Call me corny and predictable, but I’m a huge devotee of Monet. I know, there are a thousand bathrooms in a five mile radius where a Monet poster hangs. I know. But I fell in love at 13, and I never recovered.
My parents took me to NYC that summer. We went to the Met. The way I remember it, and the way I describe it to my 14, 15 and 16 year old students is: coming around a corner in the museum, my eyes glazed over from Masterpieces, I saw my first live Monet. All my synapses fired. I went into shock. The way I remember it, it was a small painting, with color like a bucket of jewels. I’d never seen color act as a participant in a painting like that before. That was what it was ABOUT.
I know– color is the easiest way into a work of art. Everyone, except for possibly the color blind, can be touched by color, regardless of their insensitivity to the other aspects of a work. But, in my soul, I am a colorist, and that little painting was screaming in my language.
On my last trip to France, five years ago, I had some pilgrimage duties planned. I went way out of my way to visit Giverny. And I planned to end the trip at L’Orangerie. I was devastated to discover that the restoration of L’Orangerie was still ongoing and it was closed. So, on this trip to France, I set aside one afternoon to make up for that missed opportunity. I had seen isolated pieces of Les Nymphaes at various museums all over the world, and I’d seen studies for them. But I had never seen them as Monet intended them to be seen, all together.
I felt a real rush of empathy when I saw the sign at the mouth of the gallery “Silence”. Indeed. I wanted to allow my soul to drop down into wordlessness and to float into this work. Nobody else seemed to have that impulse, however. I kept wishing I had a special pass to come after hours and stand in that space alone, and allow it to subsume my field of vision and sweep me up. It had to do that in spite of elbows and voices and cameras and other folks with a more relaxed interest.
Over the years I’ve read a lot about this particular work– the work of Monet that I’m most interested in. I’ve read that it moves toward abstraction possibly because he was quite elderly and his vision was failing. But seeing the ensemble live I was shocked at the explosiveness of the abstraction. In my journal I wrote that they were “more wildly and vigorously abstract than I’d expected– as violently flung down as a Pollock or a de Kooning .” They had a topography that surprised me as well. Encrusted and multi-layered. Thought and rethought. I took photographs of abstract details. But at a distance the work locked together like the dials on a safe. They were definitely not the work of an artist whose vision had failed. They were infintely sure-footed and wise.
I sat down and found myself settling deeply into the trunk of a reflected willow tree. It held me for an inexplicably long time– not billiantly colored, simply a dark textured vertical. It was sinewy, rope-like, male and archetypal. There was more in this shrine to nature and art than I had expected .
How nice to still find surprises in one of my oldest relationships.