CLAUDE MONET'S LOVE FOR LIGHT
Inspired by meditative vision – Monet's paintings reflecting the play of light with everyday objects enliven even the seemingly mundane articles of life, writes Uma Nair.
In his poem By the Stream, Paul Lawrence Dunbar says:
By the stream I dream in calm delight, and watch as in a glass,
How the clouds like crowds of snowy-hued and white-robed maidens pass,
And the water into ripples breaks and sparkles as it spreads,
Like a host of armored knights with silver helmets on their heads
Dunbar puts to words and verse what Claude Monet did with his paintings. At the National Gallery London, 'The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture' brings Dunbar's words alive.
Featuring more than seventy-five paintings by Monet, this innovative exhibition spans his long career from its beginnings in the mid-1860s to the public display of his Venice paintings in 1912. As a daring young artist, he exhibited in the impressionist shows and displayed canvases of the bridges and buildings of Paris and its suburbs. Much later as an elderly man, he depicted the renowned architecture of Venice and London. More than a quarter of the paintings in 'The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Monet & Architecture', come from private collections from around the world.
Landscapes, churches, bridges, canals, lush lilies on dappled stagnant waters—Monet conjured up scenes and locales with the simplest of devices. He created magnificent views with mundane elements like a boat, a few people in it and rendered a museum on a waterfront with limpid strokes of impressionist splendour. Nothing was obvious for Monet, it was about the observation of nuances and hues and understanding that a landscape had to be laced with light.
In The Water-Lily Pond 1899, it is the dulcet details that beckon, the little wooden bridge, the reflection of the lilies, the fertile green tints that evoke the beauty of the stretch of the balance between the man-made bridge and the façade of water in the pond that distils.
The Grand Canal and Palazzo Contarini, done in 1908, are surreal studies that celebrate the distant contours of architectural aura. Historians state that the Grand Canal view, taken from the boat landing of the Palazzo Barbaro, captures the baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute and its reflection dancing on the water. Unlike many Venetian view painters, Monet showed less interest in representing famous monuments than in capturing the play of light and reflection on the city's waterways.
In his study of Palazzo Contarini, we see that he delighted in playing the duet between the architectural splendours of Venice and the many vignettes offered by the waterways on the atmospherics of authenticity. Scholar J. Pissarro noted: "In Venice, Monet divided his daily schedule into periods of approximately two hours, undertaken at the same time every day and on the same given motif. Unlike his usual methods of charting the changes of time and light as the course of the day would progress, here, Monet was interested in painting his different motifs under exactly the same conditions. One could say that he had a fixed appointment with his motifs at the same time each day. The implication of this decision is very simple; for Monet in Venice, time was not to be one of the factors of variations for his motifs. Rather, it was the 'air', or what he called 'the envelope' – the surrounding atmospheric conditions, the famous Venetian haze – that became the principal factor of variation with these motifs." (J. Pissarro, Monet and the Mediterranean, New York, 1977)
The Thames below Westminister unveils to give us a dappled ash grey experience which captures the dynamism of visual differences. He is far from impulsive, he mulls over the numerous shades of muted colour zones as he strikes a fine balance of contrasting visual notes in the dark and light shades giving us an idea of the presence of Westminister as a corollary of conversations in time — where the Westminister stands like a silent sentinel.
With Houses of Parliament, he wants to portray the power of the setting sun—even as the sienna and rust tones weave into the lavender nocturned sky.
Charing Cross Bridge, Reflections on the Thames is a moody mooring. It is said that while in the smoggy, industrial city, Monet challenged himself to capture the effects of light seen through a dense atmospheric screen. Beyond the rectilinear skeleton of Charing Cross Bridge — reminiscent of bridges in Japanese prints, which the artist collected — rises the ghostlike silhouette of the Houses of Parliament.
The beauty of the many works in this historic culling shows that Monet gave reverence to the Thames as well as the waterways of Venice. In Venice, Monet continued to observe, as he had in the views of the River Thames he completed in 1904, how light reflected off a wide stretch of water dissolves and liquefies the solid, uneven surfaces of stone walls. In Venice, however, the closeness of the buildings to the water's edge led him to explore more abstract compositions, accentuating the interplay between the rhythms of the ornate façade, with its arched openings and horizontal divisions, and the rhythmic expanse of the waterways.
Churches and Chapels
Monet's studies of chapels and churches were different but distinct in terms of the ephemeral qualities he captured of lines and locales. Monet was not attracted to the church because of its picturesque appearance or its architecture, but by the optical effects of light and of weather upon the building at different times of the day. He obsessively pursued this study of light for the remainder of his career and was to return to the depiction of ecclesiastical façades with his celebrated series of Rouen Cathedral in the early 1890s. Luminosity was the canvas upon which he painted.
Patience and Perseverance
But this sterling collection is not only about the features of a building or a sleepy town by a river, or steeple towers rising from beyond a towering cliff, but it is about the power of patience and perseverance, about how a few hours of quiet serenity in observation can create views of scenes that can set our senses soaring, of how atmospherics can bring on an alchemy of cosmic colour and, ultimately, how an artist makes you realise the power of silence and deeper intensities in life and the living.
In the study of different architectonics, embracing the urban and rural picturesque, sombre monuments and riverine idylls of Venice, Monet invented a spectrum of supreme tonal balances and moody modulations to create works that echoed visual notes of tranquil peace.
Monet the master of precision emerges so that he could give us a litany of scenes that celebrated the expanse and exquisite capacity of surfaces, outer spaces, and infinite textures. This show is an exercise in erudition and elegance – it gives us a referential domain of the magnitude of real distances, of the relative positions of man and his life in any environ. From the actuality of the palette of colours to the dreamy interpretation of the impressionist zeal—this show unravels like a magnum opus telling us that we must preserve and nurture the beauty of the earth.