PARIS — Poor Claude Monet. He’s everywhere and invisible, passéfor more than a century. Is it too late to recapture some of the shock and thrill that caused horrified Parisians in the 1870s to perceive his work as “leprous”?
Amazingly, it’s not.The Monet show at the Grand Palais is a start. The biggest art spectacle in Europe this autumn, with some 160 paintings, it is the first chance to see the whole sweep of his work in some time. The French are treating it like a national celebration.
The exhibition is ravishing.
Monet the populist decorator of candlein-Chianti-bottle bistros and college dormitories is modernism’s prettiest painter, but not an especially heavyweight thinker or troublemaker.
This show helps restore something of his original status. More than just the familiar Impressionist, he comes across as a painter of strange and elusive probity, of memory and reflection, as an artist seeking not just to simulate sun, rain and snow, but states of mind as well. In part he did this by returning again and again to certain sites and motifs,often completing pictures in his studio,based on what he remembered.
Monet churned out 2,000 works,but his best paintings thwart the problem of their own endless reproduction by being,well, irreproducible. You just can’t grasp the bejeweled, darkling purple and pink light emanating from his moody reveries of Venice except by standing before them.They’re views steeped in a kind of exquisite sadness.
His path was never straight from material realism toward greater abstraction. Conditions dictated style. Steam rising through the gloom at the Gare Saint-Lazare called for gossamer curlicues of pink and white on smeared patches of gray-blue pigment one day. The next, a sharp spring sun demanded more crystalline clarity.
And before the awesome rock portal at étretat, Monet elected dots and dashes to connote raw nature and a swift wind. The style, precisely what shocked and appalled old-school Parisians, masqueraded as an instant take on the subject. The painter created heightened versions of vistas and monuments so beckoning that, faced with the real thing, a natural instinct was to reconcile truth to fiction, rather than the other way around. Monet’s visions of places can come to inhabit and even supplant our direct memories of them. He seizes on the way that memory triggers bundles of emotions and lodges itself in the mind as a kernel of pleasure and pain.
Monet was really painting mental states,states of reflection. His late, sublime “Water Lilies” is literally that: reflections of light,clouds and foliage against the surface of hispond at Giverny. The erotic, mysterious,multicolored abyss of shimmering, indefinite space kind of describes memory itself.
What makes these pictures look so modern is mostly the aspiration to render theintangible — to make millions of material facts immaterial and unshackle them from time. Giverny was both his Eden and object lesson. There, Monet could see the daily transience of things saved from oblivion only by memory and by art.
There’s a photograph he took of himself around 1905, when he was in his mid-60s.He’s standing on the edge of his lily pond,his head casting a shadow on the water.
The photograph exudes a whiff of melancholy because like all photographs it’s a reminder, with that shadow, of something gone except in the picture and our recollections of it. Monet managed in the photograph what he exalted in paint: the effervescent pleasure of seeing and the inevitable disappearance of that pleasure.Reality, with its mess and noise, fails to live up to what Monet painted.
Monet showed us “places that already existed in our imagination,” as Marcel Proust said, “as if waiting to be discovered and that now bid for our affection.
“There has to be someone who will say to us, ‘Here is what you may love: love it.’”
Monet does exactly that.
And how can we not?