un-Gothic.
In my college days, one of my professors taught me a secret to visiting an art exhibition. “I always go through the exhibition looking at the great and important works, and then I go over it again, on the hunt. I’m not looking for greatness or importance. I’m looking for something that pleases me. In fact I ask myself: ‘What would I like to take home from this exhibition and hang in my living room.’” This sounds pedestrian and materialistic, perhaps, but it’s fun, and I challenge my readers to use it. I do. And here’s my pick from the exhibition—two-thirds of the way through you will come to a scene of fishermen towing their boats to shore at dusk in the port of Honfleur. The scene is warm but somber. The rocky beach, the water, the town are all varying shades of gray. But the fading light of the day is boldly portrayed as thick lines of coral, peach and gold. The effect is amazing, hypnotic. It is a fairly early work, from the era of the American Civil War. It is a fairly conventional theme, but the treatment, especially of those last glimmerings of the day, is very adventurous. This is not a great work, I thought, but it is beautiful, and it does seem to have the seeds of something great in it. And it spoke to me in a direct and simple way. The quiet dignity of the fishermen, the majesty of the sea, the glory of the setting light. This was the work that I picked. Its home, I noted, was in the art collection of the University of Rochester. Good catch.
So to all of you who find yourselves in the Berkshires or within striking distance of Williamstown within the next five weeks, I have some simple advice: get yourself to this exhibition and soak it in. You have something to use as an oasis against the heat for years to come.
More from Scott Horton:
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From the June 2014 issue
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