No Comment — August 8, 2007, 3:34 pm

Escape for a Day When It’s Too Damned Hot!

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.

lilypond3_monet

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.

monet-needle

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner
Post
CamperForce·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

After losing their savings in the stock market crash of 2008, seniors Barb and Chuck find seasonal employment at Amazon fulfillment centers.

Chance that a Silicon Valley technology company started since 1995 was founded by Indian or Chinese immigrants:

1 in 3

A gay penguin couple in China’s Polar Land zoo were ostracized by other penguins and then placed in a separate enclosure after they made repeated attempts to steal the eggs of straight penguin couples and replace them with stones.

Trump’s former chief strategist, whom Trump said had “lost his mind,” issued a statement saying that Trump’s son did not commit treason; the US ambassador to the United Nations announced that “no one questions” Trump’s mental stability; and the director of the CIA said that Trump, who requested “killer graphics” in his intelligence briefings, is able to read.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today