Monday, January 08, 2007

Good Things About France No. 10: 'Les Nympheas' de Monet

When I was a student at university in Liverpool, I shared a flat with a bunch of other students. One of them was a lad who was tidy (surely a term of abuse for a student?), listened to classical music with the manuscript open on his knees, read nothing but Trollope and Hardy and had a curling poster on the wall of some women walking through a poppy field.

It was Monet of course. The eternal Monet summer of meadows, fluffy clouds and ladies in bonnets. He used to tell me how much he liked Monet and the Impressionists. So much better than the artists today and the rubbish they created. I would stifle a yawn and go back to my room to read some Kundera and stare at my own Kurt Schwitters poster.

I think today I would give him more time. And the reason is a strange one. By starting work with a French company, by eventually being transferred to France, I have found myself, quite accidentally, living in the very place that the Impressionists lived and painted. The famous "camembert", a little round island in the Seine which was painted by both Monet and Renoir standing side by side one idyllic summer's afternoon, is only ten minutes walk from our house.

The place is less idyllic now. The banks of the Seine have been stabilised, the "camembert" removed and no one would dream of jumping into the Seine in a bathing costume. But the light on the Seine is the same, the same bold stripes of light and dark recorded by Monet that afternoon.

It was visiting the Orangerie museum in Paris that changed my opinion of Monet. Therein are housed his enormous paintings (entitled 'Les Nympheas') of the water lily ponds next to his house at Giverny. Monet bequeathed the works to the French nation in on the condition that they remained in the Orangerie which he helped to adapt for the task. Last year the Orangerie was reopened after a major restoration project reestablished the influx of natural light to the galleries.

These late works, carried out between 1915 and 1923 and completed when Monet was in his eighties are a vast and hugely ambitious project. The subject matter is the surface of the lily ponds, full of hazy and shimmering reflections of clouds and sky, splashes of curiously mottled colours dissolving among the lily pads and reeds.

These paintings take impressionism to a new level. They are still about seeing, observations of a particular moment, but they are also abstractions, mood pieces, delighting in the double image presented by the surface of the pond and all the reflections trapped therein. They seem to mark an end to the search for exotic subject matter, a glory in simplicity, a sort of ultimate place at the end of Monet's life...

...which was a life not without its trials: the death of his wife at a young age, frequent penury. For Monet, as for all of the Impressionists, success was hard to come by. Manet, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir all spent decades battling for the respect of academy and public alike, to be able to present their new art which was essentially realist, painted for the first time out of doors, interested by effects of light, showing real people in real situations, rapidly painted, attempting to capture the impression of a moment.


Clare Dudman said...

They've removed an island from the Seine? I'm astonished. I learn so much whenever I come here. Thanks again, Jonathan - a very interesting post.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thank you Clare. It was a very tiny island, about the size of a smallish carousel. Just big enough for a few people to lie about on. There's a picture of the site today here with the modern replica of the camembert that they constructed on land. This site has a picture of the original island on the cover of a book, which is Monet's painting I refer to in the text.

anno domini said...

Another interesting - and lovely - post: reminded me of a visit to Giverny many years ago. And that 'camembert' - it sounds like an early version of those artificial islands they are making in Dubai!

Jonathan Wonham said...

Hello Anno Domini, thanks for your comment. Nice to have a new reader. i was looking at a magazine with pictures of Dubai in the other day. It is indeed amazing architecture.

Ms Baroque said...

I had a similar experience around Renoir, years ago: my friend and I went to a huge exhibition at the Hayward, simply because there was nothing else on - we thought it was going to be boring, sentimental, pastel women - and in fact the paintings were outrageous, gorgeous, brave, and they were huge - literally commanded the space. The colours in reality were not so pastel. They were marvellous.

My mother recently saw a monet exhibition in North Carolina (where she "winters," bless her) and talked much about the hugenesss of his late enterprise.

The Impressionists still aren't my favourites - I do still love Schwitters - but it's amazing how seeing what someone's project is really about will do for your perceptions.

But I can't look at Seurat's paintings. Those really DO look weedy.

Jonathan Wonham said...

Thanks for your comment Ms Baroque. Sometimes Renoir can seem too sentimental, but you're right, he did paint some great works boisterous works that were full of life as well. He loved people, especially women, in the same way that Monet loved landscape.