Claude Monet and his paintings
The implications of Claude Monet's life-long determination to represent certain aspects of the visible world as truthfully as he could have rarely been examined. What was the meaning of his
radical restriction of the range of pictorial expression to that which lay before his eyes at a particular moment, a moment with no post and no future? What of his struggle to see the
external world 'without knowing' what he saw, refusing to make any connections, or to show any relationships that he could not see, and depicting not only nature but human beings as if they
were no more than the source of visual sensations? Within the beauty of Claude Monet's paintings, there lies a bleak objectivity which suggests that when painting he cut himself off from any
emotional identification with what he was representing, and which perhaps explains his perpetual return to certain themes as if seeking some way to grasp their being - a desire which, like
that of Narcissus, was always denied. Indeed, this very detachment may also explain why Claude Monet used the external world to create images which, while appearing true to that world,
transform it into a place of sensual plenitude, an idea protective closure against the losses brought by time.
The processes by which Monet realized his images of the external world are visible in his paintings, the brushstrokes themselves and in the complex, multivalent structures which they form: they bean the imprint of this detached 'mechanical' observation, this apprehension of the external world as a succession of momentary shocks of color, each of which is threatened with loss by the inexorable movement of time.
Claude Monet conceived his paintings as the expression of his unique perceptions - they would be, he wrote early in his career, 'the expression of what I personally will have felt' - and they were indeed not so much literal images of the external world as images embodying his processes of shaping it into his own. The years in which Monet was becoming conscious of his world saw those transformations of social relations and of the environment which changed France from a largely pre-industrial society to a free-enterprise capitalist one. His youth and early years as a painter were passed under the Second Empire, when the 'euphoria of high profits' and vast capital works, like the transformation of Paris and the expansion of the railways, encouraged intense financial speculation and feverish dreams of riches. Paris lured tens of thousands of rural immigrants by the promise of work, wealth and a fuller life, by the dazzling spectacles of urban life, and by the fantastic multiplication of goods. In this increasingly mobile society, the struggle to attain secure social position was intense, and the display of signs of success crucial. intimate knowledge of one's fellows was increasingly superseded by the fascinated scrutiny of the signs of social status, by the relations of sight which are invoked by images like Daumier's 'The New Paris' of 1862.
Modern urban life has generally been characterized in terms of loss: the loss of some dreamed commonality to a fragmented individualism; the loss of affective social relationships to the fetishized relationships
of the world of commodities; the loss of collective memory and shared tradition; the loss of a sense of the person in the unknowable crowd; the loss of continuity of a consciousness under a bombardment of
mechanically-produced stimuli of ever-increasing speed and intensity. 'He is an "I" with an insatiable appetite for the "non-I"', Baudelair wrote of the painter of modern life, 'at every instant rendering it...in
pictures more living than life itself which is always unstable and fugitive'.
Monet's contemporaries feared that their society was threatened by loss and disintegration and that all its values - including those of art - were being transformed into monetary ones, particularly since financial speculation was changing wealth from its knowable basis in property to something invisible, fictive. Yet at the same time this society promised escape from the slavery of need, and the good life for all, and contemporaries were as much exhilarated by its possibilities as they were fearful of its consequences. This ambivalence was central to Zola's novel about finance in the Second Empire, L'Argent(1890), which conclude:
Within two decades of his being a student, Monet's painting were to be absorbed into the cycle of speculation which may have shaped their exteriority, and may eventually have influenced his strange multiplication of works on a single subject.
money was, until this day, the manure from which the humanity of the future was growing; money, poisonous and destructive, was the yeast of all social growth, the necessary compost for the great works which would make existence easier... over so many crushed victims, over all that abominable suffering which every step forward costs mankind, is there not something superior, good, just definitive, towards which we are going without knowing it, and which fills the heart with the obstinate need of life and hope?”
Unlike Zola who located the realization of the bourgeois vision of the inevitable progress of free-enterprise capitalism toward social harmony, justice and plenitude in the future, Monet located the good life in the present in paintings which presented the desired as real. 'Dream infuses them', Armand Silvestre wrote of Impressionist paintings in 1873, 'and, completely impregnated by them, it flees towards loved landscape which they recall all the more surely because the reality of their appearance is there most striking.' The subject-matter of Monet's 'loved landscapes' is intensely, exclusively pleasurable. Generally located in cultivated nature, they represent a self-contained world where the loveliness of flowers, foliage, sunlight and water offers an alternative to the manufactured world. It is a world almost without work, where the comfortably-off middle classes enjoy themselves, boating, on sunlit beaches, in flowery gardens, in intimate domestic interiors, or bustling along modern boulevards. It also shows the pleasurable objects of their sight - the countryside, the seaside, the gardens of Normandy and, after the early 1880s, more distant tourist sites - all seen from the view of leisured visitor.
Monet's art was centered on his own family, which was for him, as for the bourgeois male in general, the locus of individual self-realization, the refuge from an alienating public sphere. Although almost all Monet's models were female, his figure paintings were in no way erotic. Desire was not for him, as it was for Renoir, synonymous with the female body, but with a domesticated, feminized, bourgeois nature in which there were traces of his own childhood, which was of course irretrievably lost, but which he sought to restore, transformed into a higher sensuous wholeness. Through his painting, Monet enclosed his family in gardens made of veils of foliage and flowers, or in the familial countryside, represented more as a bourgeois pleasure garden than as a working landscape. The family, then, played a crucial role in creating a modern landscape painting.
Yet despite Monet's almost total exclusion of any subject-matter which could threaten his construction of an ideal, protected world, this world was undermined from within by the rigour of his modern 'seeing'. Zola, the most perceptive of the early commentators on Monet, claimed in 1868 that his paintings of the country were shaped by urban experience, and this was shown in the way in which he attempted to represent figures and their environment, both city and country, as pure objects of sight, inaccessible to other modes of experience. It is possible to show how Monet's painting expressed the alienation of object-relationship; how it exalted the moment of individual self-realization as opposed to shared social experience; how it was shaped by the fragmentation of time integral to capitalism and by the practice of financial speculation. It was not, however, a literal reflection of such orders of experience, and it shows that pure 'object-seeing' was neither simple nor total, particularly since his painting could not and cannot impose these modes of experience on the spectator.
The simultaneous play of loss and reparation can be seen with particular clarity in Monet's representation of time, which was related to a concept central to the discourse of the modern, that of the destruction of traditional temporal experience by modern time-keeping. Daumier represented the different modes of time in two lithographs published in 1862, 'The New Paris' and the 'Landscapists at work'. The new city is shown as shaped by the modern compulsion for speed which absorbs the individual into the undifferentiated mass or can even threaten physical disintegration. The businessman's focus on his watch indicates it as the generator of the time which directs life in the modern city. This is mechanical time: the time which measures the moments and arrests temporal continuities; the time which regulates the industrial world. The lithograph of the pleinairist painters figures natural time: the continuous time of the sun and the seasons; the time which had shaped the pre-industrial work of peasant and artisan, and which would continue to shape the work of the landscape painter which Daumier characterized in terms of freedom and pleasure. While earlier nineteenth-century landscapes were formed by the notion and the experience of continuous time, Monet's paintings enact the conflict between these different modes of time, which were figured quite explicitly in the theme of the river and the theme of the train, the one characterized by nature's continuity, the other regulated by mechanical time. The train was, however, the means by which ordinary people reached the dreamed freedoms of the river, and were transported back to their city lives. Moreover, both themes were perceived by an eye conditioned by modern urban experience, which sought to see 'mechanically' in terms of the 'shocks of colour' into which the motif fragmented. If there was in this mode of seeing something of the 'moment' of camera vision, this moment coexisted with other temporal experiences in such a way that it is endowed with a fragile, wavering continuity. Monet may have grasped the motif instantaneously, but the structures of his paintings show a long and complex process of seeking the appropriate marks of paint with which to contruct his fictitious image of immediacy.
In one sense, then, Monet's paintings deny the continuity of natural time, as if he arrested it at the instant of the perceptual 'shock', detached from those which had preceded and would succeed it: a wave flung up as spray a moment before it falls or a cloud of steam just before it dissipate. His paintings enact unrepeatable conjunctions: a gleam of light catches wind-filled sails in the moment the yacht turns, just as the sails slacken, and clouds break up the light; a ripple underwater 'holds' the sun's light before the coming wind ruffles the water surface and it disappear - forever? Monet's compulsion to grasp that which is on the point of disappearing led him in the 1890s to those sequences of paintings in which he tried to record every variation of light on a motif, and which resulted in an astonishing procedure in which he might paint only two or three strokes before the light changed, and then had to race to another, already commenced, work which might resemble the new 'moment' of light. The fracturing of consciousness inherent in this procedure was closely connected with Monet's fragmentation of the objective world into coruscating particles of colour, as if his desire to get closer and closer to the object resulted in its near-disintegration and, as was written in 1909, 'Of the visible world there remain only... this eddy of radiant atoms'.
Despite Monet's avowed dedication to the concept of truth to the visible world, he embodied his truths in structures which were profoundly his own and which can be seen in clumsy or partial form in even his earliest paintings and drawings. It was as if his process of finding truth was accomplished by finding his own intimate form within a motif which he struggled to see as if it were entirely detached from him. This helps explain the extraordinary continuities in Monet's works: as soon as he began painting, he dedicated himself to the direct experience of the motif, to painting outdoors, to effects of light, and his first surviving works show the water the reflections that he was still painting nearly seventy years later.
Although in the 1860s and 1870s Monet's work did attract a significant group of patrons, it failed to find an audience which could sustain his necessarily precarious vision of the desired life. Those who attacked his painting were less hostile to its subject-matter - the bourgeois good life which potential audiences enjoyed or might hope to enjoy - than to the demand that they participate actively in the reading of the marks which he used to create his images of the real, and which embodied his detachment at the heart of intimate pleasure. It was perhaps the failure of Monet's images of the modern to find a sustaining audience that created the conditions for his development of a modernist art which would appeal to two elites, the artistic avant-garde and modernizing professionals and entrepreneurs in France and, above all, in the United States. In the 1880s and 1890s Monet became more sophisticated in aesthetic experimentation and exhibition strategies, and his art simultaneously became more luxuriant. His paintings were less often representations of ordinary pleasurable experiences, than embodiments of heightened perceptual states which contemporaries could celebrate in terms of poetic or mystic experience. The sheer sensuousness of the paintings obscures Monet's detachment from the objects of his representation - a detachment that lasted at least as long as he was painting them, and that was necessary fro his atomization of the external world, and inherent in modernism. Seen primarily as sensuous objects, Monet's paintings were, however, most often seen as depictions of lovely scenery and charming scenes, and were immediately absorbed into a spiral in which their consumption as luxury objects shaped their increasing preciosity.
Monet's education in Realism shaped his mode of representation, which denied traditional forms of constructing narrative relationships between figures and denied traditional associative content in his landscapes. His lifelong commitment to truth to visible reality did not, however, require the documentation of contemporary society in all its forms, as Zola demanded of Impressionism, and, in this sense, Monet's was perhaps the extreme form of positivism in implying that once could know only one's family and friends and the patch of nature and the interiors which they inhabited. Truth to visible reality did not presuppose literal exactitude. Monet's colours ar not those of nature and he frequently made changes to the motif in the interests of the overall harmony of the painting, for, to him, truth lay not in detail, but in the grasp of the harmonic relationships of nature.
As a final form of making this dream-world real, Monet created a garden of great beauty which he made yet more beautiful in painting which also shuts out the hills, fences and railway lines that could be seen from the real garden. Monet painted these works with such sensuous plenitude, accompanying them with such reiterated public insistence that they were painted in front of the motif, that by the early 1880s they were accepted, even by critics who had been most hostile to them, as being truthful depictions of the real world.
It is easy to interpret the tensions between this relentless beauty and contemporary social realities in terms of bourgeois ideology, of 'false consciousness', but this does not lead one very far, and condemns one to read the paintings simply as lovely but deceitful objects. It does not allow one to ask whether such paintings can bring any forms of understanding specific to them, any knowledge one does not have already from non-pictorial sources.
Monet's search fro an ideal state of being in his painting was so intense, so obsessive, so driven, that it suggests not only a desire to escape the fragmentation of modern life, but a more fundamental desire fro what all have lost, the infant's integration with the undifferentiated body of the mother. His works increasingly fused earth, sky, solid matter, water in one shimmer of colour suggestive of the 'universal vibration of light', and of a mystic wholeness of being. And yet Monet continued to stand detached, condemned to be an observer. He remained, of course, an adult, one shaped by the modern world, and his search for a means of creating oneness in a sophisticated modern society was embodied in pictorial structures which fluctuate ceaselessly between wholeness and disintegration. His life's work was thus shaped by what his friend Geffroy called 'the anxious dream of happiness'.
Monet's Impressionism is too often looked at with nostalgia for a past which never was, rather than as a form of painting whose very structure embodies the strain of its exclusions. It is only through penetrating to the painful gaps and emptiness at the heart of his paintings that one can more fully accede to what those paintings might promise - not just pictures of a nice home in the suburban countryside or pretty landscapes, but an alluring vision of a harmonious relationship between contemporary human beings and a transformed but unspoiled nature, and an expression of the ultimately impenetrable otherness of individual men and women, an otherness which confers its own dignity. His painting also asserts the meaningfulness of the struggle to make sense of a disordered world.
The conditions of living which Monet required for the creation of his ideal world - a society which would allow him to gain considerable wealth but which demanded certain kinds of painting for wealthy patrons, painting which would foster speculation - were also those which threatened his ideal personal world from within. In a broader sense, the marketing of his painting makes literal the processes of a society in which all values are transformed into monetary ones, all objects into items of consumption - including those supposed to embody alternative values: those most saleable commodities, works of art.