Salty diction, tender disillusion, beyond the rules of discord and resolution, the beguiling movement of a melodic line: Over a shimmering bed of flute and soprano, Julius Hemphill’s alto sax teaches dignity in loneliness.
̶ When a man comes inside you, you feel it; you feel the beating of his heart in the pit of your belly, you feel the tremor of his spasms in your bones.
Gazing out across the Seine into the glittering night, we take in the moving gestures of the music. Tongues of fire play on black water, horns and woodwinds sparkle.
̶ It’s like a Dali painting, a man’s orgasm. A woman’s is more like Monet.
̶ Which Monet?
̶ The Nymphéas, of course!
̶ Of course. All 250 of them?
̶ Yes, when you’re lucky enough to have a marathon of good love-making.
At the age of fifty-three, Monet, the pioneer of Impressionism, already had a vast oeuvre behind him. His work had evolved. The aesthetic of the instant and captured transient sensation, of which he had shown himself a master, no longer satisfied him. ‘Instantaneity, facile things done at a stroke disgust me,’ he admitted. Landscape, the very genre which he, more than any other artist, had rejuvenated, with its standard formats, rules of composition and obligatory horizon and vanishing point, had begun to reveal to him its limits. He now aspired to profoundly reinvent landscape, to discover its essence through both direct contact with the elements and a more global vision less dependent on the contingencies of time and place. He sought to embrace not only the visual appearance of things, light’s ever-changing metamorphosis of form and color, but also its all-pervasive, penetrating action, the feeling of communion it produces within us.
Monet was striving for a more synthetic organization, a heightened sense of spatio-temporal continuity, and a feeling of closeness or, better still, intimacy between landscape and spectator.
The garden was a résumé of the properties and elements in nature whose expression he had prioritized: uncertainty, contingency and fluidity. In a painstaking process of pruning and rearrangement, water, sky, reflections of clouds, the chaos of plant life—everything that eluded static form and intensified the action of light—was discreetly stage-directed. He cultivated fluid effects and the sensation of immersion they engender, juxtaposing water, reflections, swaying lily clusters, overhanging branches laden with silky or sequined foliage and the sinuous contours of the pond and the path around it to produce subtle gradations of color.
Rather than just being the last of the great series—the milestones of Monet’s oeuvre—the Water Lilies series was their outcome and final transcendence. Here was a radicalization of an evolution in which the picture’s center of interest had been gradually shifted from the subject, however evocative, to the representation of luminous phenomena, the mechanical act of seeing, and more generally, the perception of reality. The garden is treated less as a subject in itself—which it also intrinsically is—and more as the quintessence of all landscape subjects and of the conditions governing them. The painter’s final, supreme effort consisted of capturing ever more impalpable and fugitive perceptions of reality.
Monet, within the context of the generalized goal of ‘synthesis’ which permeated fin de siècle art, goes further than his contemporaries in the unified treatment of space and the conception of each element as part of a total harmony. He does this not only in his conception of a continuous décor, which ‘envelopes the walls in its unity,’ but also in his choice of subject itself, water, the unified milieu par excellence, and in his representation of it as uninterrupted flow. Nature’s continuum is to become one with the continuum of the picture plane, which in turn fuses with the spectator whose thoughts, set adrift in formless matter, give way to dreams. Even our bodies themselves will become permeated by this phenomenon of subconscious impregnation.
One is at nature’s elemental heart, dormant waters and mysterious plant growth are two different forms of one primordial reality, two modalities of the same innermost experience, each with its own associations and affective states. On one hand, one is drifting in boundless space, drawn perhaps towards death or regressing into the mystery of infancy. On the other hand, we are filled with a sense of suffocation, of torpor rather than peace.
The dialectic of whole and fragment was a familiar one to Monet, who liked to suggest, through seemingly arbitrarily framed close-ups, the vastness of the space extending beyond. It is here that the microcosmic character of the water garden intervenes, reflected and intensified by its different representations. The water landscapes are concentrated representations of a landscape, which is in itself a concentrated image of the universe. They are scale models of a totality reduced to its essential elements. Far from obstructing our consciousness of the continuum, fragmentation becomes simply another means of creating it.
For Monet, a contemporary of Bergson and Proust, water, with its shifting surface, was the face of nature itself, described by its own elemental properties of contingency and fluidity. The spectator, dispossessed of his powers of control by his extraordinarily close point of view, is projected into an environment with no logical boundaries and containing no solid bodies other than leaves and flowers. Once all referential bases have been eliminated, the spectacle becomes almost immaterial. The only picture dated 1903 that one can be sure was not reworked at a later date is still very descriptive, with certain details rendered almost photographically. In the less detailed paintings from 1904, the paint is applied thickly, in brushstrokes that vary according to whether they are describing reflections, vegetation, or the water lilies. From then on, the image becomes increasingly synthetic and the execution more fluid—in the words of the critic Louis Gillet, ‘skimming the canvas’.
After 1906, the multiple layers of paint and the reworkings of the early years have almost disappeared. ‘The painting,’ wrote Gillet, ‘is now merely an essence, a sigh’.
Simultaneously, the composition itself seems to dissolve. Floating marks, mere suggestions of forms, with here and there the more precise volumes of the water lily flowers, combine with vaguely-defined areas of reflections of patches of sky, clouds, and the indistinct masses of trees.
There is no distinguishable center of interest or hierarchy.
‘The painter,’ wrote another critic, Roger Marx, ‘has deliberately disengaged himself from western tradition. No more pyramidal compositions and lines to channel our attention: fixity and immutability, seem to contradict the very principal of fluidity for him. He seeks a diffuse, all-over attentiveness.’
All that remained of the geometrical model, which had governed our representation of reality since the Renaissance, was a fluid grid comprised of vertical tree reflections and horizontal water lily islands. We no longer have a framework imposed on nature from the outside, but a permanent equilibrium that incorporates nature’s inconstancy.
Monet was the first to insist on the objectivity of the water landscapes. ‘My intentions are not fanciful at all,’ he declared to Roger Marx. ‘These canvases are merely the result of a collaboration between solitude and silence, of a keen, undivided attention akin to hypnosis.’ But is this form of observation really so far-removed from what others termed imagination or poetry?
The majority of the new canvases were between one and two meters high, including many two meters square, and are executed in an almost brutally cursive manner. Light areas of cloud and flowers stand out on a dark ground applied with broad brushstrokes establishing the dominant chromatic tone. In the most worked canvases, a clump of vegetation or the contours of water lily leaves are highlighted by a shorthand calligraphy of scribbles, streaks, and flourishes rather than by line, strictly speaking. All of Monet’s refound energy manifests itself in this vehement body language.
In a rare commentary on the work of this period, published after his death by the journalist Thiébault-Sisson, Monet spoke of his technique’s mutation around 1914, but maintained that this was directly due to his cataracts. Altering his sensitivity to nuance, they had caused him to seek overall effects. He began treating form broadly ‘in masses,’ using ‘bright tones isolated in areas of dark tones.’ This explanation, too reductive, does nonetheless highlight a central feature of the period to come: Monet’s retreat from face-to-face confrontation with reality. No matter what role his eye problems played in this process, which had in fact started much earlier, they manifested themselves as much in the increased autonomy of formal values—which, without freeing themselves from their mimetic function, assert themselves with unprecedented authority—as by the greater scope left to the imagination. True, Monet continued painting from nature, but in a resolutely synthetic manner, in which memory and dream consolidate direct observation or take up where it leaves off.
Monet’s mural ensemble, now in the Musée de l’Orangerie, was both the subject’s faithful representation and its free transposition—a poetic synthesis of a place and of the notion of place. It was both the summing up and outcome of a lifetime’s work and was to the pond at Giverny what, for example, Les Contemplations and In Search of Lost Time were to Hugo and Proust respectively. Monet had only to find the appropriate form, and here his cataracts worked wonders.
They forced him to synthesize the subject, first of all in ‘a series of overall impressions’—a formula perfectly adapted to large studies from nature—then in the mural ensemble itself. If one accepts that here his cataracts also only accentuated a more general process, one will note his emphasis on the ‘other-worldly’ dimension of the pond’s reality, as well as his detachment from direct observation.
Monet had sought to express the totality of nature and the fullness of experience through an all-embracing, synthetic means, which would be their perfect analogy. He succeeded in this, not by sacrificing any of his realist precepts, but by mobilizing the power of dream. From a wealth of real-life observation, he built a ‘pantheist poem’ in which everything both expressed and brought about the communion of man and universe.
Dali appropriated the tigers he included here from a circus poster. Indeed, the entire image has the look and visual immediacy of a poster, which perhaps accounts for its popularity. But ultimately this picture is ‘Surrealism made easy’. That is because the dream-events it depicts take place around someone sleeping. We therefore tend to interpret them as occurring in that person’s mind—as the manifestation of her dream—rather than as the projection of a dream per se that we need to fathom wholly in terms of our own non-rational experience.
Moreover, both title and imagery enjoy a sense of connection and sequence. Thus in the foreground are the bee and pomegranate, while a further pomegranate bursts on the left, disgorging fish, tigers, and a rifle whose bayonet is about to prod the prostrate form of Gala awake in just one millisecond from now. Such connections and the sequence they follow are rational processes that make the proceedings very approachable conceptually. We are now a long distance away from ‘the depths of the subconscious’ because it is so easy to understand things in rational terms. By the mid-1940s Dali’s Surrealism was becoming a little too pat and predictable. Although there are undoubtedly memorable images here—the elephant with extended legs is a superbly imaginative conceit—nonetheless there are not enough such fancies to push the work into that ineffable imaginative dimension that lies beyond mere illustration.
Salvador Dali had a brother who, of fragile health, died young, before Salvador’s birth. During a TV show Dali, with his customary mastery of theatrics and derision, said: “They always spoke of me in relation to my dead brother: ‘He must wear a scarf because his brother caught a cold in such circumstances’. So I wasn’t myself, I was the dead brother.” He continued: “Thanks to this constant game of killing by my eccentricities the memory of my dead brother, I succeeded in fulfilling the sublime myth of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux: one brother dead and the other immortal”.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan