Legacy of Monet's Impressionism
10. Claude Monet
Impressionism's Ultimate Leader and
IMPRESSIONISM & PORTRAITS
MEANING OF ART
painters want to move quickly and move ahead, to test out strong and
urgent sensations, and they do this instinctively because in their case,
and particularly in the case of Monet,
instinct plays an essential part; they resort to light and movement. But
over and above these two elements it is the live, violent feeling that
they strive to capture and express. Against the ideal span of time which
the Renaissance painters sought to
express through permanence, they assert an active and dynamic quality
in such a way that experiencing the sensation allows all to seize on it
and live through it. Thus the Impressionists are in a sense realists.
They produce in painting one of the immediate fundamental ideas of our
consciousness and Zola was able to feel close to them in their beginnings.
The disposition of a place, the character
of a chosen setting, reveal it to him. From London (1901) and Venice (1908)
he brings back a series of daring canvases in which the Houses of Parliament,
bridges, palaces and churches melt into coloured powders. The phenomenon
of light is developed so far that reality becomes transformed. There were
other works painted in series: Haystacks (1891), Poplars (1892), Cathedrals
(1895), Cliffs and Mornings on the Seine (1898) and "Le Bassin des
Nympheas (water lilies)" (1900). These celebrated series are like
studies that press home the Impressionists' technical research and experiments
into experienced sensation. But in each canvas taken separately, Monet
constantly proves his inventiveness by meeting the particular needs of
the subject. The systematic character of the project, however, is brilliant.
Tension exasperates him. To translate the abundant fruits of his perception, he resorts to instant change in method. He paints in clots, commas, dots, juxtaposed blotches or zebra stripes as the case may be. His subject matter is sometimes shiny, sometimes dull, sometimes heaped up and in the form of depth. The light seems to come from the very inside of the colour and is diffused through it. This painting was quite outside the accepted rules, inflicting a sort of visual torture on those looking at it. It became all the more provoking when one only wanted to see in it an effect of nature, a vibration of the atmosphere, whereas it was trying to resolve through these quite a different problem. Thus these series must be taken as a sort of exercise in which Monet measures his strength, his power of resistance and the force and accuracy of his analysis. They prepare him for the famous Nympheas suite which is to become his masterpiece. He comes across the theme in 1899 but it is not until 1916 - well after Post-Impressionist Painting has come and gone - that he undertakes the great decorative work which is now in the Orangery Museum. He devotes all his strength to it. On his death on 26 December 1924 it was his last thought, his last preoccupation.
Failing Eyesight and Final Painting
Ordered for the State by Georges Clemenceau,
the Nympheas consist of some eighty yards of painting in a circular form.
The theme appears to be ponds decked out with water-lilies. In fact these
works are basically a meditation on time span, an attempt at complete
understanding of the world. Repeating an experiment which he had carried
out in about 1910, Monet shortens the visual field of his subject, observes
it from a closer point and thus draws out the flight of perspective. By
this means he turns the whole world upside down and puts the lightest
tones at the feet of the spectator who is usually used to finding them
above his head. The elements of the landscape, branches and foliage, which
also allow him to maintain a sense of height and depth, are intermingled
with their reflections and absorbed by them. Thus it is difficult to know
what is the exact situation. Materiality and weight of his elements are
paired off so as to become lost with and in the reflection of light. Vertical
and horizontal levels, opacity and transparency are no longer opposed
clearly in the mind of the spectator, who suddenly finds himself in a
world where the specific character of things, their weight, relief and
where they are placed, is all mixed up in a fabulous mash. Finally the
circular disposition of the works, sought by Monet himself, and scrupulously
respected in their presentation in the Orangery Museum, increases even
more this effect of a strange new world. As the Baroque architects discovered,
a circular effect does not easily allow the spectator to realise his position
and he tends rather to become lost. Thus confusion is accentuated; the
eye, not finding a convenient place on which to rest, glides over the
border and perceives a sort of passing of time. Instead of the usual frontal
contemplation, it seems to be in the very bosom of nature, embracing a
vast landscape which has no beginning and no end. The height of the frieze
also upsets its position in relation to the phenomena represented. Between
luminous worlds well-managed transitions avoid a sense of rupture. Everything
is linked - dawn, noon, afternoon and twilight - to form a sort of continuity.
Thus the spectator, with his basic perception turned upside down, his
normal landmarks gone and his consciousness of the division of time now
lost, feels himself carried away into a world where categories and orders
of things are stumped off and then disappear. A liberating impression
spreads. The world dematerialises and is changed before our eyes. It becomes
a fluid, a liberation of energy. Only the light spreads across this world
stripped of restraint imposed by the human condition. It demands that
the spectator mingle with it, the only way of accommodating oneself to
its calm, active impulsion. In an instant the fusion of man and the elements
is accomplished and can be experienced. Beyond the light, which has become
the central character, the very mechanism of life is reached.
Fernand Leger, in a lecture at the Wassiliev Academy in 1913, cites Impressionism as the starting point of contemporary painting. "The Impressionists, "the first to do so, rejected the absolute value of the subject in favour of considering only the relative value," he wrote. "This is the link which binds and explains all modern evolution .... "
These notions of movement, of translation
of sensation, of the intensity of its perception and the instability of
the world and its image, all are included in what the Impressionists did.
They were to be taken up again by the young generation and interpreted
in different ways, very often transformed to the point of being unrecognisable.
But it seems that we may not yet have passed through, or only just passed
through, the reign of sensation. If the Impressionists were ambitious
enough to put it on canvas, the painters who succeeded them pressed home
their efforts even farther. It is less a matter of standing at a fixed
point before a landscape which is transformed hour by hour, as considering
man himself as in motion across a landscape which is seen simultaneously
from different points.
The work of Monet, along with his closest disciple Camille Pissarro, the underestimated Alfred Sisley, the dedicated Degas, the virtuoso Renoir and the painstaking Cezanne, helped to create the first movement of Modern Art, and paved the way for Fauvism, Expressionism and the colour-sensitive compositions of Abstract Expressionism.
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