Paris Rediscovers Monet’s Magic at Grand Palais
Published: October 4, 2010
Like white noise, he’s everywhere and invisible, the staple of countless dentists’ offices. Old hat for more than a century now. Is it too late to recapture some of the shock and thrill that caused horrified Parisians in the 1870s to perceive his work as “leprous”?
Amazingly, no, it’s not. The Monet show that just opened here at the Grand Palais is a start. The biggest art spectacle in Europe this fall, with some 160 paintings, it is, believe it or not, the first full-dress overview Paris has staged in decades, the first chance anywhere to see the whole sweep of his work in some time. The French are treating it like a national celebration. President Nicolas Sarkozy contributed a note to the catalog extolling this “unmistakable emblem of the international influence of French culture.” The exhibition would have been a box office smash even if it had corralled fewer of Monet’s benchmarks.
It happens to be ravishing.
Monet the populist decorator of candle-in-Chianti-bottle bistros and college dormitories is modernism’s prettiest painter, a virtuoso of picturesque country scenes and ephemeral weather but not an especially heavyweight thinker or troublemaker. Clichés about him as a wandering minstrel in a white beard trailed like the Pied Piper by children toting his canvases across hill and dale haven’t exactly toughened his reputation, either.
This show, surveying his long career and probing its depths, helps restore something of his original status. He comes across as more than the familiar Impressionist — he comes across as a painter of strange and elusive probity, of memory and reflection, as an artist seeking not just to simulate sun, rain and snow, but states of mind as well. He gave form to “the heavenly pasturage our minds can find in things,” is how Proust once put it.
In part he did this by returning again and again, as the exhibition stresses, to certain sites and motifs, completing pictures not on the spot, but often in his studio, based on what he remembered.
All this is hardly news, and to make the case, pictures in the show are hung, albeit a bit confusingly, by subject as opposed to chronologically, with occasional pedestrian ones from haunts like Vétheuil and Antibes. Monet became a very rich man churning out 2,000 works, and one need only hop the Métro to the Musée Marmattan Monet to see, among some great paintings, plenty of absolute stinkers.
That said, it would be churlish to belabor the exhibition’s failings. Intelligence and sobriety befit an artist too glibly thought of as easy. In the flesh, his best works, it turns out, thwart the problem of their own endless reproduction by being, well, irreproducible. You just can’t grasp the bejeweled, darkling purple and pink light emanating from the moody reveries of Venice he painted well on in his career except by standing before them. They’re views steeped in Whistler, Turner and a kind of exquisite sadness. Only planted in front of “Bathers at La Grenouillère” can you properly get the squinting effect of slanting sun splashing off rippled water, ripe with summer dreams and visual puns, that blurs the silhouettes of figures in the middle distance.
His path was never straight from material realism toward greater abstraction. Conditions dictated style. Steam rising through the gloom at the Gare St-Lazare called for gossamer curlicues of pink and white on smeared patches of gray-blue pigment one day. The next, a sharp spring sun across the Quai du Louvre demanded more crystalline clarity.
And before the awesome rock portal at Étretat, Monet elected dots and dashes to connote raw nature and a swift wind. The style, precisely what shocked and appalled old-school Parisians, masqueraded as an instant take on the subject. Former fishing villages on the Norman coast like Étretat were already turning into resorts catering to vacationing urbanites who wanted to experience such places as if unspoiled by people like themselves.
Indulging such self-delusions, the painter created not just spontaneous records of unblemished countryside, but also heightened versions of vistas and monuments unspoiled and so beckoning that, faced with the real thing, a natural instinct was to reconcile truth to fiction, rather than the other way around.
I mean that Monet’s visions of places can come to inhabit and even supplant our direct memories of them. At Rouen, he doesn’t just capture the cathedral in shifting conditions. He seizes on the way that memory, associated with a place or image, experienced at a certain time and in a certain mood, triggers bundles of emotions and lodges itself in the mind as a kernel of pleasure and pain. Classic Impressionism, as a mere meteorological affair, misses the point. Abstraction does, too.
Monet was really painting mental states, states of reflection. His late, sublime “Water Lilies” is literally that: reflections of light, clouds and foliage against the surface of his pond at Giverny, Monet’s erotic, mysterious, multicolored abyss of shimmering, indefinite space, which kind of describes memory itself.
What makes these pictures look so modern has partly to do, as every art museum docent points out, with their lack of foreground and background and the obvious debt to Japan. But mostly it’s to do with the aspiration to render the intangible — to make millions of material facts immaterial and unshackle them from time. Giverny was both his Eden and object lesson. There, Monet could see the daily transience of things saved from oblivion only by memory and by art.
There’s a photograph he took of himself around 1905, when he was in his mid-60s. In it, he’s standing on the edge of his lily pond, his head casting a shadow on the sunlit water. Lilies float above. The effect is a little disorienting. A temptation is to imagine we’re looking up at Monet, so that the lilies become clouds and the pond, sky. It’s akin to the “Water Lilies,” where the horizon line dissolves and where it’s hard to tell whether the view depicted is across the water, from above it or even from underneath. But in this case he’s in the picture.
By the way, it’s an interesting question, Monet and the camera. He loved new things. He followed balloonists and boat racers the way sports fans now track baseball and football scores. He became an automobile enthusiast, buying one of the first Panhard-Levassor motor cars, with leather upholstery. The occasional photo aside, why not the camera? What did it lack, besides color?
Perhaps photographs seemed to him too literal, too far from the interior states that were his real project. We can make out his beard and profile under the familiar wide-brimmed hat in his photograph. It conjures up other images we have of him as stout, natty, in tweed suit, cambric shirt and ankle boots, a human brandy snifter. His photograph, although a jeu d’esprit, exudes a whiff of melancholy because like all photographs it’s a reminder, with that shadow, of something gone except in the picture and our recollections of it. Monet managed in the photograph what he exalted in paint: the effervescent pleasure of seeing and the inevitable disappearance of that pleasure.
No wonder Proust revered him. Proust also wrote that his pictures “make us adore a field, a sky, a beach, a river as though these were shrines which we long to visit, shrines we lose faith in when we see.” Reality, with its mess and noise, fails to live up to what Monet painted.
But Proust also meant that Monet didn’t just idealize places; he wasn’t just a French weatherman with paints. He showed us Argenteuil and Belle-Île, the Houses of Parliament in London and the banks of the Seine, vibrating with electric color, “parts of the world,” as Proust said, “that are themselves and nothing but themselves,” places that already existed in our imagination, as if waiting to be discovered and that now bid for our affection.
“On the threshold of love we are bashful,” Proust noted. “There has to be someone who will say to us, ‘Here is what you may love: love it.’ ”
Monet does exactly that.
And how can we not?