Saturday, June 8, 2013

A Day with Monet (Part I)

Spending time in Paris every year cannot help but affect you, infect you.  Though the Paris that I have in mind (or that I long to visit each year) is long gone (as close French friend of mine always corrects me,"Montmartre is not the real Paris, you know"),  you can still find the remnants and perhaps, that is what I am doing. The sheer amount of history of the city- its art, its political  history, its revolution(s) are completely overwhelming and to know all of that is a life-long quest. Each year, the veil of this American in Paris projection becomes a little more transparent and my relationship to it continues to grow.

Though as undergraduate art history students, we learned more about the Impressionists and Post-impressionists, it was the Baroque that initially consumed me.  Like many of my overly intense (and uninformed) classmates, I gravitated toward the dark art of the Baroque- Caravaggio, Rembrandt, etc. early on. I was exposed to the Naturalist movement (which ran parallel to the Impressionist Movement) by an amazing art historian specializing in Scandinavian Art of the 19th century and she remains a wealth of information for me. I was also reading Emile Zola in undergraduate school and his tie to their work (and the content) made a huge impact on me. My art centered around many of the socio-political issues that their work raised such Leon Lhermitte's "La paye des moissonneurs" (below).  I was always upset that the Naturalists were rarely mentioned in Art History classes.

 Now, as I grow older, the artistic heroes of my youth often wane in terms of what they provide for my real-time inspiration now and artists that I found little in common with back then, finally seem to be revealed to me in ways that are surprising, rewarding and inspiring.  Monet (and many of the Impressionists) is in this latter category.

I must say that I've never been any sort of Monet devotee.  Like La Joconde is to Da Vinci, many of Monet's paintings (mostly the Water Lilies) have been reproduced, appropriated and marketed on every type of object, from calendars to umbrellas, and coffee mugs to greeting cards, silk scarves and canvas bags (below). It's hard to experience the work without thinking of some of these items. There's nothing wrong with this, I fully understand the motivation to provide it and why museum-goers purchase it. But as a young art student, the fluff of pink, violet, purple and lemon yellow used to paint flowers and picnics did little to stimulate me either visually or intellectually.

Make no mistake, the paintings always gave me a joy and they had ease about them that was very pleasing for me. However, the idea of how they were made was what I began thinking of. There was something about painting outside, on location, and 'chasing the light' that appealed to me, though I'm not interested in painting the landscape much. Having read of Monet's devotion to the site, the amount of time spent he would spent there, and only when the weather and time of day were exact as the previous visits when the painting had been started, one couldn't help, but pick up on that uniqueness and specificity that he (and countless other plein art painters) was going for.  Though many of the colors were outlandishly garish, bordering on fauvism, and unlike any lighting conditions I'd ever seen, I couldn't help but see the light that was created by these acidic color relationships. The role of optics and the novelty of this awareness (of colors mixing in one's brain was more intense than mixing the colors together on a palette then applying that mixture to canvas) was clearly evident.  Seeing many of the paintings in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, almost demanded a new consideration of the work.

In lecturing about his work in the Musee l"Orangerie and the d"Orsay, it was easy to fall for the lush color, vertical handling of space inspired by his love of ukiyo-e prints and the prophetic abstraction that would influence many artists a couple of decades later.

Since returning last summer, I read a number of books pertaining to Paris.  One of the books I picked up was Claude and Camille: A novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell. Its a wonderfully entertaining account of Monet's life starting with his studying with Boudin, financial struggles through his life, the Franco-Prussian War, his relations with Frederic Bazille and all of the other notables, and finally ending in with his time at Giverny.

My favorite painting of Monet's has always been "La Gare St. Lazare" (below) in the Musee d'Orsay (though "Saint-Lazare Station: Arrival of a train" in the Fogg Art Museum and another in the National Gallery in London are nearly as amazing) since first seeing it in Art History at Edinboro.  I'm still not sure as to why the painting has resonated with me, and for so long.  Perhaps, it was the idealized color of the smoke of the train, again not like real life, which was sooty and colorless, but almost like cotton candy, that took me. There seems to be a lot of action going on in the painting and I was eager to experience some of these places first hand. This trip I would make it a point to see it.

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