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The Eyes Have It

Claude Monet painting a view of his gardens at Giverny.
courtesy of the Wildenstein Archives

It hasn't always been easy to pare Claude Monet's artistic achievements from his popularity. In the later half of his life (1840 to 1926), his paintings sold so well that the writer Emile Zola suggested that he might be unloading too many unfinished works that were barely dry.

More recently, the soaring market for Monets -- which can go for millions of dollars -- has encouraged skeptics among the young Turks of art to see him, erroneously, as a schmaltzy dabber, and his middle-class popularity as a sign of some fundamental artistic flaw.

But that hasn't kept him from becoming the brand name of French impressionism. Considered by many to be more soothing and colorful than Camille Pissarro or Alfred Sisley, and less rigorous than Paul Cézanne, he's one of the very few painters whose renown can reach the upper-deck and bleacher crowds at American stadiums.

That partly explains the hubbub surrounding the Phoenix Art Museum's opening last month of "Monet at Giverny," an exhibition of 24 paintings borrowed from the Marmottan Museum in Paris.

Like last year's Egyptian blockbuster at PAM, which upped the museum's membership from about 5,500 to nearly 20,000 during its six-month run, Monet is here to draw crowds that rarely come to art. Museum officials expect about 150,000 to view the show before it ends in early January. In the past few months, the museum's special offers of free tickets with new memberships have brought in 2,000 more members. (PAM's Norman Rockwell exhibition "Pictures for the American People," in February 2001, will undoubtedly add to those numbers.)

This show doesn't contain the early urban views of train stations and Paris streets, or the later soft-focus landscapes and buildings -- Monet's exquisite series of haystacks, poplars and cathedral façades -- that made the artist's reputation in the late 1800s. Most of the paintings come from the last 25 years of his career, when he was losing his eyesight as well as his place at the front of the European art mainstream, and concentrating on the backwater setting of ponds and gardens at his home in Giverny, along the Epte River northwest of Paris.

Impressionism's explosion of light, which shattered the visual solidity of things into fleeting optical sensations, is still visible in these works. Yet Monet pursued it with a gestural hand that dematerialized willow trees and wisteria into rains of color and pushed his close-up depictions of water lilies and other flowers to the verge of becoming abstract plays of color and line.

Compared with his early outdoor paintings, these works have the insularity of a painter sinking deeper into his own sensibility -- and away from the outside world. And for good reason. His peaceful little world was within 40 miles of the front lines of World War I.

Some scholars say the turbulence of the war and its aftermath can be seen in the agitated brushwork and sharp colors Monet used to make his views of the Weeping Willow, Japanese Footbridge and The Path With Rose Trellises. But Monet's dogged effort to master the visual setting of his country retreat seems more akin to Vermeer's pursuit of luminous stillness at a time engulfed by conflict. Like Vermeer, Monet wasn't merely depicting his world. He was attempting to perfect it -- to make it whole.

Monet's popularity didn't hatch overnight. Critics originally condemned his early works for their ordinary, snapshot views and rough handling, and for a sketchy spontaneity that defied the stuffy formulas of academic pictures (all of these characteristics have since become modern virtues). One writer characterized Monet's early work as a "savage, irreverent, disordered, heretical art."

But once critics warmed to impressionism's pixellated view of the world, and Monet's knack for pulling nuances of light and color right out of thin air, his artistic stock rose.

Yet it didn't zoom to the same extent his market has. Critics accustomed to the intellectual rigor of Cézanne criticized Monet for being "too passive," and "letting himself be too distracted by spectacles, scarcely intervening intellectually, except in matters of practical execution."

One critic claimed that instead of aiming at the mind, Monet's paintings "stop at our eyes."

But, as subsequent "advances" in art suggest, that probably isn't a bad place for a visual artist to stop.

Monet first leased the Giverny property in 1883. He bought it seven years later and began building and enlarging the ponds and gardens. He installed bridges, trellises and pathways with arbors of flowering vines. And he planted varieties of water lilies and other flowers, creating an open-air laboratory chock-full of the forms, colors and light that intrigued him -- a place where he could create paintings that had what he called "no weather and no season."

 

This was a change from his earlier works, which were often done in series to capture the changing light of weather, times of day and seasons. Art historians joke that you can set your watch by some of those earlier works. And there's some truth to it. The art dealer Ambroise Vollard once recounted seeing Monet get out of his car, look at the sun, check his watch and say, "I'm a half-hour late. I'll come back tomorrow."

Yet most of the works in this exhibition convey more about Monet's time of life than they do about the scene's time of day. They attempt to summarize the experience of seeing a landscape and being in it -- of actually feeling the light fall and break on every little surface.

Monet's ability to move between the physical and visual aspects of a scene -- between surface and space -- made water an ideal problem and subject for him. A key attraction was its obvious yet elusive visual depth.

In his Water Lilies of 1903 and other pond paintings, he tipped the picture's perspective downward to take advantage of that, viewing the surrounding landscape and sky in a mirror of water.

Peering into the reflections became his means of looking out. It yielded a topsy-turvy world in which down is up -- clouds are in the middle or on the bottom -- and light often radiates from the bottom, rather than from the top. That may explain why, when the Arizona Republic ran its recent feature on the Monet show, it reproduced one Monet painting upside down and another sideways.

Some modern scholars view the abstracting approach Monet took toward these paintings, and the vaporous colors and gestural brush strokes evident in works like Wisteria from 1919-1920 or the several images of The Path With Rose Trellises as an indication that he was leaning toward abstract expressionism and color field painting, which came along after the Second World War.

But Monet was too much the realist to sever his ties with nature. Abstract as many of his later works are, they are filled with clues about the world they refer to.

In his views of The Path With Rose Trellises, the balance of shadows and highlights in his flurry of arching paint strokes give the eyes just enough to discern the reality in the scene. The darkened edges of the lily pads in Water Lilies and Agapanthus and other similar paintings show the shadowy separation of flower and water. And in his Weeping Willow, and other works, he relied on the old trick of creating layers of space and a sense of movement by overlaying vertical on horizontal brush strokes.

The abstraction in these works wasn't entirely new. Monet had taken the "reality" of earlier impressionist paintings, like his 1878 view of Rue Montorgueil bedecked with flags -- right to its visual limits.

Yet there's considerably more tension between the real and unreal in these later works. That's partly because of his increased preoccupation with fragmentary scenes, and partly because he was losing his eyesight to cataracts.

His eye troubles began around 1907.

By 1912, he couldn't see much through his right eye. He told friends that he could no longer see blue or red or yellow. He knew they existed because he had them on his palette, but "I no longer see them as I once did, and yet I remember very well the colors which they gave me."

Through the rest of that decade, his eyesight continued to fail.

And he struggled increasingly to reconcile what he was seeing -- and not seeing -- with what he was painting.

He wrote that he was ruining paintings by trying to rework them.

In the early 1920s, one doctor estimated that Monet was entirely blind in his right eye and had only 10 percent vision in his left.

Like other painters who have slowly lost their vision, Monet relied increasingly on his memory of colors and shapes to make his paintings. And he adjusted his craft, broadening and lengthening his brush strokes to increase their impact.

Surgery in 1923 helped to restore some vision.

But that didn't alter the heavier, more gestural brushwork he had adopted. Nor did it change the way he imagined his world in layers and textures of paint.

If visitors to this show truly want to see that, they are going to have to avoid looking with their ears. Most of the hundreds roaming through the galleries the other day never got closer than 10 or 12 feet from the paintings -- a distance at which the paintings may as well have been posters. Engrossed in their audio guides, they seemed happy to have a voice tell them what they were seeing. They were missing the flurries of brush strokes that make these images so difficult and perplexing from close up, where Monet painted them.

 

One woman was so preoccupied by what the tape was telling her she should see that, after squinting at the swirls of fiery red and muted green paint in the House From the Rose Garden (1922-24), she finally shook her head, pulled the headphones off and blurted out, "Where's the damn roof of the house? I don't see it."

Good God, you'd have to be blind.


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