A Reflection on Monet’s timeless harrowing pleas for humanity to build a better world
- Kamran Mofid
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I offer this in honour of Monet & Architecture: A Special Exhibition, The National Gallery, London And of our forthcoming coming conference in Lucca, Tuscany, 28 August-1 September 2018
(Both in search of Beauty, Wisdom, Inspiration, Vision and Guidance to Build a Better World)
Arguably the most popular and famous Impressionist painter, Claude Monet continues to captivate art audiences around the world
Photo: Claude Monet, Self portrait with beret 1886 | © Art Gallery ErgsArt – by ErgSap / Flickr
'Controversially rebuffing the traditions of realism, Monet sought to capture the essence of nature; the changing light of time and the seasons. He adopted a new way of painting in the 1860s by leaving the confines of the studio and working en plein air – painting directly outdoors. He drew on various inspirations, including the landscapes of J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, whose work he encountered when he moved to London in 1870 during the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war.'
Photo: “Water Lilies” by Claude Monet, The National Gallery, London
Claude Monet:’ a uniquely sensitive eye for nature.’
“He is known as a joyful painter of lilies and picnics. But this thrilling show recasts Monet as an artist aghast as the world hurtled towards calamity"
'This gesture always puzzled me, until I saw the National Gallery’s game-changing exhibition of one of the world’s most joyously accessible artists. It seemed so strange that Monet – the thoughtless painter of fleeting light, the hedonist recorder of bourgeois picnics – should make such a serious public statement. How many visitors to the Orangerie even connect his sensuous lilies with the slaughter of Verdun?'...Jonathan Jones, writing in the Guardian
The Coal Heavers
The Coal Heavers, 1875. Photograph: Claude Monet/RMN - Grand Palais (musée d'Orsay)
…’Received wisdom has it that Monet and his fellow impressionists, who held their first exhibition together in 1874, celebrate modern, middle-class city life. Yet this exhibition reveals a very different Monet, one anxious about the industrial world and horrified by its injustices. Far from a glib celebration of big city lights, his 1873 painting Boulevard des Capucines, Paris is nightmarish. It subtly anticipates Edvard Munch. Streets lights cast a blinding inhuman glow over a crowd of black-clothed people who mill about like insects under the coolly watchful eyes of two top-hatted observers on a balcony.
This is not for one second the kind of reassuring scene Monet is sometimes accused of churning out. It is a disillusioned vista of modern emptiness, like an illustration to a devastating novel by Monet’s contemporary Émile Zola. That same grim portrayal of urban reality becomes a harrowing plea for humanity in his 1875 painting The Coal Heavers. With a strange balletic grace that only emphasises the drudgery of their task, workers walk on narrow planks bearing heavy loads of coal from a barge on the Seine. Above, people walk dully over an iron bridge. This is a disenchanted world.
Boulevard des Capucines, Paris
Photo: (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri)
This shockingly unexpected encounter with Monet the critic of capitalism prepares you for some of his greatest works. Monet’s paintings of the gothic facade of Rouen Cathedral, painted in the early 1890s, are mind-stretching marvels. From a distance – a considerable distance – they look eerily like Victorian photographs, as if he was inspired by sepia postcards of this venerable monument. Go closer – as close as the guards allow – and the illusion crumbles in a matted, rough, abstract surface of wild colour.
Something strange is happening in these paintings, all right. Each one shows exactly the same view but at a different time of day, in totally contrasting light. The colours vary fantastically: a pink cathedral, a yellow cathedral, a violet cathedral, a gold cathedral. Yet they all represent the same cathedral. In each, Monet explores the crusty, knobbly, shadowed handiwork of the medieval masons who created Rouen Cathedral with a woozy, intoxicated admiration.
General View of Rouen From St. Catherine's Bank
They are paintings that capture time itself. The light may change from moment to moment, but the stones of Rouen have lasted centuries. In a world hurtling into the mechanical modern future, Monet keeps coming back to study this ancient survivor. He preserves split seconds. The cathedral preserves centuries.
Only an eye? This exhibition reveals the inner soul of Monet. It shows that his love of nature is not mere escapism. It is a craving for human survival in an age of growing industrial inhumanity. His gift to the French nation makes sense to me now. Decades before the first world war even began, Monet was painting to restore the heart of a heartless world.’
*The above excerpts are taken from Monet & Architecture review – glorious pleas for humanity show Monet in a new light by Jonathan Jones, first published in the Guardian on 5 April 2018