I have visited a few museums here in Paris, and while the Musée nationale du Moyen Age (aka Musée de Cluny) is possibly ranking number one right now, here are some thoughts to remind my readers that I like more than the ancient and mediaeval worlds …
When I was a teenager, somehow or other I ended up quite smitten by Monet. I liked Impressionism in general, but Monet in particular. I read at least one book about Monet at some point, and mentioned him to my parents, with that teenage zeal that is able to remember all sorts of little details I tend to forget these days.
Accordingly, I purchased a lovely book from the bargain books at Coles celebrating Impressionism, and one year in high school I purchased a Monet day planner, complete with those purplish-hued waterlilies (Les Nymphéas) on the cover. My parents gave me a calendar, a book about Monet, an address book with a Monet on the cover.
I liked Monet. He captured the essence of a moment, a colour, a memory — a building in the mist, a river at sunset, a walk in a field, a haystack.
I think I am living something close to my teenage dream-life.
Today, I went to the Musée de l’Orangerie. The ground floor of this museum is devoted to one artist and two sets of works. Monet’s Nymphéas — his waterlilies. In the last thirty-something years of his life, lived out at the idyllic country residence of Giverny, Monet painted over 300 tableaux of waterlilies.
Yesterday, I saw a very large, almost square, instance of one of these at the Musée d’Orsay — the thing was much taller than I, and captured the beauty of a moment in large grandeur on a scale that the cover of my high-school day planner could never reproduce. I think it’s the image posted above.
The Nymphéas at the Orangerie are of an entirely different order from most other Monets — most other paintings, even, certain than the many wonderful tableaux on display at d’Orsay.
First, you have an oval room with a skylight. It has four entrances/exits. And on the four walls in between are four very long tableaux that cover almost the whole wall — painted on huge canvases, so large that you can sometimes see where they have been stitched together to construct this immersion into Monet.
After that is another oval room, laid out exactly the same. Comme ça:
The first room, at the West, is near sunset. The second, the East, near sunrise. At least I think that’s what I read.
I did a circuit of the first room, taking in each portrait long and slow. I sat on the bench four times, once for each enormous painting. I moved on to the second room and did likewise. I slowly walked out of the Nymphéas gallery, soaking in the impressions before me all the while.
I was there in the same room as Monet’s waterlilies. They were huge, drawing me in to their world. Unlike many ‘landscape’ paintings, there is no horizon in the Orangerie. The Nymphéas draw you into a world where you are seeing the images of real life, where you are yourself surveying the pond at Giverny, beholding the lilies, the willows, the colour, the light.
And as the sun shifts and changes above you, so does the room. When I first entered the second room, I thought, ‘These images are significantly darker than the first.’ While I was there the light shifted. I still think they are a bit darker, but not so much as I had first thought. Just like in nature, in the outdoors, in ‘real’ life, the art was transformed before my eyes. The sun himself changed my experience of the art. And I was drawn into this attempt to capture a moment on a canvas.
For that is what Impressionism is — the impressions of light, the capture of a fleeting moment, gone from the world, dancing a little in your memory as you move on to other things. The sun casts its rays upon the world around you, the colours are reflected into your eyes, imprinted upon your memory. It is fleeting but beautiful, this world of ours. This fleeting beauty — this is what Monet, Sisley, Degas, Manet, Renoir, were seeking to capture in their grands tableaux.
And so I allowed myself to be drawn into the richness of Monet’s impression of his pond at Giverny. Absorbed, sucked in, surrounded by this art, I gawked. I stared. I wondered.
I am living my teenage dream life. I am seeing art I loved back then for real — and lots of it, for I visited Musée d’Orsay yesterday, itself with a large Impressioniste wing, and the Petit Palais the day before! Plus I get to spend a lot of time with mediaeval things. Primarily churches here in Paris, but when I go home there is a castle on a rocky mound. I get to read books for a living. And I write stuff.
This is the good life.