Sunday, April 19, 2009

Impressions of an Impressionist

Meadow With Poplars (1875) - Claude Monet

I didn’t really want to go to Wellington to see the exhibition of Impressionist paintings at Te Papa Museum. But I am glad now that I did. The reason I am glad can be summed up in two words: Claude Monet.

Inside the entrance to the exhibition a continuous loop of black and white film shot over one hundred years ago could be viewed. An elderly Claude Monet is under parasols in the garden he constructed painting his beloved water lilies. He is portly, dressed in a cream or white three piece suit. He wears a straw hat, has a cigarette in his mouth which is half ash, half cigarette; and as many watching noted out loud, despite his movements, none of the ash falls off. He holds in his left hand a small quiver of brushes and a very large painting palette on which he mixes his colours. It is a classically shaped palette so large it would seem a pretentious cliche if held by any other. Strangely he is painting wearing leather gloves – it is hard to ascertain whether these are to protect his hands from the paint or to match his immaculate three piece suit.
Monet dabs and daubs at a very large canvas which quivers under his attention. The black and white film is grainy and flickers very slightly with the changes in the background light. In the background the trees move gently and the water lilies float serenely on the small lake.

These old black and white films always create a distance between the subject and the audience. Even though I was successful in colouring in the film with my imagination, no immediacy of image could disguise the fact that this man belonged to a different age – that what I was watching all happened a long time ago.
I am glad that I took the time to view this film before I viewed the paintings because the contrasts between the two mediums couldn't have been more dramatic.

Like most people I have on occasion flicked through art books and looked at a wide variety of paintings. I have always been drawn more to abstract expressionism and the experimental art movements of the mid to late 20th Century rather than the early experimental Impressionist movement from which all this was born. Often the reproduced art prints of the Impressionists have appeared dull to me and the subject matter a bit unexciting and tedious.

So I came with some preconceived ideas about what I was going to see. I have to say that what I saw took my breathe away and stood my preconceived ideas on their heads. I was impressed by the Impressionists, I was captivated and enthralled.

I loved all the Impressionist paintings. The simplified planes of colour of Cezanne which describes his towns, fields and portraiture – the artistry, beauty and painterly quality of Renoir – the oh so clever narrative of Degas with his cavalcade of Ballet postures drawing attention to the beauty of the human body – But in Claude Monet’s pictures I saw the light - because that is the subject matter of his later paintings – the light. Claude Monet paints light.

What I had thought to be boring in the art prints comes alive in the original paintings. The light shines with luminosity in paintings such as “Grain stack Sunset” (1891) with subtly in “Charing Cross Bridge” (1900) and with vibrancy in “Cap Martin near Menton” (1884).
The paintings from his Cathedral series exhibit a curious effect. From a distance of a few meters all that can be seen is a hazy outline – as you increase the distance the effect is of a camera lens slowly bringing an image into focus. At 10 meters the image is sharply defined – and the Cathedral glows in a soft light.

Amongst all of this visual feast there was one painting I kept coming back to again and again. It was another one of those paintings I had only ever given a cursory glance at in an art book. The painting is called “Meadows with Poplars.” (1875). I took what is probably an illegal photograph of it and it is the feature photo at the beginning of this posting.
I was astounded by the impression I got from the painting (funny that Alden, they aren’t called the Impressionists for nothing you know!).
The painting communicates, evokes, a feeling of a ‘slow’ day. The feeling I got was palpable, tangible. I felt the mood. I remembered my own experiences of this kind of day. I was transported emotionally there by the painting. I felt the impression rather than just imbibing a graphical image.

I have seen and felt and lived a slow day like that. Clouds that stand still all day. The heat at noon. A single bird singing high. The sound of insects. The still air. The shimmering earth radiating back the heat of the sun. The sense of time standing still.

As I came back continuously to view this particular painting I reflected on the fact that amongst painters that are wondrously gifted, Claude Monet stands out as a genius.

I also reflected again on the fact that the black and white film clip had created an historical distance between the person of Monet and myself - but that his paintings did exactly the opposite. Some would say the effect and impact of his paintings are so immediate that they could have been painted yesterday – I got the impression they had only been completed half an hour ago and that Monet was still at Te Papa cleaning his brushes.

Of course if you want to create you own impression of the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, go to the Te Papa Museum in Wellington and view the exhibition – in the final analysis a picture is worth a thousand words (Unless it’s a Claude Monet Impressionist picture – his are worth at least a million). :-)


Delwyn said...

This is a great post Alden, I wish I could have been there seeing them too. I wonder if they have been here yet?

The test of 'good art' or art I like, to me is if it speaks to me in some way. You described that feeling so well. Good art is like a symbol - it holds an essence that can transport you to somewhere else...

Kathryn said...

You lucky thing! Going to this wonderful exhibition. I hope it comes to Perth, but many of the big exhibitions do not. I'll keep my fingers crossed.

I love Monet. I went to an exhibition in Perth in September 2001 called Monet & Japan, and it was just awe-inspiring. I bought a print of the Water Lilies and it now adorns my bedroom wall. I just love it.
At the exhibition, I was also impressed by Monet's subtlety of colour, somehow he painted the same scenes many times in different ways to express the changes in weather or the change in seasons. I was also amazed by the sheer size of some of the paintings.
He was most definitely a Master.

Alden said...

Keep an eye out Delwyn - if they come your way the exhibition is definitely worth a visit.

Alden said...

Kathryn, he did paint to show the changing seasons and he also painted haystacks and landscapes at different times of the day to capture the changing light.

It was interesting to compare some of his early work in the exhibition with his later work where he concentrated on capturing the light - the light aspect transformed his painting.