Monet in the ’90’s: The Series Paintings

Monet in the ’90’s:  The Series Paintings

Organized by Paul Tucker, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston through April, 1990.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, April 1990)

If you’ve always thought of Monet‘s art as light, charming and ephemeral, this show will change your mind.  Monet (1840-1926)was an artist who planned his paintings the way a general plans an campaign – an artist who once ripped the leaves off a tree that began to bloom before he had finished a winter landscape.  Claude Monet (1840-1926) was a sensualist – a modernist – an intellectual.  His art is solid, obsessive, and complex. His paintings are passionate, brutal, tough, intelligent- and at the same time gentle, soft, and very, very beautiful.

Monet’s relationship to nature was passionate and profoundly erotic.  His paintings grasp and caress and yearn to possess the image of what he loved.  In painting after painting, the earth moves and the water swoons and the sky tumbles and all the blues and pinks and purples and reds and oranges dissolve into one.  Those melting purples – those warm, fleshy pinks – those hot, burning reds – that sense of thrust and flow.  Earth and water come together, again and again, and explode in a symphony of light and color and air.

Monet was such a sensual painter that you can lose yourself in one of his paintings, and love it while you’re looking at it.  But later, when you try to remember what it was like, it seems to disappear, the way the image disappears in some of his paintings – when water and trees and sky evaporate in a pale purple mist.  Seeing the whole series is a completely different experience.

In the MFA’s “Morning on the Seine, near Giverny“, for example, you see a bend in the river, overhung with leafy trees that cast pale, shimmering shadows on the water.  Land, water and sky dissolve into one another, reflecting and absorbing a silvery, luminous light.  When you look at one “Morning on the Seine“, everything in the painting seems soft and melting, as if it were made of light, water and air.  But when you look at nine versions of the same painting, gathered here from all over the world, you see how powerful the painting’s underlying structure is.

In each one of the series, a line where water meets sky divides the canvas into two interlocking planes.  That line creates the sense of deep space that pulls you into the painting, closer and closer.  The horizon line is almost invisible in a single painting, but it emerges very clearly when you see the series.  Seeing the series shows you that Monet was not casually recording his momentary impressions, but creating a solid framework which allowed him the freedom to push his sense of color and touch to new heights.  The touch can be so gentle because the structure is so tough.  The color can be so soft  because the composition is so strong.

When you go to see Monet in the 90’s, choose a series and stay with it for a while.  That’s what Monet did.  He kept coming back to the same place and painting it over and over again, working on several easels at a time so he could stay in the same place all day and watch it change.

Choose one painting in the series and get really close to it.  Get so close that you lose the image and all you see is paint.

Now you’re looking at the hundreds of decisions and revisions and little strokes and touches that Monet made on a canvas with a brush, hour after hour and day by day. Live in the moment. Go with the flow.  It will never be like this again.

Monet’s series paintings are all about going back to the same place – the same picture – the same person – again and again and again, and always finding something new. The endlessness of Nature, Love, and Art.  As Diana Ross sang with the  Supremes in I Hear A Symphony, “Let it go on and on and on...”

by Rebecca Nemser for

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