Living Color

John Haber
in New York City

Claude Monet

"Monet is only an eye—but what an eye!" But what if the eye goes blind?

A huge exhibition in Chicago left me dizzy with wondering. Its seventeen overcrowded rooms trace Claude Monet's patient eye from Impressionism to the final water lilies. By then, cataracts clouded his sight, but not the intense color of his huge canvases. He was determined to recreate a whole world from colors in oil. Claude Monet's Etretat (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1863)

My quote, from Paul Cézanne, sums up a century of increasing public favor and critical neglect. It is easy to see why. Monet just cannot stand glibly for modern art. The pleasure of transcribing what one sees—how old-fashioned that sounds. Surely Modernism is supposed to engage the very basis of art and Western society.

Edouard Manet placed café society under glass, while Paul Gauguin lit into Tahiti like a German tour bus. Cézanne himself invested France with a severe order unknown to the senses. In his own way, each defined the modern artist. Georges Seurat even filled a Broadway musical about the job.

Monet is easier to scorn, dismiss, or adore. For critics, he suggests the ultimate bourgeois off for the holidays. For others, he remains a letter away from the word money. Not everyone will toss down $36 on a Monet umbrella, but they sure do line up to look. A decade has seen two retrospectives, an exhibition of the Water Lilies, and a large show of Boston's holdings. Yet another show keeps hauling him out as a paradigm of early-modern art at the crossroads.

There may be nothing left to see—or essentially everything. It may be time to consider Monet's development, increasingly isolated from the avant-garde he helped so to create.

A virtuoso's simple means

The Chicago show is dazzling. It leaves no doubt of the painter's virtuoso eye and hand. Odd swatches of color assemble flawlessly into tangible forms and depth. Somehow, shadows emerge out of the most intense highlights. I always knew when a deep shade represents jutting rocks, an overgrowth of plants, shadow, or sheer color. And I practically never understood how.

Textbook accounts reduce it all to a formula: x brushstrokes per square centimeter; no black allowed. The rules might work in France for the light and moisture of a particular climate, but they left American Impressionism with hazy, indefinite spaces or Childe Hassam's drier impasto. Monet seems never to have known the rules anyway. Each painting offers a new technical challenge, startlingly overcome.

For a Japanese footbridge, rough yellow shapes help one locate the background. Greens and blues, meanwhile, offer clues to locating a foreground. Through it all the orange bridge arcs like a fireworks display.

Monet knew well that blue is supposed to be recessive: atmospheric perspective dictates that it signal depth. He insisted on his experiments in light and color. Logic and evidence will always outweigh tradition.

A small, somewhat earlier canvas makes perfect sense as a house and trees. Monet did it all with little more than two colors, neither even remotely a "pure" tint. Two squiggles, one in each tone, lie almost dead center. The two forms emerge from the background only slowly, but they serve as keynotes. The painting works from them like a musical composition.

The odd vertical marks stand for people. They resemble the short, dark strokes that a hostile critic once labeled "tongue lickings." Here, however, the strokes extend a bit further than in Monet's first Parisian street scenes, and he seems to have begun with them. He evokes a world of color from two themes that never before existed within it.

Icons of human perception

I have stressed the conjunction of visual imagining with the artist's original vision. Monet did copy appearances, but he transformed both copying and seeing into a creative act. For the first time since the Renaissance, the artist became independent of worldly forms. That did not exclude something as worldly as Monet's wife, Camille, in a green dress. From now on, though, vision itself would mean imagining rather than mirroring.

The paintings are like icons of human perception. Even small canvases tend to tower over the viewer. The one that gave Impressionism its name, not included in this show, turns sunrise into a rippling pillar of reddish light.

An entire room in Chicago documents Japanese influences. Yet I could not help noticing the difference. A Japanese seascape on display might well be an ordinary harbor view. Monet's sailboat, depicted impossibly close, looms above.

In a famous painting nearby, his wife stands on a hill above an exaggerated high horizon. He is again adapting Eastern styles to the Western insistence on subject matter. Yet he has again elevated subject and canvas together above everyday things.

No wonder he often worked outward from a dominant shape. The museum features a rare sketchbook, open to a railway scene. It is a shock to find forms outlined in soft but broad pencil, not the familiar Impressionist colors and mist. One is reminded that Monet, a much underrated draftsman, began his career as a caricaturist.

Whose realism and whose reality?

Science and a painter's vision agree: the human eye must reinvent reality for itself every single moment. But what reality?

Early on, Monet alternated between city parks and streets. Before long, in collaborations with Pierre-Auguste Renoir that forged a new style, he painted weekend getaways. Later, with more time, fame, and cash, he became the perfect tourist, traveling up the Seine and to London. Eventually he just bought and lavishly transformed whatever land he wished to paint.

One can easily identify Monet with the middle class on holiday, just as a century before flower painting graced another leisure class, the aristocracy. At best, like Manet, he may force viewers' attention on their own guilty pleasures. At worst, he may succumb to them.

I think that either concern is correct—but largely beside the point. Monet does focus art on pleasure, but distinct from the pleasures of everyday life. He neither glorifies nor assaults the property owner; he sets himself apart. When he paints an urban train station, a cloud of smoke hides equally the power of the engine and the fatigue of the commuter or crew. His indifference and his immersion in modernity assert the artist's independence, even superiority.

One of my favorite early works shows men unloading a ship. Lean, graceful silhouettes, poised at intervals on thin black ramps, appear to move back and forth in a steady rhythm. Faced with the same scene, a wealthy tourist might have tuned them out entirely. A more overt social critic could actually have missed the dark, poignant beauty of their endless labor. Monet is interested in the preconditions of any critical perception.

Ordinary consumers hardly ever put in an appearance in Monet's paintings. Except for the infamous tongue lickings, his increasingly rare human subjects are his motley friends. The Art Institute reunites the surviving fragments of an early Luncheon on the Grass. Like a more aggressive rendition by Manet, this one takes on Titian. In place of the mythical figures of the Renaissance, Monet stuck the Impressionist circle. He makes the artist an emblem of modern life.

The avant-garde was not about criticism so much as abstention. The Salon des Refusés, the exhibition that launched it all, was a refusal on both sides. The artist stood apart from society, sharing some of its values, violating others, searching for the origins of all values. Such idealism makes less and less sense for Postmodernism, but it was a judgment to be feared.

When the eye subsumes the viewer

Monet combined self-assertion, generalization, and escapism. In the process, he defined a new, powerful avant-garde. In this full career retrospective, we can see it emerge step by step. The very first room documents the discovery of the Impressionist brushstroke.

Four rooms later comes the turn from single scenes to the underpinnings of human vision. Black paint and people all but vanish, while even subject matter loses its uniqueness. A station or a rock face must be seen in a series, for all different weathers and times of day. Monet abandons the pretense of taking it all in within an instant. He begins a dozen canvases at once, returning to each one when the light strikes.

Finally, the act of observation subsumes even the observer. Water and sky extend to the painting's edge. Accuracy of vision remains, but a viewer has nowhere at all to stand. A cryptic, incomplete horizon keeps one from interpreting the scene apart from the seeing. Now too, Monet owns all the property he paints. The Art Institute's greatest coup is to reassemble the entire first series of water paintings.

Monet's first breakthrough changed art the most. Those first rooms still draw the crowds. Yet his final shift may have been the furthest ahead of its time. Before then, his Modernism never really breaks with Romanticism. In early Impressionism, the association between outer and inner vision is complete. The painter is still not unlike J. M. W. Turner, allegedly lashed to the mast of a ship. As with Wordsworth in the Lake country, only objects can "excite . . . an overbalance of enjoyment."

Monet, too, is usually at his best when perception hinges on appearances. A few paintings from midcareer have yellow faces that could have come right out of Emil Nolde's Expressionism, but they just do not work nearly as well.

Only in the end, when his eyesight largely failed, did color become so generalized that it stands for and displaces nature. A turn to inner vision could have led him to Surrealism. Instead, it meant a more encompassing realism. Monet's large scale and free coloring anticipate not just Neo-Impressionism and Pierre Bonnard, but even Henri Matisse. Inner vision now stands for any human sight.

In the last room, one stands before a three-paneled screen. The format still may recall a Japanese influence. Now, however, the unusual format signals a break with easel painting. One stands literally within the work, and horizontal symmetry has become almost complete.

Color fills every edge and corner indifferently. Museum walls and nature's ground merge, while line and color no longer make sense apart from each other. Perhaps the screen is only one more pleasure among so many in the seventeen rooms, but it looks ahead as far as the idealism of Abstract Expressionism. It even recalls the "flatbed" of Pop assemblage. One ought to stand or stroll close to it for a very long time.

At the Art Institute

No one can assemble the perfect Monet show. Even to choose from among a series is to violate the scientific spirit of the work. The Art Institute did well in not duplicating earlier exhibitions. Paintings in Chicago also hang well, without too many to a room.

The first room does draw heavily on the D'Orsay museum in Paris. After that, however, one encounters mostly selections from American collections, including private holdings rarely on public view. The choice should please more than the connoisseur. No doubt even the D'Orsay's greatest pieces so dominate posters because they are readily available for reproduction.

I could criticize the show for its inconsistent intrusions. I have mentioned the highlights—a sketchbook, the Japanese art, the first watery series. Why these interruptions alone amid Monet's oils? The show's seemingly offhand insights come and go.

So do wall plaques, which reproduce an oddly selective assortment of closely related paintings by fellow Impressionists. Just what is supposed to have influenced whom?

I could ignore the text on the wall; the mob scene is a good deal harder to tune out. The museum may not have jammed in too many works, but it issued way too many tickets. I hope a few bought those umbrellas. I cannot even be sure that I actually saw everything that I have described. Perhaps Monet's breathtaking modernity is a figment of my own inner vision.

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Claude Monet's retrospective ran through November 26, 1995, at the Art Institute of Chicago. A related review looks solely at Monet's late work.


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