What is so great about Monet’s water-lily paintings? He painted dozens of them; he didn’t paint anything else in his later years, he kept painting water lilies when his eyes betrayed him; he made the Water Lilies panoramic set a gift to the state when he died.
When you are in front of any of his lilies (and I assume many of you have had the experience), do you ask yourself, “gosh, what is really great about’em?” Not a singe visitor to The Musée de l’Orangerie which houses the most giant of the series can be seen wishing the 10 euros paid for the ticket could be spent in a wiser fashion.
I don’t say one needs to know the answer to the greatness question to enjoy the paintings. Some years ago, I was coming to the National Gallery in London each time I was in town just to see the Lily Pond. Were I asked then what was so great about the painting, I might try to give an answer, but it would be tall tales spin-yarned into a baloney pullover of meaningless adjectives.
Now that I have my thoughts a little bit more organised, I can outline a hypothesis about the workings of Monet’s lily paintings.
We need to step back though, to Velazquez, an artist who had a great influence on Manet, who – in his turn – influenced Monet, although in a different way.
Velazquez painted this Venus with a Mirror sometime around 1650. The viewer can’t really see the face of Venus. It is blurred on purpose: the beauty of a goddess, the Ideal or Ultimate Beauty, can’t be painted because no one has seen it, and even today Venus is not known to post selfies on Instagram. The Ideal Beauty is in the mind of the beholder. This blurred image activates those neural networks in the brain that house individual associations with beauty, memories, created by myths, books, movies and
Playboy mass media.
Were it a particular face, the mind would react to it similarly to a meaningless portrait of an unknown celebrity of bygone times. It still would be attractive, primarily catering to people whose idea of beauty was congruent to the shape of the buttocks that are so close to the viewer one might be tempted to slap them.
Likewise, some 250+ years later, Monet was painting a refection of nature, but in a way that it couldn’t be attributed to any particular tree, sky, or flower.
His lilies – any and all of them – represent the Ideal Beauty of Nature, and for many they’ve grown to become a representation of the Ideal Beauty of Life itself. Not because they show some mind-boggling beauty of tender lily flowers blossoming against the green surface of a water reservoir – but precisely because they don’t show it.
I will use the painting that a friend of mine took in Vienna – and sent to me a few days ago.
It is known these paintings stay in memory. Somehow. Many people are known not to like them, but they remember them, though they can’t say what were the colours, the shapes, or the lines in them.
Wassily Kandinsky wrote of them,
“Until then I knew only naturalist and, to tell the truth, almost exclusively Russian naturalist art…I believed that no one had the right to paint so imprecisely. I vaguely felt that the object (the subject) was missing in this work. But with astonishment and confusion, I observed that not only did it surprise, but it imprinted itself indelibly in the memory and that before your eyes it recomposed itself in the smallest details. All this remained muddled in me, and I could not yet foresee the natural consequences of this discovery. But what clearly came out of it is the incredible power, a power I had never known, of a palette that outstripped my wildest dreams. To me the painter seemed gifted with a fabulous power. The object used as an indispensable element in my work unconsciously lost some of its importance to me. In short, there was already a little bit of my enchanting Moscow on this canvas.”
I don’t like this style of art writing: too many adjectives. “Fabulous”, “incredible”, “gifted”, etc. Adjectives that don’t explain anything. Why was the power of Monet “incredible” or “fabulous”? Yet, Kandinsky registered the important facts:
- the paintings stay in memory (even despite the vague sensation there’s nothing in them, at least nothing of real importance)
- the painting fire up [neural networks storing] personal associations (like Moscow for Kandinsky)
- the combination of colours creates a conflict that makes even those who dislike the paintings to get involved into watching them.
Indeed, his greens and violets can be found on the opposite sides of the colour wheel, and thus they create a colour conflict – we do not normally see these colours in their pure form at the same time. It makes the brain go “wow” without us registering it. There is nothing subconscious in this though, the brain starts scanning the painting to understand what the heck is going on – and the viewer does not necessarily register it either.
But there is even a bigger conflict that goes on in the mind of the viewer.
We are used to this:
A real 3D scene ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene in the viewer’s mind.
Monet’s Lilies work differently:
A real 2D scene (the mirror of the pond) ==>
is represented in a 2D picture by the artist (which bizarrely seems 3D, because of the difference in brushstrokes) ==>
gets reconstructed into a 3D scene… BUT WE KNOW IT WAS A 2D SCENE TO START WITH!
And this is when the mind goes off thinking, remembering and associating in its own, very individual ways, some of which the mind’s owner does not register consciously.
Contemporary art is often differentiated from all the other types of art because it transfers the conflict from a painting or a sculpture into the mind of the viewer.
Instead of appreciating the drama that Michelangelo wanted people to live through their exposure to David, a contemporary artist wants to stimulate the viewer into creating his or her own drama, their own conflict, and live through their individual hell.
Monet used traditional colour conflict and innovative 2D-3D play with the mind of the viewer to CREATE A DRAMA OUTSIDE OF THE PAINTING, BUT INSIDE THE VIEWER’S MIND.
In this, he had become a true contemporary artist in his later years. He started the collective impressionistic revolution in visual arts that everyone noticed, but he then overturned visual arts single-handedly, in ways more radical than Cezanne could even imagine, and long before Picasso.
if there’s any painting that is more about individual reflection, I’d love to know about it.
IT IS A PAINTING OF A REFLECTION THAT MAKES A VIEWER REFLECT UPON THINGS IMPORTANT TO EACH VIEWER.