I wanted to pick up after my last essay on Degas with another great nineteenth century heavyweight who lived well into the new century; namely, Claude Monet, who lived a full sixteen years beyond Degas, defiantly painting his waterlilies, whilst the First World War, with its terrible bombardments of land and mind, erupted all around him; paintings that sought serenity, an absence of (or inability to see) a future horizon. Monet’s late, meditative paintings reveal a person who really could handle the paint. Technically speaking, he was total master of his medium: understanding not just how to manipulate oil paint in such swaggering ways, but also, how to achieve longevity in the chemical composition of his pigments. He even went as far as pre-painting colour onto absorbent paper to extract some of the poppy oil; thereby minimising the tendency of the oil to rise to the surface, and the subsequent yellowing of the colour.
Monet’s ability to render in paint was dazzling. One hears of him being regarded as the ‘greatest painter of all’. Cézanne’s ‘he is only an eye, but what an eye’ is possibly a more erudite observation (we’ll leave Braque’s ‘a half-wit’ to one side). Monet developed ever-richer tapestries of colour as his eyesight, like that of Degas, deteriorated; and we often find the greater the impairment, the greater the urgency to work.
Monet is such an accessible painter – quite possibly one of the most accessible painters. I remember the twenty-four hour ‘Monet-athon’ run by the RA many years ago: I left it until 6am on that last Sunday in the vain hope of a bit of viewing space; yet if truth be told, I was unsurprised to see post-clubbers rolling out of the Academy, bleary-eyed, onto Piccadilly as I queued to get in. His work is every art museum’s go-to money-maker, and this does tend to temper his status with many who are wedded to the unspoken principles of an ‘avant-garde’. None of this particularly bothers me; but there is something else in his work that makes me uneasy. My bugbear, I think, lies in the realm of Monet’s ‘pictorialism’. This needs unpicking, as it’s not pictorialism in terms of subject matter but pictorialism in terms of his use of colour; especially, and ironically, in his late, more celebrated works, as opposed to his earlier scenes which often shunt together architecture and atmosphere in such satisfyingly tactile ways.
Monet himself dubbed certain of his works as ‘too straightforward’. This calls to mind Clement Greenberg’s reservation about Anthony Caro’s ‘Sun Feast’ of 1969-70: ‘It’s too streamlined’. I understood immediately what he meant by this insightful remark, and I think about it often when looking at the Nymphéas paintings, which, I feel, also have this quality about them. This, in turn, brings me back to Cézanne’s comment about Monet’s paintings being the product of an ‘eye’. These late works are rabidly pictorial, and their very virtue is the thing that unsettles me the most. Pictorial art ‘accepts’ from the outset: please ruminate on that remark. Colour decisions serve a pictorial unity which is aspired to from the start: each decision thus closes in, rather than opens out. If a colour jumps, it’s checked back rather than challenged by a subsequent hue. ‘Pictorial’ as a concept in painting, for me, is rooted in photography and the use of imagery, and ultimately, therefore, the figurative. In figurative art the pictorial often leads to the ‘capturing’ of a scene (how often do we hear a lay voice express this sentiment?) and a posturing of a stasis, which is in itself a negation of the fluidity of our visual field – and thus, a shutting down of time. I suppose, when faced with the horror of war, who wouldn’t wish to shut down time?
In abstract painting, being pictorial can be construed as the acceptance of an ambition to make art rather than discover it through the making. Could it be argued that pictorial art is ultimately devoid of ‘doubt’? Pictorial abstract art flourishes in a Western liberal arts environment. It’s embedded in pedagogy. In fact, it could be further proposed that Impressionism was the foundation of such a construct- after its initial breaking down of the ‘Academie’ it ended up replacing it as the de facto painterly approach – yesterday’s heresies are tomorrow’s pieties, we could say. Both Degas and Monet sought to make pictorial art and, as such, are fundamentally image painters – or would ‘filmic’ be a better term when one considers the tilting, cropping and panning of their foci? As they reached their maturity as artists, photography came into its own as the primary medium of visual communication. In Degas’ and Monet’s work we find suggestive colour, often employed to evoke a known atmospheric condition: lamplight or sunlight. Their worlds have a singularity of light: these worlds are ravishing to visit, as even the most tanked-up clubber, so used to the blaze of artificial light, will testify to. Yet, like a club, they are not places to concentrate and work in. I go to late Monet for pleasure rather than challenge.