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The first time I ever saw Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, it was in my art history textbook — the infamous Janson. It was about 5 inches wide on the bottom of page 633. 

Most of the world’s most famous art I first contacted in reproduction; it is the same for most people. It would be hard to travel the world’s great museums to see all the Vermeers, Rembrandts, Titians or Chardins. Instead, we see reproductions in books, or on the computer screen. I’ve seen hundreds, probably thousands of paintings in reproductions before I ever saw the real things. 

So, imagine my amazement when I encountered the real thing at the Louvre in Paris. There it was, the size of a barn. It was a lesson — if I really needed one — teaching me that a picture of a picture is not the same thing as a picture. But so much of what we imbibe of culture comes not in its original form, but as reproduction, whether it is Canaletto in art history class, or Beethoven on a disc. 

One of the things that divides the world I grew up in from the world I live in now is the unconsidered acceptance of a media experience for the live reality. We all have our noses in our screens. In many ways, what was once the secondary simulacrum of a genuine experience has become the end product itself. Since the days of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a great deal of music simply cannot be performed live; the recording is the original. 

In our Postmodern world, suffused with media, many an artist and musician has taken the secondary product as the original. And so, images are designed to be seen on the computer screen. No one asks to see a TikTok video in a movie theater; that would be silly. Content viewed on an iPhone is not an imitation of something else. 

I, myself, now take photographs specifically to be viewed on screen rather than printed out. I edit them differently, I frame them differently. It is a different esthetic. But aside from work made for the virtual world, there is still the palpable object to take into account. 

But the fact is, that many more people listen to recordings than attend concerts; see paintings in book reproductions or on computer screens than visit galleries or museums; prefer audiobooks to sitting in a chair and quietly turning paper pages. It gives a false impression of the art. 

We keep stepping back from an original and choose a Xerox copy. 

I am not here arguing against digital devices — you are reading this blog on one, so where would I be without such devices? — but I am worried that the ubiquity of reproduced media makes us forget that there can be something more immediate, and that through most of history, that immediacy was the primary mode of experiencing art and music. 

My brother and I were once talking about theater. He stated that he didn’t much care for live theater but preferred movies as being so much more realistic — despite the obvious fact that live actors are very real and that celluloid images are only simulacra, and that movies are cut and edited all over the place, while live action must take place in real time. 

But I recognized his point, and when I was younger, I would have agreed with him. Most of us are only subject to live theater, if we are exposed to it at all, in uninspired productions with bad or mediocre acting — the community theater or dinner theater sort of thing. And undistinguished theater is admittedly tedious. 

Most of the theater I had been exposed to was just that sort of thing. Sometimes quite entertaining, but always so darned “theatrical,” i.e. phony. 

Then, in 1994, I got to see the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, both parts over two days. It was the most riveting, even mind-blowing thing I had ever seen. And what was so moving was that it was there, live in front of me. They were real people doing and saying those lines and feeling — or evoking — those very primal emotions. It is still the single greatest experience I ever had in an audience. 

I have now seen the two-play cycle four times and each time it has grabbed me by the lapels and yelled into my face in a way that has left me shaken. I’ve seen the Mike Nichols film version, with Al Pacino, and it is a wonderful production, but it cannot move me with quite the same seismic force that the live version had. If I had seen those same actors in the theater instead of on the TV screen, I’m certain it would have been earthshaking, but the remove of the screen gives the whole thing a distance that the live actors don’t suffer from. 

I since have become an advocate for live theater, though it is hard to convince anyone who has not had the experience of great live performances. I have seen really good professional performances since Angels, and they have something nothing else has. Whether it is Fences by August Wilson, or Amadeus by Peter Shaffer or Hamlet performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, I am completely drawn in, with the same complete concentration one has when reading a great book — the day-to-day world disappears and the esthetic world takes over. 

(Amadeus, by the way, as a play is very different from Amadeus the movie. As wonderful as the film was, a good production of the play is so much more devastating.)

It isn’t only plays that have to be seen live. I have watched a good deal of dance on video or on PBS, and I am always disappointed at some deep level. Ballet and dance theater is the art form that speaks to my inner being the most directly and I love dance profoundly. But only live dance will do it. Balanchine knew this and attempted to re-choreograph a few of his masterpieces especially for video and however beautiful his video versions are, they pale beside seeing them live. You have to see the living, breathing (huffing and puffing), muscle-twisting movement in three dimensions for it to register fully. 

(Mediocre dance, like mediocre theater is the worst ambassador for the artform — how many people have been turned off by watching the local civic ballet company galumph through the annual Nutcracker? That is no more the real thing than little league pitching is like Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax.)

I have well over a thousand CDs on the shelves in my office and listen daily to recordings of Brahms, Bartok, Weill, Mahler and Glazunov. And I don’t know where I’d be without them. But I also know that the real thrills I have had with classical music have been in the concert or recital hall, listening to live music. It has a presence that the recording cannot duplicate. I’ve written before about hearing the eight horns in Strauss’s Don Juan peel off the great horn call and feeling the sound through my chest and my fundament as much as through my ears. 

I want to make the same case for visual art. Everyone knows what the Mona Lisa looks like. Or do they? Almost to a person, those who have seen the original has remarked how small the painting is. It is a very different thing from the same image on a coffee mug or even in an art book. 

But it’s not merely size I mean. The colors cannot be precisely conveyed by printer’s ink or by a computer’s palette. The paint has a texture that isn’t conveyed, and varying levels of gloss or matte. This was brought home to me — very like the revelation of Angels — when I saw a collection of Cezanne still lifes at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. I had not imagined such an exquisite range of greens; way too many variants than can be named. The Cezannes in my Janson were dull and lifeless in comparison. Yes, I could name the subject in them — an apple here, a vase there — but apple and vase were not what the painting was about. This rich range of visual information was the real subject. Gone in the reproduction. The real paintings made me want to chew the colors like a great meal. 

We are led to accept imagery as the purpose of art, but it is only one portion of it. Alone, it is hardly more than the male or female silhouette on a restroom door. It also must include the scale, the finer shades of color and texture — and as with theater — the “presence.” The fact. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is everywhere from lampshades to mouse pads, but if you stand before it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, you absorb how complex the painting is. Not just a swirl of blue night sky, but an object, a painting made of pigments and oils. 

The same with the huge paintings of Maria Medici by Rubens, or the meticulous brushstrokes of Robert Campin’s Mérode Alterpiece at the Cloisters in New York. 

But, I hear someone say, you should not let the best be the enemy of the good. As Chaucer said, “Muche wele stant in litel besynesse.” And many of us cannot visit the Louvre or the Prado, or get tickets to the New York City Ballet. Does everything have to be great?

I am not arguing that. I am saying that we should not be bamboozled into thinking that a reproduction can stand in for the genuine and that the real thing can be a life-changing experience, causing you to discover depths in yourself you hadn’t even suspected, whether it is the sympathetic feel of your muscles watching a dancer, or the empathy you extend to Salieri in Amadeus, or the hunger for color you get from Cezanne. 

I am arguing that, in fact, you should look at real paintings and sculpture. Not all of it will be great, but it will be real. It will be present. There is plenty of local art in every town and city. If there is no museum, there may be some Depression-era murals in your post office, or a World War I soldier in your town square. There are local artists working in your neck of the woods, and what they do is real, not virtual. 

Every locale has artists working, and art worth experiencing isn’t only found in museums, or only found in New York or Berlin. 

I remember pulling into a supermarket in Boone, N.C. one fall afternoon and hearing three or four local musicians plucking guitar and banjo on the front steps, gathered informally to play some tunes. It was genuine and I sat and listened with the small crowd for 20 minutes or so before going in for my butter and eggs. 

You never know what you’re going to get. Even the best performer can have an off night, and sometimes an amateur can hit the spot. It isn’t frogs you have to kiss, but you do need to weed through a good deal of acceptable but unexceptional work to find those few that will stick with you for life. 

And then you will know the immediacy of the real. 

If I say we have entered a new Romantic era, you may lick your chops and anticipate the arrival of great poetry and music. But hold on. 

Nothing gets quite so romanticized as Romanticism. It all seems so — well — romantic. We get all fuzzy inside and think pretty thoughts. Romanticism means emotional music, beautiful paintings, expansive novels, and poetry of deep feeling.

Or so we think, forgetting that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe called Romanticism a “disease.” 

The surface of Romanticism may be attractive, but its larger implications are more complex. We should look deeper into what we mean by “Romanticism.”

Initially, it is a movement in art and literature from the end of the 18th century to the middle or latter years of the 19th century. It responded to the rationalism of the Age of Reason with a robust faith in emotion, intuition and all things natural. We now tend to think of Romanticism as a welcome relief from the artificiality of the aristocratic past and a plunge into the freedom of unbuttoned democracy. We read our Shelley and Keats, we listen to our Chopin and Berlioz and revel in the color of Turner and Delacroix. Romanticism was the ease of breathing after we have unlaced our corset or undone our necktie.

Yet, there is something adolescent about Romanticism, something not quite grown up. It is too concerned with the self and not enough with the community. There is at heart a great deal of wish fulfillment in it, and a soft pulpy core of nostalgia and worse, an unapologetic grandiosity. One cannot help think of Wagner and his Ring cycle explaining the world to his acolytes. Music of the Future, indeed.

I’m not writing to compose a philippic against a century of great art, but to consider the wider meanings of what we narrowly define as Romanticism.

Most importantly, one has to understand the pendulum swing from the various historical classicisms to the various historical romanticisms. Romanticism didn’t burst fully grown from the head of Beethoven’s Eroica, but rather recurs through history predictably. One age’s thoughtfulness is the next generation’s tired old pusillanimity. Then, that generation’s expansiveness is followed by the next and its judiciousness.

The classicism of Pericles’ Athens is followed by the energy of Hellenism. The dour stonework of the Romanesque is broken open by the lacy streams of light of the Gothic. The formality of Renaissance painting is blown away by the extravagance of the Baroque. Haydn is thrown overboard for Liszt, and later the tired sentimentality of the Victorians (the last gasping breaths of Romanticism) is replaced by the irony and classicism of Modernism. Back and forth. This is almost the respiration of cultural time; breathe in, breathe out. You could call it “cultural yoga.”

We tend to label the serene and balanced cultures as classical and the expansive and teetering ones as romantic. The labels are not important. Nietzsche called them Apollonian and Dionysian. William Blake personified them in his poems as reason and energy.

We are however misled if we simplify the two impulses as merely rationality vs. emotion. The twin poles of culture are much more than that.

Classicism tends to engage with society, the interactions of humans, the ascendency of laws instituted by men (and it is men who have instituted most of them and continue to do so — just look at Congress). AT its heart, it is a recognition of limits. 

Romanticism, of whatever era it reveals itself, engages with the cosmos, with history, with those things larger than mere human institutions, with Nature with a capital “N.” Romanticism distrusts anything invented by humans alone, and surrenders to those forces mortals cannot control. Romanticism has no truck with limits. 

These classical-romantic oppositions concern whether the artist is engaged with man as a social being, an individual set in a welter of humanity — or whether he is concerned with the individual against the background of nature or the cosmos.

Yet there is an egotism in the “me vs. the universe” formulation. It tends to glorify the individual as hero and disparage the community which makes life possible. 

In the 18th Century, for instance, Alexander Pope wrote that “The proper study of mankind is man.” The novel, which investigates human activity in its social setting, came from the same century. Fielding and Defoe come from that century.

The succeeding century is concerned more with man in nature, or man in his loneliness, or fighting the gods and elements. One thinks of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Manfred.

There are many more polarities to these movements in art and culture. One side privileges clarity, the other complexity. Just compare a Renaissance painting with a Baroque one. The classical Renaissance tends to line its subjects up across the canvas in a line, while the Baroque wants to draw us in to the depth of the painting from near to far. Renaissance paintings like to light things up evenly, so all corners can be seen clearly. The romanticised Baroque loves the great patches of light and dark, obscuring outlines and generally muddying up the works.

Look at this Last Supper by Andrea del Castagno. See how clear it all is. 

But the Baroque painter Tintoretto had a different vision of the same biblical event. It is writhing, twisting out into deep space, with deep shadows and obscure happenings. The Renaissance liked stability and clarity; the Baroque, motion and confusion.

One side values unity, the other, diversity. One side values irony, the other sincerity. One side looks at the past with a skeptical eye, the other with nostalgia. One side sees the present as the happy result of progress, the other sees the present as a decline from a more natural and happier past. One side unabashedly embraces internationalism, the other, ethnic identity and nationalism. If this sounds familiar, think red and blue states.

One of the big shifts is between what I call “ethos” and “ego.”

That is, art that is meant to embody the beliefs of an age, thoughts and emotions that everyone is assumed to share — or art that is the personal expression of the individual making it.

We have so long taken it for granted that an artist is supposed to “express himself,” that we forget it has not always been so. Did Homer express his inner feelings in the Iliad? Or are those emotions he (or she) described the emotions he expected everyone would understand and share? He tells of what Achilles is feeling, or Ajax or Hector or Priam — and they are deep and profound emotions — but they give no clue to what Homer was feeling.

In music, Haydn’s symphonies were written about in his day as being powerfully emotional. Nowadays, we think of Haydn as a rather witty and cerebral composer. If we want emotion, we go to Beethoven or Schubert. You cannot listen to Schubert’s string quintet and not believe it expresses the deepest emotions that its composer was suffering at the time. It is his emotion. We may share it, but it is his.

The history of art pulsates with the shift from nationalistic to international styles, from that which is specific to an ethnic or identity group, and that which seeks to transcends those limitations.

In music, Bach imitated the national styles in his English and French suites and his Italian Concerto. The styles are distinct and identifiable.

But the Galant and Classical styles that replaced it vary little from country to country. Perhaps the Italian is a little lighter and the German a little more complex, but you can’t get simpler or more direct than Mozart.

Nationalism reasserted itself in the next century, so that you have whole schools of Czech music, French, Russian. In the early 20th Century, internationalism took charge once more and for a while, everybody was writing like Stravinsky.

The main architectural style of the first half of this century is even called “The International Style.” That style is now so passé as to be the butt of jokes.

The classical eras value rationality and clear thinking, while its mirror image values irrationality and chaos.

You’re ahead of me if you have recognized that much of what I am calling Romanticism is playing out in the world and in current politics as a new Romantic age.

Nationalism is reasserting its ugly head in Brexit, in Marine Le Pen, Vladimir Putin — and in Donald Trump and his followers.

The mistrust or outright disbelief in science is a recasting of Rousseau. Stephen Colbert invented the term “truthiness,” and nothing could be a better litmus test of Romanticism: The individual should be the arbiter of truth; if it feels true, we line up and salute. In a classical age, the judgments of society are taken as a prime value. Certainly, there are those who resist, but by and large, the consensus view is adopted.

The previous Romantic age had its Castle of Otranto and its Frankenstein. The current one has its Game of Thrones and its hobbits, and wizards and witches. The 19th Century looked to the Middle Ages with a nostalgia; the Postmodern 21st Century looks to a pre-civilized barbarian past (equally mythologized) with a vision for a post-apocalyptic future. 

(Right-wing nostalgia is for a pre-immigrant, pre-feminist, pre-integration utopia that never actually existed. The good old days — before penicillin.) 

This neo-barbarianism also shares with its 19th Century counterpart a glorification of violence, both criminal and battlefield — as the huge armies that contend in the Lord of the Rings films, to say nothing of the viciousness of Game of Thrones

As we enter a new Romantic age around the world, one of dissociation, confusion and realignment, we need to recognize the darker side of Romanticism and not merely its decorative accoutrements.

We will have to accept some of those adages propounded in William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell:  “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” And, “The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.” Is this not the Taliban? The Brexiteers? The Republican Party? And those elements in academia who want cover their ears and yell “nyah-nyah-nyah” when faced with anything outside their orthodoxy? 

Because it isn’t only on the right. The Noble Savage has come back to us as a new privileging of indigenous cultures over Western culture. The disparagement of European science, art, culture and philosophy as “hegemonic” and corrupt is just Rousseau coming back to bite us on the butt. (The West has plenty to answer for, but clitoridectomies are not routine in New Jersey. There is shame and blame found everywhere.) 

And the political right has discovered “natural immunity” and fear of pharmaceuticals, while still thinking it OK to run Clorox up the kiester. 

The last Age of Romanticism kicked off with the storming of the Bastille — a tactically meaningless act (only seven prisoners remained prison, four of them were forgers and another two were mentally ill) which inspired the French Revolution and all the bloodshed of Terror, but had enough symbolic significance to become the focus of France’s national holiday. We have our January 6, just as meaningless and perhaps just as symbolic. But perhaps that riot has more in common with a certain putsch in Munich. 

The first time America entered a Romantic age, in the 19th century, it elected Andrew Jackson, arguably the most divisive president (outside the Civil War) before Donald Trump, and certainly the most cock-sure of himself and the truthiness he felt in his gut. Facts be damned. For many of us, Trump feels like the reincarnation of Jackson, and this era feels like the reemergence of a Romantic temperament, and we may need to rethink just how warm and cuddly that truly is.

This piece is updated, expanded and rewritten from an April 2017 essay for the Spirit of the Senses

I sit across the table from my brother at the seafood restaurant in Virginia and he doodles on a napkin with a Sharpie.

My brother is an artist — primarily a printmaker, but more recently a painter. And while he isn’t terribly prolific, he is constantly drawing. His mind is always coming up with visual ideas and he jots them down. Most never go anywhere, but he just cannot stop himself from playing. It is his way of processing experience: What he sees he transforms.

Lee Friedlander

It reminds me of the photographer Lee Friedlander, who describes his addiction to making photographs as “pecking.” Like a hen darting at cracked corn on the ground, he clicks his camera — peck, peck, peck. Some of the results of his pecking turn into finished photographs he displays in galleries and publishes in books. But there is an improvisatory quality to his work that comes — like a jazz musician woodshedding — from constantly working his instrument.

Among the images caught by pecking, Friedlander will periodically find something he hadn’t considered before, and thus his body of work takes a new direction, constantly refreshing his art.

In part, the importance of this kind of sketching is that it is not art — or rather, not meant as art. It is more the flexing of an esthetic muscle. One can become intellectually paralyzed if all you aim at is writing deathless prose, or painting the museum masterpiece, or composing the next Eroica. Not everything needs to be The Brothers Karamazov. There is great value in just pecking. It keeps your senses alive.

Mel Steele

I periodically visit my brother-in-law, Mel Steele, who is also an artist, a very accomplished artist who regularly sells his paintings to clients both private and corporate.

I often spend a portion of my time doodling — pecking — with my tiny point-and-shoot digital camera. We would sit on their patio talking about the things one yammers on about with one’s relations — old times, where former acquaintances have gone, the horror of recent politics, the joys of fishing — and I would distractedly point my camera around me at the things one seldom notices.

I wasn’t thinking of making art. I barely paid attention to what I was doing with the camera, but I pecked. The result is a kind of notebook of the things we lived among, seen in some different way, so as to lift them from their context, to suck them out of the everydayness they languish in.

 It reminded me of an assignment I used to give my photography students, some 35 years ago, when I taught the subject at the same school where my brother also taught. “Make a photograph of something so I cannot tell what it is.” I made sure they understood I didn’t mean to make it out of focus or poorly run through the darkroom, but to find something we see everyday, but pay so little attention to, that when faced with its presence, we might be baffled until that moment when, the proud student, having fooled us all, tells us what we’re looking at and we all let out a gasp of breath and say, “Of course, now I see it.”

Try it: 

Quiz photo No. 1 (Answers at the end of story)

These pecked pictures are mostly details. 

Quiz photo No. 2

They are not the grand view or the concatenated whole, but the tiny bits out of which the larger scene is built. 

Quiz photo No. 3

Most of us pay attention only to the whole, when we pay attention at all; for most Americans — maybe most humans anywhere — only use their eyes for useful things. They see the road they drive on, the cloud that tells them it will rain, the house, the car, closet. But every house has a door, and every door a door-handle; every car has tires and every tire a tread and each tread is made up of an intricate series of rubber squiggles and dents. Attention must be paid.

Aime Groulx

Many years before, when I taught photography at a private art school in Greensboro, N.C., the artist Aime Groulx, who ran the school, made a photograph he called Doorknob to the Doors of Perception. I still have my copy. It was his version of “pecking.” 

Doorknob to the Doors of Perception

Paying attention to the details means being able to see the whole more acutely, more vividly. The generalized view is the unconsidered view. When you see a house, you are seeing an “it.” When you notice the details, they provide the character of the house and it warms, has personality and becomes a Buberesque “thou.” The “thou” is a different way of addressing the world and one that makes not only the world more alive, but the seer also.

(It doesn’t hurt that isolating detail makes it more necessary to create a design. You can make a photo of a house and just plop it in the middle of the frame and we can all say, “Yes, that’s a house,” and let the naming of it be the end-all. But if you find the tiny bits, they have to organize them in the frame to make something interesting enough to warrant looking at.)

Side panels of a pickup truck

Sectioning out a detail not only makes you look more closely, but forces your viewer to look more closely, too. Puzzling out what he sees without the plethora of context makes him hone in on its shape, color, and texture. It is a forced look, not a casual one.

So, when I gave my students that assignment, it wasn’t just to be clever, but to make them pay attention to the minutiae that are the bricks of the visual world they inhabit. And paying attention is a form of reverence.

The mental view of the world is telescopic. It zooms from the blue watery globe in the blackness of space, down to the map of the U.S., to your state, to your city — each step focusing on closer detail — and then to your street, to your house, to the room you are sitting in to the armrest you are tapping your fingers on, to the hairs on your knuckles. Always more detail. 

Turn from the tapping hand to the floor and see the woodgrain in the flooring, or the ceiling and see the cobweb you had not noticed before. The clothes you are wearing has a texture and a color. The wrinkles in the shirt of blouse are replications of the drapery in Greek sculpture. 

Each of these details is a microcosm, worth looking at — it is your world, after all. What did William Blake write? “To see the world in a blade of grass. And heaven in a wild flower. To hold infinity in the palm of your hand. And eternity in an hour.” 

Or, as he scribbled in annotation to the pages of Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses, “To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is alone the distinction of merit.”  

The general is the world of politicians and businessmen, of carnival barkers and evangelists. Dogma, ideology, commercial advertisement, are founded on generalizations, while what genuinely matters in our lives is the particular. It is generalizations that permit the destruction of Bamiyan Buddha statues, the bombing of synagogues, mosques and Sikh temples. The stoning of homosexuals. It is generalizations that lurk behind the Shoah. It was generalization that justified the enslavement of a race of people. 

To know any individual is to know the stereotype is a lie. The world, and its peoples, are infinitely complex and varied. So much so, that no broad statement can ever be anything but a lie. And so, there is actually a moral level to this paying of attention to detail, to the minutiae, to the individual. 

And so, you peck. Finding this bit or that bit, that shape, that texture, that precise color. This is the context of your life. 

You can focus your attention on color. How much yellow is in your field of view at this moment. Look around. Single it out. Or blue. How many different blues can you spot right now? Paying attention is being alive; paying attention is reverence. Attention must be paid. 

Duck eggs

Your life is not made up of the broad swathes, but of the minute details, and when we pay too much attention to the big picture, we are likely to miss the particles that give that picture its character. 

And when you come to make your art, write your novel, dance your dance, that detail means there is a truth to what you do, a reality behind the fantasy that gives it depth and meaning. 

Exercise makes your muscles strong. Pecking keeps your senses alive and alert. Peck Peck Peck

Click on any image to enlarge

Answers to quiz: No. 1 — the twill of denim jeans; No. 2 — dried coffee stains on a white table top; No. 3 — garden hose on patio tiles. 

What do cows in India, Mexican bugs and Egyptian mummies have in common?

If you said, “Rembrandt,” give yourself a cigar.

Most of us, when think of color, think in the abstract. Color is the spectrum or the rainbow. Or the deciding factor in which car we buy. We think we know what “blue” means, or “yellow,” but that doesn’t say what particular blue or what of many possible yellows. Just an abstract approximation. Exact hues require incarnation. 

And so, for an artist, color is pigment, and pigment is ornery, peculiar and sometimes toxic, sometimes distressing, even morally questionable.

Poet William Carlos Williams wrote in his book-length Paterson, “No ideas but in things.” It was the total anti-Platonic declaration of faith in the here-and-now, the lumpy, gritty, quotidian things we can feel with our fingers or stub our toe with. I paraphrase his dictum with “No color but in things.” This is not abstract, but palpable.

A painter cannot simply decide on green or yellow, but on what pigment that paint is made from. Each acts in its own way, mixes with others differently, dilutes differently, requires a different thinner, binder or medium, displays varying levels of permanence, transparency and glossiness. The painter cannot think in abstract hues, but in the actuality of the physical world. Hands in the mud, so to speak.

The earliest pigments were dug from the earth or sifted from the cook-fire: Ochers and soot. The caves of France and Spain were painted with these pigments. 

They had to be worked into submission by the artist, grinding, mixing, adding medium and binder. His — or her (we cannot know for sure) — hands got dirty in the process. There was a smell to it, fresh loamy smell or the acrid residue of the hearth. There was a feel, gritty or pulverized, oily, or smudgy like moist clay.

So, until the mid-19th century, all paints were made from the things of this world. Soils and rocks, plants and snails. Each pigment had its idiosyncrasies and those had to be reckoned with when mixing them or placing them side-by-side. None was pure, save, perhaps, the blackness of soot.

Then, in 1856, an 18-year-old chemist named William Henry Perkin, trying to find a cure for malaria, found instead a new, synthetic purple dye — the first aniline dye. He called it “mauve,” or “mauveine.”

A decade later, the German chemists Carl Graebe and Carl Liebermann, working for BASF, synthesized alizarin crimson, making an artificial pigment that matched the natural alizarin dye that had been extracted from the madder plant. It was the first color created from an element of coal tar — a byproduct of turning coal into coke.

Apres moi, le deluge” — Since then, there has been a flood of synthetic colors, all devised in the laboratories of giant corporations. There are the aniline dyes, the azo dyes, the phthalocyanine dyes, diazonium dyes, anthraquinone dyes — a whole chemistry lab of new industrial color. Many of these new dyes and pigments were brighter and purer of hue and more permanent.

 (Not all: the new chrome yellow that Vincent Van Gogh used developed a tendency to turn brown on contact with air. Properly protected, chrome yellow is familiar as the paintjob on most schoolbusses).

Nowadays, even oil and acrylic paints with traditional names, such as burnt umber and ultramarine are likely to be produced industrially using chemical derivatives. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that Rembrandt or Michelangelo had to arrive at their paints through laborious and time-consuming processes.

Most pigments came to the artist’s atelier in the form of a rock or a sediment. It had to be ground down to a powder, a process normally done by an apprentice — basically an intern: “Bring me a latte, a bearclaw and the powdered cinnabar.” Being ground to a grit wasn’t enough; the poor apprentice sometimes had to spend days with the pigment between grinding stone and levigator or muller, working it into pulverized paste that could be mixed with a binder and medium and finally used by the artist on canvas.

It wasn’t until the advent of the industrial revolution and the invention of a pigment-grinding machine in 1718, that the tedious work of pigment making became doable in large quantities. And it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that prepared paints, sold in zinc tubes, made it possible for artists to buy portable paints they could carry out into the countryside to paint in the open.

But we should not forget the sometimes ancient origins of the paints used for the canvasses of the Renaissance, the Baroque — the Old Masters. This is where the Indian cows, the Mexican bugs and the Egyptian mummies come in.

First, let’s look at a few of the standard paint-sources from this pre-industrial age. Many of them have wonderful and memorable names, now largely gone out of use.

We’ll take the reds first. None was perfect, several were lethal. 

Carmine — This is the Mexican bug I mentioned above. The cochineal scale insect grows on certain cactuses in Central and South America. It is a bright violet- to deep-red color. The Aztecs called it “nocheztli,” which means “tuna blood,” and dyed the tunics of Aztec and Inca royalty.

Crimson — Before the Conquista, a European scale insect, growing on the kermes oak, provided a red dye. These insects were picked from the twigs with fingernails and processed into a scarlet dye. It was the color used to dye the curtains of the Temple in Jerusalem. Also widely used by ancient Egyptians and Romans. It was less efficiently grown and produced than the cochineal of Mexico, and so was replaced. Michelangelo used it in his paint.

Vermilion — A scarlet red form of mercury sulfide and highly poisonous, it was mined in Europe, Asia and the New World as cinnabar and was used also for cosmetics and medicine — hardly a wise use. In its mineral form, it was used to color Chinese lacquer. A finer, and redder version was first synthesized in China in the fourth century BCE, and depending how well powdered it has been ground, produces hues from orangey-red to a reddish purple that  one writer compared to “fresh duck liver.” It is still also produced by grinding cinnabar. 

The terms “cinnabar” “vermilion” and “Chinese red” are often loosely interchangeable. The finer the grinding, the brighter the red. Painter Cennino Cennini in his 15th century Craftsman’s Handbook wrote: “If you were to grind it every day for 20 years it would simply become better and more perfect.” It was the most common red in painting until it was replaced in the 20th century by cadmium red.

Dragon’s blood — Mentioned in a First-Century Roman travel guide (a periplus), it is a maroon-red pigment made from the sap of various plants, most notably the Dracaena cinnabari. Medieval sources wrote that it was made from the blood of actual dragons. It is also what gives classic violins their reddish varnish. In several folk-religions and in neo-paganism, it is a source of magical power, presumably because of its supposed connection to dragons. 

Minium — Also known as red lead, this orange-red pigment was commonly used in Medieval illuminated manuscripts. It was made by roasting oxidized lead in the air to form lead tetroxide. It is named for the Minius River between Spain and Portugal, and because this red lead was used for the small letterings and illustrations in hand-made books, it is the source of our word, “miniature.” 

Near colors of yellow, orange and purple had their sources, too. 

Gamboge — A yellow pigment formed from the resin of the evergreen Cambodian gamboge tree (genus Garcinia). Coincidentally, the name comes from the Latin name for Cambodia. It is the traditional color used to dye Buddhist monks’ robes. The pigment first reached Europe in the early 17th century. When mixed with Prussian blue, it creates Hooker’s green. A strong laxative if ingested; in large doses can cause death. 

Orpiment — A bright yellow pigment gathered from volcanoes and hot springs and is a highly poisonous compound of arsenic and was once used as an insecticide and to tip poison arrows. It was traded as far back as the Roman empire. Its name is a corruption of the latin auripigmentum or “gold pigment.”

Realgar — Realgar was, along with orpiment, a significant item of trade in the ancient Roman Empire and was used as a red paint pigment. It is an arsenic sulfide mineral and sometimes called “ruby of arsenic.” Early occurrences of realgar as a red paint pigment are known for works of art from China, India, Central Asia and Egypt. It was used in European fine-art painting during the Renaissance, a use which died out by the 18th century. It was also once used as medicine and to kill weeds, insects and rodents. Be grateful for modern medicine. 

Madder — Another dye that goes as far back as ancient Egypt, it is a violet to red color extracted from the Rubia tinctorum and related species, plants that grows on many continents, and in southern France is called garance — for those of you who love the great French film Les Enfants du Paradis. It is turned into a pigment from a dye by the process known as “laking,” and so often encountered as madder lake.

Tyrian purple — This is the purple of the Roman emperors, and is extracted from a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of a predatory sea snail found in the eastern Mediterranean. It was worth its weight in silver and it might take 12,000 snails to produce enough dye for a single garment.

Blues and greens were often so close as to be made from variants of the same thing. 

Bice — Is a dark green-blue or blue-green pigment made from copper carbonates, primarily the mineral azurite, sometimes malachite. Lightened, it was often used for skies.

Smalt — First used in ancient Egypt, it is a cobalt oxide use to color glass a deep blue. The glass is then ground into a powder used as a pigment.

Ultramarine — The ultimate blue, made from the mineral lapis lazuli, found almost exclusively in Afghanistan, which, for Europeans, was “beyond the (Mediterranean) sea” or “ultra-marine.” The process of making the pigment from the mineral was complex and the final color was so highly prized, and so expensive, that its use had to be expressed in the contract commissioning a painting by Renaissance artists, less they use some less costly, and less glorious blue. 

Prussian blue — The first modern synthetic pigment, Prussian blue is iron hexacyanoferrate and a very dark, intense blue. It is also sometimes called Berlin blue or Paris blue. It is the blue of traditional blueprints and became popular among painters soon after it was formulated in 1708 — by accident when a chemist attempted to make a red dye and got blue instead. It largely replaced the more expensive ultramarine. After it was imported to Japan, it became the standard blue of woodblock prints. 

Egyptian blue — Long before Prussian blue, the ancient Egyptians manufactured a light blue pigment from calcium copper silicate, by mixing silica, lime, copper and an alkali. First synthesized during the Fourth Dynasty (ca. 2500 BCE), its use continued through the Roman period. The Egyptians called it “artificial lapis lazuli,” and used it to decorate beads, pots, scarabs and tomb walls. 

Indigo blue — The familiar color of blue jeans comes from indigo, made from the indigo plant Indigofera tinctoria. At least, it once did. Now the dye is synthetic. It is a deep, dark blue, almost black. Before the Asian indigo plant was imported to Europe, the dye was made from the woad plant Isatis tintoria. Before the American Revolution, Asian indigo, grown in South Carolina, was the colony’s second-most important cash crop (after rice), and counting for a third of the value of exports from the American colonies. Initially, European woad processors fought against the importation of Asian indigo dyes, as later, after adopting the Asian product, they fought tooth and nail against the synthetic. Progress. 

Verdigris — A green pigment formed by copper carbonate, chloride or acetate. It is the patina on the Statue of Liberty, but in oil paint, it has the odd property of being initially a light blue-green and turning, after about a month into a bright grass green.

Viridian — A darkish blue-green pigment, a hydrated chromium oxide, popularized by Venetian painter Paolo Veronese.

Sepia — a dark brown to black dye and pigment extracted from various species of squid. Most popular as an ink, it has also been used for oil paint.

You will have undoubtedly noticed how many of these pigments were poisonous. It has certainly been suggested that Van Gogh’s madness may have been caused by his habit of tipping his brushes on his tongue.

So many of these pigments relied on the unholy trinity of toxins: mercury, arsenic, and lead. Their toxicity was understood from ancient times. The cinnabar used for vermilion was mined in China by convicts, whose life expectancy was — well, who cared? They were convicts. 

The most common toxic color through history was white, which was most often lead carbonate, or flake white, aka white lead. It was easy to manufacture by soaking sheets of lead in vinegar for weeks at a time and scraping the resulting white powder off the surface of the metal. Flake white was a wonderful, opaque and brilliant white pigment. Unfortunately, it could kill, blind or make mad those who used it. Even today, older houses have sometimes to be de-leaded of their original paint in order to be sold legally. Children are especially vulnerable.

A substitute for white lead was looked for. Zinc white — an oxide of zinc — was tried, but was not as opaque or as white. Nowadays, titanium white is used, safer and nearly as good a pigment.

But, as I said at the top of this article, some of the old pigments were not only dangerous, but morally questionable.

Ivory black — made from elephant ivory, and essentially ivory charcoal, it is (or was) an intense black pigment. Nowadays, it is most often made from bones, as bone black, aka Mars black.

Indian yellow — A pigment brought to Europe from the east, it was described as being made by feeding cows solely on mango leaves, which made their urine an intense yellow, which was then evaporated into a sludge, dried and sold. The cattle were severely malnourished by this diet, and the practice outlawed. There are those who doubt this explanation of the pigment, but no one doubts the strong stench of the bolus. It is no longer made.

Mummy brown — A bituminous brown, made from ground-up Egyptian mummies, both human and feline. Popular from the 16th century, it was good for “glazes, shadows, flesh tones and shading.” In the 19th century, the supply of Egyptian mummies was so great that in England, they were used as fuel for steam locomotives. But when the actual origin of the pigment became widely known, a moral repugnance swept England and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones was horrified to find out what he was using, “and when he heard what his brown was made of, he gave all his tubes of this color a decent burial” in his garden.

Makes you look at all those rich, warm browns in Rembrandt with a slightly different eye.

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This blog entry is significantly rewritten and expanded from an earlier essay published on the Spirit of the Senses website in March, 2018.

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This is real. I need to emphasize that. It is a paper handed to me by an English major at Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach, Va., in 1984. That’s right: an English major. The art-history assignment was to write a short research paper on an artist of the student’s choice, picking someone whose work they especially liked. 

I was sometimes astounded at what I received from students. On one test for an art history class, with sixteen students, I got the word “coliseum” spelled sixteen different ways — and none of them correct. And that despite there being two acceptable spellings: “Coliseum” and “Colosseum.” 

At any rate, this paper, on sculptor George Segal, was a particularly — what? — unusual — example. At many a faculty party, it was read aloud in full, with professors falling on the floor and holding their guts in laughter. If you have ever been a teacher, I’m sure you can understand. 

It is important, when reading it, to pronounce all the misspellings and nonsense words. This transcription has been thoroughly copy-edited and proofread. Every typo and solecism is original to the student. 

GEORGE SEGAL

It all started as a painter. George Segal, an artist fasinated by the relationships between form and space, especially with negative space. Most of Segals education was centered around painting, in fact, while persuading a life as a chicken farmer, Segal continued his education in art. In one of the xerxed photos youll notice a scene of an artists studio. In the background are some of George Segals paintings. His interest in space and form are obvious in these paintings, and are expressed vividly.

After twenty years of painting Segal felt the canvas was too confining and explored other options. However he wanted to maintain his interest in form and shape. He discovered sculppture and felt great satisfaction with this. He said Sculpture deals with basic forms. … All basic forms exists as volumes. … Volumes penetrate each other and in this way are no longer single formations. Through penetration, space is created in its entirety. Every portion of space results from it. Basic forms are positive space volumes; negative space is created through the opposition of these positiv space volumes. Positive space is life-fulfilled — negative space is force impelled. Both exist simultaneously — both conceivable with each other. Its only the simultaneous existence of positive and negative space that creates the plastic unity. Segal realized he could free the image from the canvas by emphasizing it, however he was restricted the use of color as he used in painting. He began his career in sculpture with chicken wire and wood, and is now using bandages soaked in plaster and molding it over the models. He realized that he felt dissatisfaction with the modes of painting, and that he couldnt express the quality of his own feelings and emotions.

Segals subjects for his sculpture are common, every day subjects. Life situations that tend to be ignored or forgotton. Hes sculpted a woman putting on her shoe to carpenters working an average day. He almost always have a messages or reasons behind his subject matters. The discovery of his powerful sculptures came about quite accidental. Segal was showing his last exhibits at the Hansa Gallery in 1959, and wanted to convey how painted figures aspired to a third dimension and the illusion of space was missing. He tried to acheive this idea by placing three dimensional figures stepping out of his paintings which were hung low. The rough, and loosely drawn paintings corresponded with his sculptures that were also very rough. This is when the impact of the sculptures hit the public. This became the basic principal for all of the rest of Segals sculptures. A scupture gains definition by its relationship to another consciously presenting itself. This is definitely a rule that Segal continues to use.

Segals sculptures didnt appeal to everyone. In fact it was art that some people found hard to swallow. Some criticism included that the figures only confirmed an impression of a knotty conflict between freedom and timitation that looks to physical means only for a solution. The sculptures were found to be grotesque and dull. This put Segal on shifting ground. Segal felt his sculptures had a certain realism to them, and it allowed for free expression. He proceeded with his creations in scupture. Continuing with plaster he explored the possiabilities with this media. He soon began to practice putting the wet plasrer bandages on live models to get his human forms. This was frowned upon by the public because it was not free-hand. In the nineteenth century Rodin experienced a similar dilemma with his sculpture of a ballerina wearing a real tu-tu. But the awesome perfection of this effect couldnt be ignored, aside with the originality involved. Segal took up for himself by replying that its impossiable to have a human model pose in any other way than realistically when sitting in wet plaster. He goes on to expain that people have attitudes locked up in their bidies and arent aware of this. A person may reveal nothing of himself and then, suddenly one movement is made in the wet bandages and that movement contains a whole biography. Segal tries to capture the slightest gesture in order to show the imperfection, which he considers to be beautiful. Therefore his sculptures take on more realism and more emotions than if he had molded them by hand.

Segal claims to count heavily on the human ability to spot a metaphor, the urge to read poetry into things is universal. he has a lot to say and his scuptures have a dramatic way of expressing it. He arranges his figures as if there actors on a stage. They are placed as if we were as the audience, looking in through a window. This allows for the on-looker to feel free expression as to what is going on through the window.

Abstract Expressionsim is considered hot, serious, committed and spiritually strong. Pop Art is considered to be cool, ironic , detached and materialistic. Pop Art artist were often concerned with subject matter and technique. With this in mind Segal considered himself to be a Pop artist, if he had to place himself in a category. he considered an attitude of honesty as top priority, and to him there is neither good nor bad subject mater for life is life whether your tying your shoes or working a daily job. He claims to be primarily interested in aesthetic statements and insist on the attainment of abstract forms to carry this message out. he says it opens doors of riches of everyday experiences.

Many critics agreed with Segals opinion of his art. However there were some who did not. Still others would place him in the Abstract Expressionist scene. His colorous sculptures were seen as being absrtact, and his paintings have a lot of expression to them, yet still maintaining an abstract form. The critics saw a dynamic message behind his work which is a characteristic of Abstract Expressionism.

I personally view Segals talent lying in the Environmental Happenings or Assemblages. His work has escaped the flat canvas and moved to a three dimensional scupture. Much importance is placed on the environment of his subjects. This sets a mood for the emotion. His work is a frozen happening that stimulates a feeling. Take a look at the Execution, found in the back. This is four basic figures done in basic white. Nothing extravagavt is used here, however theres a strong reaction to this scene that creates an emotion.

Its been said its impossiable to place Segal in a certain historical category on account fo the various perceptural opinions. Possiably its a mix of Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, and Environmental Happenings or Assemblages. People are different and will see things different. This is why boundaries cannot be placed on what art is. If it strikes a feeling or emotion, I consider it art, however way it is done.

In the summer of 1853, painter John Everett Millais and writer John Ruskin traveled to Brig o’Turk, a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands, with their friend Sir Henry Acland and Ruskin’s wife, Effie. The purpose was for Millais to make a portrait of the writer in the rugged landscape. 

While Acland held the canvas steady on the rocks and swatted away midges, and Millais painted al fresco, Ruskin himself took to drawing rock formations along the freshet where the painter worked. The large drawing of Gneiss, With its Weeds was the poster art for a 1993 Phoenix Art Museum exhibit, “The Art of Seeing: John Ruskin and the Victorian Eye.” I fell in love with the drawing on sight. 

It had everything I respond to: texture, detail, close observation and an attention to the world as it is that is as close to love as is possible to hold for the inanimate world. Ruskin was an astonishing draftsman and many of his drawings and watercolors are part of the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford University. I much prefer his visual art to his writing. Ruskin was probably the most important and influential art critic of the 19th Century, and I find his writing truly insightful, but I would rather crack gravel in my teeth than have to read his prose, which is the heaviest most tedious sort of Victorian fustian possible. Sentence by sentence, lightning flashes; paragraph by paragraph, he is soporific; chapter by chapter, he makes you want to point a pistol at your uvula. 

Here is a chapter opening from his Stones of Venice:

You better rehydrate after reading a paragraph like that. Best to take Ruskin in wee small doses and think him a genius. His shorter sentences can be memorable — in a good way. 

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless: peacocks and lilies, for instance.” 

And rocks. Stone carved and molded, left striated and torn by time and weather. Many of Ruskin’s drawings are of stone, or rocky outcrops.

“It is not possible to find a landscape, which if painted precisely as it is, will not make an impressive picture,” he wrote in Modern Painters. “No one knows, till he has tried, what strange beauty and subtle composition is prepared for his hand by Nature.” 

Ruskin believed that close attention paid to the things of this world reaped benefits intellectual and spiritual. That a minute inspection of a piece of turf, such as Durer painted, contained all the seeds of a spreading universe. Indeed that questing after spiritual rewards through oneiromancy, divination, crystal ball or thumps under the table, would lead away from the genuine sense of transcendence available from simply paying close attention to the here and now. 

He wrote in Modern Painters: ”The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, — all in one.” 

Hence his willingness to spend weeks on a simple drawing of an outcropping of gneiss in a watercourse clumped with weeds. 

(And weeks not paying attention to Effie, who received her attention from Millais, who also made numerous sketches of her. He painted her sitting beside a waterfall, or quietly sewing, with foxgloves tucked into her hair. He also helped Effie with her own drawings, took long walks with her in the evenings and sheltered with her under a shawl, waiting for the rain to stop. In turn, she read Dante to him. She eventually left Ruskin and, after an embarrassing annulment, married Millais. Embarrassing in that it turned out Ruskin had never consummated his marriage and was actually panicked, on his wedding night to discover that his bride had hair “down there.” His beloved Grecian marble goddesses did not. Ah, but they were stone. As for Effie and Millais: They had eight children.)

But back to that 24-by-28-inch drawing. It has stuck with me for all these years. There is something about that smooth-weathered gneiss that ticks a sympathetic spot in my psyche, purely sensuous. I can feel its surface in my imagination, its hardness and texture. The roundnesses of its protuberances. The very temperature of the stone under my fingers. 

And in my own work, I have often attempted to mimic its sense of texture and quiddity. I have photographed many a stone face. 

Actually, I have been photographing rocks for long before I saw the Ruskin drawing. Some of my earliest remaining images are of rocky landscapes, and the first show I had, almost 40 years ago, was titled, “Rock Water Green.” 

At first, when I was young and ignorant, I wanted to make stunning landscape photographs. Inspired by the work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and Paul Caponigro, I wanted to capture the sublime in black and white. 

But over time, I became much more interested in using the camera to focus, not the lens, but my attention, and more often, on details rather than grand compositions. That aspect had always been there, but now, it became predominant. 

But, because I was working in silver and chemicals, almost all of it was in black and white. The advent of digital gave me an opening to a different way of seeing — in color. Color and black-and-white are completely different things; monochrome emphasizes form and texture while color almost makes you forget the form. Shadows are the jewel of black-and-white and the bane of color — they can leave shapes impenetrably confused. It took a while to become comfortable with the added dimension and new way of seeing. (I haven’t given up black-and-white, but now use them for different purposes. I still love the range of grays from glare to inky black.)

And the new dimension changed my approach to photographing stone. At first, I sought out the garish, like these rocks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, stained with iron rust.

And I had the 20th-Century prejudice towards lining things up parallel with my picture plane. I thought of the rock faces as if they were abstract paintings. 

These are from Schoodic Point in Maine. I have always been attracted to the textures of the rocks, even when thinking of them as if they were paint on a canvas. 

But visiting the Mendenhall Glacier north of Juneau, Alaska, I found the rocks to be, not paintings, but sculptures. The shapes advanced and receded, jutted and sunk, rounded and jagged. And I found myself spending the better part of a morning making a series of images emphasizing their three-dimensionality. 

And, instead of the garish color of the rust, I delighted in the subtle blues and grays of the stones, cooler and warmer shades of the stone. 

And the texture, wrinkled or scratchy, matte or glossy, is something I don’t only see, but feel, as if on the tips of my fingers. Shelley wrote: “The great secret of morals is a going out of ourselves,” and art, even so minor a one as my gleanings on the surfaces of stone, is a form of sympathy. When I watch dance, I feel in my muscles the twisting of the dancer’s legs. When I hear the swelling of strings in Brahms, I feel it in my chest. When I see the colors in a Monet waterlily, I recognize the world I inhabit. It is not enough to see or hear the art as something separate from oneself; one must not merely recognize oneself in the art, but rather one must feel the unity.  

This rock I photograph is me. I don’t mean that in any vague New-Age way, but in the real sense that the shapes and colors we share are the stuff of my own realization of myself as part of the cosmos. 

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see.”

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This is the 600th blog entry I’ve written since retiring eight years ago from the writing job I held for 25 years. But as I’ve said many times, a real writer never retires, he just stops getting paid for it. 

During my career, I wrote over 2.5 million words. Since then, I’ve added another million. If you are born a writer, you simply can’t help it. 

(In addition, since 2015, I’ve written a monthly essay for the website of The Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., a continuation of the many salon lectures I gave there for years.)

And even when I write an e-mail to friends or family — the kind of note that for most people contains a short sentence, a quick “LOL” and an emoji — I am more likely to write what looks like an old-fashioned missive, the kind that used to come in a stamped envelope and delivered by a paid government worker. An e-mail from me will take a while to read through.They are sent not merely to convey information, but to be read. They have been written, not just jotted down. 

Over the eight years of blogifying, I’ve covered a great many topics. Many on art and art history — I was an art critic, after all — many on history and geography, a trove of travel pieces, a few frustrated political musings and a hesitant offering of oddball short stories (if you can call them by that name.) 

People say, “Write what you know,” but most real writers, myself included, write to find out what I know. The writing is, itself, the thinking. Any mis-steps get fished out in the re-writing. 

Ah, words. I love words. I love sentences, paragraphs, chapters. Although I wrote for a newspaper, where short, simple sentences are preferred, I often tested the patience of my editors as I proved my affection for words by using obscure and forgotten words and by using them often in long congregations. 

“I love long sentences. I’m tired of all the short ones. Hemingway can keep them. Newspapers can urge them. Twitter can mandate them. To hell with them.

“My ideal can be found in the long serpentine railways of words shunted hither and thither over dependent clauses, parenthetical remarks, explanatory discursions and descriptive ambiguities; sentences such as those found in the word-rich 18th century publishing world of Fielding, Sterne, Addison, Steele, or Boswell, and perhaps most gratifyingly in the grand, gravid, orotund sentences of Edward Gibbon, whose work I turn to not so much for information about the grandeur that was Rome, but for the pure sensuous pleasure to be had from those accretive tunes built from the pile of ideas and imagery (to say nothing of ironic asides), and peppered liberally with the notations of colons, semicolons, dashes and inverted commas.”

The love of words fuels a fascination with paronomasia. I make up words, play with them, coin spoonerisms and mondegreens and pepper my everyday speech with them. As music critic, I reviewed sympathy orchestras. Sometimes I have trouble trying to mirimba a name. On my shopping list I may need dishlicking washwood. 

I often give my culinary creations names such as Chicken Motocross, Mentil Soup, Ratatootattie, or  — one I borrowed from my brother — Mock Hawaiian Chile. 

When my wife came home from work, I usually asked “How did your Italian?” (“How did your day go?”)

When asked for my astrological sign, I say, “I’m a Copernicus.” My late wife was a Virago. And I’m pretty sure our Orange Bunker Boy was born under the sign of Feces. I call him a would-be Moose-a-loony.

I try to keep unfashionable words in currency. On long car trips with granddaughters, we didn’t count cows, we counted kine. I tend to refer to the girls as the wee bairns, or the kidlings. 

I have no truck with simplifying the language; I will not brook dumbification. The more words we use, the better, and the better inflected those words will be. As we lose words, the slight difference in emphasis and meaning is lost, and a simple word then has to do extra duty to encompass ideas and things that are better understood as different. 

Every word has a dictionary definition, but that definition is little but the skeleton on which the meat and muscle is hung onto. Each word has a nimbus of meaning and affect around it, which is learned by its speakers and readers through long acquaintance. You can always tell when someone has snuffled through a thesaurus, because the fancy word they choose has been stripped of its nimbus, or has an aura that is the wrong color for the spot in which it is placed. In other words, such a writer doesn’t really know the word that has been chosen. The Webster version is only a fuzzy black-and-white photo, not the real thing. 

I have written before how sometimes, instead of doing a crossword puzzle or rearranging my sock drawer, I will make lists of words. Each has a flavor and reading such lists is like perusing a restaurant menu and imagining the aroma and flavor of each offering. It is a physical pleasure, like the major or minor chords of a symphony. Here is a brassy word, there the pungency of an oboe, and over there, the sweet melancholy of a solo cello. 

I think all writers must have something of the same feel for the roundness, spikiness, warmth, dryness or wetness of words. And the way they connect to make new roundnesses, coolnesses, stinks or arousals in sentences. 

Yes, there are some writers — and I can’t pooh-pooh them — who use words in a blandly utilitarian way. Stephen King, for instance, is a great storyteller. He can force you by a kind of sorcery to turn pages. But on a word-by-word level, his writing is flavorless, almost journalistic. I suspect this is a quality he actually aspires to — to make the language so transparent as to be unobservable. I have to admit there are virtues in this, also. But not for me. 

I want a five-course meal of my words. 

Language can take either of two paths: prose or poetry. The first invests its faith in language as a descriptor of systems. It reaches its nadir in philosophy. It makes little difference if it is Plato or Foucault; philosophy — especially the modern sort — is essentially a branch of philology. It seeks to deconstruct the language, as if understanding the words we use will tell us anything about the world we live in. It tells us only about the language we use. Language is a parallel universe to the one we inhabit, with its own rules and grammar, different from the rules and grammar of the real world. 

This has been a constant theme in my own writing. When we say, “A whale is not a fish,” or “A tomato is a fruit, not a vegetable,” we are talking about language only, not about whales or tomatoes. But beyond the language we use to communicate our understanding of the world, no matter how vast our vocabulary, the world itself is infinitely larger, more complex, diverse, chaotic and unsystematic, not to be comprehensively understood by mere mortal. 

And I should clarify, by language, I mean any organized system of thought or communication. Math is just language by other means. When I use the term “language” here, I mean what the Greeks called “logos” — not simply words, or grammar, syntax or semantics, but any humanly communicated sense of the order of the cosmos. Not one system can encompass it all. 

Consider Zeno’s paradox: That in a race between Achilles and a tortoise, if you give the tortoise a headstart, no matter how little, Achilles can never catch up. Before he does, he has to go halfway, and so is still behind the tortoise, and before he goes the remaining distance he must go again halfway. Thus he can never catch up. The paradox is purely in the forms of logic, not in the reality. We all know Achilles will catch up in only a few strides. But the system — the logic, or the words — tells us he cannot. Do not trust the words, at least not by themselves, without empirical evidence to back them up. 

All systems of thought, whether religious, political or scientific, ultimately break down when faced with the weedy complexity of existence.

And so, a good deal of what we all argue about is simply the words we choose to use, not the reality. We argue over terminology. Conservative, liberal? Is abortion murder? These depends entirely on your definitions. 

Poetry, on the other hand — and I’m using the word in its broadest and metaphorical sense — is interested in the things of this world. Yes, it may use words, and use them quite inventively, but its goal is to reconnect us with our own lives. It lives, not in a world of isms, but in one of mud, tofu, children, bunions, clouds and red wheelbarrows. This is the nimbus of which I speak. 

It is ultimately our connection with our own lives that matters, with the things of this world, with the people of our lives that should concern us. It is what provides that nimbus of inexactitude that gives resonance to the words. 

In the world of classical music, someone who tickles the ivories tends to be considered either a pianist or a musician. Musicians tend to play Bach and Beethoven; pianists rather favor Chopin and Liszt. 

Brendel

Of course, this is not a simple dichotomy; it is a spectrum. But it helps to understand the difference between, say Vladimir Horowitz and Alfred Brendel. 

The Brendel side sees the “text” as sacred and attempts to provide a sort of Platonic or idealized performance of the music. The Horowitz camp, instead, sees the music as a canvas on which to display the joys of piano playing and the possibilities afforded by the 88-key machine. 

The one sounds studied, the other sounds spontaneous.

Perhaps my bias shows. I tend to downplay the very laudable talents of a Brendel, because I see it as a kind of embalming, or a making of a museum exhibit. I have always been more taken with pianists who bring themselves to the score, to see the score not as an end, but as a beginning, as if it were a photographer’s negative that can be printed in many contrasts and tones. Not ideal forms, but Heraclitan flow.

Paderewski

The latter parts of the 19th century and the beginning of the next were the heyday of the pianist as star. It was the time of Paderewski and de Pachmann, who gave very personal performances of their programs. 

But somewhere between the world wars, there emerged praise of piano players who were notable “as musicians” rather than as pianists. It was praise heaped on such notables as Josef Hofmann and Artur Schnabel. The parallel might be thought of as journalism, where the actual reporter disappears from his story and only the facts remain. 

(James Joyce famously once said that an artist should remain “invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.”)

And so, for Brendel (sorry for picking on so august a man), the score is something to be studied, balanced and weighed, finding tempo ratios to emphasize the unity of the piece in question, to make sure it all coheres as a whole, from initial downbeat to final chord. To make such a case often requires the pianist to avoid making too much of details here or there, to subsume all into the integrity of the whole.

de Pachmann

While for the pianist, as a class, the details are what make the pieces interesting. If you have to lose something of a long view, you gain immeasurably in the emotional communication of the piece. 

(The distinction between emphasizing the whole against emphasizing the detail was described by famous art history Heinrich Wölfflin as one of the defining distinctions between what he called “classical” art and the “Baroque,” or, more popularly, romanticism.)

 Pendulums swing back and forth, and the age of keyboard musicians such as Murray Perahia, Emanuel Ax, Olga Kern, Marc-Andre Hamelin, András Schiff and Nelson Freire is giving way to a new, more overtly expressive group of pianists as ivory ticklers, less concerned with hitting their marks than with connecting with their audiences on a primal level. 

I have brought up all this backstory to express my love for the music of four younger pianists — “younger” being a relative term: These are each in their 40s or 50s. But pianists tend to reach their expressive prime not in their salad days but in their riper age. A few, such as Arthur Rubinstein or Mieczysław Horszowski kept getting better into their 90s. 

Lisitsa/Beethoven

Valentina Lisitsa

The impetus for this is a new series of YouTube videos by Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa, now 46, in which she has begun recording all 32 Beethoven sonatas. She posts new videos one at a time as she goes through the canon chronologically. 

Her playing is brilliant but utterly untraditional. Fast movements are faster than a speeding bullet; slow movements can be dirge-tempo. Always her tempi are shifting, speeding up and slowing down, pauses added to phrases and dynamics ratcheting up and down, even within a two-note phrase. This is playing not about unity but about contrast and diversity. This is a Beethoven that is alive and having a grand time.

Lisitsa is a peculiar case in the history of virtuosi. She did not come up through the piano-competition mill, but by posting performances on YouTube and gaining a loyal fan base. 

This put off some fogey critics — especially those who rather preferred a piano playing wearing tails and white tie — but excited a generation of real fans. 

On an upright

Her first recordings were mostly of the music of Franz Liszt and Rachmaninoff — big Romantic pieces in which she could show off her blazing technique. But, unlike some other note-grinders, she didn’t simply hit the right notes in the right order, but instead made exciting music. 

Liszt himself knew how to make drama of his concerts, with his long hair and dashing attitude. Lisitsa gave us Liszt as theater. We have perhaps too often forgotten that a concert is an entertainment, that it has an audience. (Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2)

You watch Lisitsa’s face as she plays and it is clear she is having fun; the music gives her — and us — genuine pleasure. (La Campanella) She is not giving us a pianistic lecture in music history, but giving us a reason to enjoy life. 

Which is why her new Beethoven series is so exciting. (Rondo from the Waldstein sonata) This is Beethoven as intoxicating. As I write this, her series has reached the first six sonatas. They sizzle as she plays. There is ample pedal — something recent pianists have considered to be rather a deplorable sin, as if they were musical Puritans.

You can find scores of her performances on YouTube, including a barn-burning version of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3, Op. 2 No. 3. 

Grimaud

But Lisitsa isn’t the only great pianist bringing new fire to classical music. Hélène Grimaud is just as astonishing. D.T. Max in The New Yorker wrote, “Grimaud doesn’t sound like most pianists: She is a rubato artist, a reinventor of phrasings, a taker of chances.”  

Her performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne is furious and exciting. Purists complain that Busoni is “kein Bach,” but it is great music. 

It is the taking of chances, of seeing familiar ground in new ways that make my favorite pianists so moving. For them, classical music is not old, it is as present as today’s performance. 

These pianists are virtuosi, but more than that. They find the meaning in the music, what the music is really about, and how it says that music to its audience. 

My third nominee is the Russian pianist Mikhail Pletnev. He also makes the music his own. He has technique to burn — listen to the Schulz-Evler transcription of the Blue Danube — but he can also turn out a Scarlatti sonata better than anyone since Horowitz, although, like the older pianist, he can sometimes rewrite the music, adding octaves or, in one case, his own coda. 

His recordings of the five Beethoven concertos is a revelation. 

Denk

And finally, I have heard Jeremy Denk many times live, none more overwhelming than his program at the Zankel Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in 2008, when he played, back-to-back, Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata and Charles Ives’ Concord Sonata — the two thorniest and most monumental pieces in the repertoire, each 45-minutes long. Then, for encore, he reprised the “Hawthorne” movement from the Ives. It was a memorable night of knuckle-busting. (Alcotts movement from the Concord Sonata). 

Denk has a sense of humor, which shows up in his blog, “Think Denk,” but also in his recitals. I heard him perform Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations, which he explained as, at least partly, comic, and his performance was both beautiful and witty.

He also performs the piano music of György Ligeti, which he plays as fluently as if it were Mozart and makes a persuasive case for it. (Etude: “Disorder.”)

“There’s something I like about music that’s on the edge of destroying itself,” he has said. 

There are others in the younger generation that have also taken up the cause for more fluid, flexible and exciting performance. But these four are the ones I know best and admire the most. Seek them out.

I first became interested in Monet’s water lilies when I was teaching black-and-white photography in Virginia, over 40 years ago. Of course, I had always loved the paintings; I grew up with his long panel at the Museum of Modern Art, which was a kind of second home as a teenager. 

But while I loved them, I hadn’t really thought about them. 

Because the photo lab where I taught back then was set up entirely for black-and-white, I thought in black-and-white. Seeing that way is different from seeing in color. A bright red might grab your eye in a scene you look at, but in the monochrome print you make, it is the same gray as a green or a blue. So, you learn to see in lights and darks, highlights and shadows. The world becomes translated to patches of charcoal and blasts of ivory. 

Such seeing — and thinking — leads to seeing your frame as a kind of jigsaw puzzle of those highlights and shadows, and you use them to make designs. Patterns. It is what is taught as “composition.” Rule of thirds; foreground-background. The frame edge becomes a kind of corral fence inside of which you deploy the monochrome elements of your design. 

But, looking at Monet’s nymphéas, I realized there was very little careful design, the way I was taught to see. Especially in the long ribbon-like murals of water lilies. I wondered if there were a way to make a successful black-and-white version of them. 

Back then, there was no digital photography; it was all Tri-X, Dektol and Kodabromide. I couldn’t easily drain an image of a Monet painting of its color to see what it looked like in black-and-white. But there were old art books that had black-and-white illustrations, and I found a few of those books and attempted to study them. There didn’t seem to be any good reason to look at such a painting; without the color, the image was vague, inchoate and pointless. 

At first, I put it all down to poor reproduction. Perhaps if I made my own photographs. So I dragged out my 4-by-5-inch field camera and tripod and drove down to Mackay Island National Wildlife Refuge on Back Bay, at the north end of the Outer Banks, where there was a rich crop of Nymphaeaceae (the scientific name of the water lily family, a name richer in vowels than the plant is in chlorophyll). 

Now, I had photographed water lilies before. I made some images I was happy with at Brookgreen Gardens in South Carolina. But there, I was photographing individual water lilies, or small pairs or trios, which allow for easy disposition into designs. Or I could use a single blossom as a point of focus.

What I was now interested in was the mass of lily pads floating on a larger body of water, a deracinated version of Monet’s luscious color images. Was there something of value that could be extracted from the subject? 

It isn’t as though Monet has not had imitators. Since his first water lilies in the 1860s, there have been knock-offs. The 20th century is especially full of epigones. Most all have managed to attempt some variation not on water lilies, per se, but variations on Monet’s take on water lilies. 

They’ve been done in water colors

In thick impasto

in pen and ink

colored pencil

in silk screen or other print forms

and my favorite: wallpaper

Even Pop Artist Roy Lichtenstein has had his go at the subject

The impact of Monet’s flurry of flowers has been enormous. I got on the queue and tried my luck. 

I carried my bulky view camera out to the wildlife refuge and set it up looking down on a clutch of lily pads and tried to find a way to frame them that made sense. 

The initial problem was how to make a black-and-white design with so chaotic a subject matter. Should I angle the camera out to exaggerate the near-far relationship? Should I attempt the “overall” design and find them roughly equal size in the frame?

Should I use massed pads as individual subjects and pair groups rather than individual pads?

Or use clear sections of water as negative space?

Should I get close and single out an individual? I could put bits of others agains the frame edge to irregularize the rectangle.

I tried many different approaches. 

The results look best shown as 20”-24” prints, large for photographs — almost the size of paintings. (The physicality of prints, the rich black of the silver image, and the impact of the size is impossible to show on a digital screen. You have to imagine.)

After all this, what was my conclusion? Well, I never really came to one. My photographs were interesting enough, but I’m not sure they told me that much about Monet’s sense of design. 

That had to wait until I managed to visit Monet’s gardens at Giverny, some 30 miles northwest of Paris. I have now been there four times, and each time attempting to make images. The first visit, I attempted to make black and white images, primarily. The second, I gave in completely to color and by the third visit, I had found my own way into making images of this famous garden. 

But the water lilies were still an issue. They really don’t make that interesting a photograph. They are largely a dull green against a greenish, brownish water. 

A few years before, I had made a photograph of water lilies in a pond in Mississippi that I later noticed looked very like vintage photographs made at Monet’s water garden, where the water and its plants was just one element in an otherwise traditional landscape design. 

Monet, however, was not making traditional landscapes. He was interested in something completely other. On a flat canvas, he was seeing into layers of distances: the water surface, the water underneath the surface and the reflection in the water of the sky, the clouds, and the trees surrounding the pond. 

This, then, became my intent as I came back to Giverny and photographed once again the lily pond that Monet had created. 

I found I could recreate a passable Monet imitation, but I’m not happy with doing that. 

There were images that looked under the surface to find the tangle of roots underneath and bits of tree reflection and sky on the mirror interface of the water.

I made wider and wider images, like the cinemascope panels made by the painter.

And I found ways to mix the water lilies with the weeping willows.

But this was all pastiche. I enjoyed them, but they weren’t me. They were apprentice lessons. Do it his way first and then wander off on your own.

My own inclination is to find other ways of “complexifying” an image. I like a good tangle, I enjoy looking through one tangle at another. 

So, I sought to mix the water lilies of Giverny with the plants, reflections and trees to show, not the mere patterns of lily pads

which would never approximate Monet’s luxurious colors, but rather to see what I could find for myself in the garden. Nature is prolific and extravagant, it seeks to fill the world in a green horror vacui.   

I love seeing vegetable growth, the vines, the twigs, leaves, panicles, stalks and roots. And the gardens at Giverny overflow with sprouting, stretching and swelling. 

In my several visits to Giverny, I have amassed a couple of thousand photographs. Many are duplicates or in poor focus, but there must be at least 1500 images that are printable and showable. Most are of the upper garden and the flowers there, not the lower garden with the water lilies. 

But walking through Monet’s vision in the fall is a kind a paradise. I think of Milton’s Eve or Marvell’s “Garden,” or Wordsworth’s daffodils. A world alive; a world happy and bright; a world we can sometimes enter. 

 

Click on any image to enlarge

On the surface, water lilies would seem to be an unpromising subject for painting. Except for their flowers, there is little color to them. Their shapes are mostly just repetitive ovals on the surface of the water. Unlike a rose or a tulip, there is little structure to be seen — a pad floating on the water, a bloom — usually plain white — in an open space here or there. 

But Claude Monet managed to turn them into an icon of both Impressionism and Modernism. The water lily is as identified with Monet as sunflowers are with Van Gogh or soup cans with Warhol. And since then, a gazillion artists after him have imitated his work. 

Like photographer Edward Weston and his peppers, no one before him thought it worth their attention; after him, hordes of artists and Sunday painters have taken their crack at it. An artist sees something nobody notices, and suddenly, everyone can see them. 

The problem is, very like Weston and his peppers, his epigones don’t merely see water lilies, but some reflection in their minds of having remembered Monet’s water lilies. The paintings reshape reality. 

In some ways, Monet actually made it harder to see the real water lilies. 

What is missed is that Monet wasn’t painting water lilies in his some 250 canvases on the subject. They are merely pretext. When he first began painting them, he wanted to paint what he saw. Monet was the great transcriber. As Cezanne said, “He is only an eye; but what an eye.” 

He could see nuance of color and was able to paint not what he knew but what activated his retina — that is, not a house or a peony, but whites, reds and blues, shaded from highlight to shadow. When put down on canvas, those hues and tones could be seen as a house or peony, but it was never the object itself that he attempted to capture, but the visual impression of them. 

“Perhaps my originality boils down to being a hypersensitive receptor,” he said, “and the expedience of a shorthand by means of which I project on a canvas, as if on a screen, impressions registered on my retina.”

But at some point as he turned into the grand old man of Impressionism, the outer world ceased to be of much importance and became merely the armature for his work, the reason for wiping across his canvas his flake white, vermilion, madder, cobalt blue and emerald green.

In a letter, he wrote, “The subject doesn’t matter!”

In the earlier work, there is usually a subject; in the later work, he developed a sort of “overall” design, almost like wallpaper. He prefigured the world of such later painters as Jackson Pollock. Indeed, it was really only after the Abstract Impressionists that common audiences could understand what was going on in Monet’s late water lilies. 

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

They were, to paraphrase Pollock, not water lilies at all, they were paintings. 

The best and most memorable of them are the mural-size nymphéas. Any museum in the world worth its salt has one of these: MoMA, the Carnegie, Chicago, etc. They tend to be huge, wide, paintings, almost ribbons of paint stretched 10-, 15-, or 20-feet wide as grand Cinemascope wide-screen visions. And where, in the earlier paintings, the water lilies were often the foreground to a more conventional landscape, backgrounded with trees and a shoreline, the later ones eliminate the horizon and become sheets of color. 

Museum of Modern Art, NY

In those museums, a single Nymphéas (as he called them) could eat up an entire gallery wall. 

But the grandaddy of them all are the eight paintings mounted in two oval rooms of the Orangerie in Paris. If you lined them up end to end, they would be longer than a football field. The two rooms are end-to-end, making a floorplan in the shape of an “infinity” symbol. Along the longer sides, panels are some 42-feet long and 6-feet high, and the pointy end of the football shaped rooms, the paintings are 20-feet long. Between each pair of panels is an entrance. The ceiling is a kind of skylight, flooding the paintings with natural light. The walls are white. 

The whole is one of the wonders of the art world. Critic André Masson famously called the installation the “Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” 

The whole thing came together because of time and place — a confluence of the World War and the room in which to hang the pictures. 


Even 30 years before the Orangerie finally opened, Monet had in mind the idea. “One imagines a circular room, the walls of which, above the baseboard, would be entirely filled by water dotted with these plants to the very horizon, walls of a transparency by turns toned green and mauve, the still water’s calm and the silence reflecting the opened blossoms; the tones are vague, lovingly nuanced, as delicate as a dream.” 

He was thinking primarily of a private patron decorating his home. 

Some years later, he was still mulling the project. In a 1905 article in the Gazette des Beaux Arts, he was quoted, “At one point I was visited by the temptation to use the theme of nymphéas for a decoration. Carried the length of the walls, enveloping the entire interior with its unity.”

Still, nothing came of the idea. It sat in the back of the painter’s mind for another decade. Then came the war. The Western Front and the trenches of World War 1 were as close as 35 miles from Monet’s home in Giverny. At times, he could hear the artillery fire. In 1914, his wife had recently died, and so had his elder son. The younger son and his step-son had joined the army. Monet was devastated and anxious. Many of the inhabitants of Giverny fled to safety but Monet remained: “If those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.” He saw, as an old man, his painting as his patriotic contribution.

{French filmmaker and playwright Sacha Guitry captured silent film of Monet painting in his garden in 1914.) 

At the end of the war, the painter formed an idea for a memorial, a gift to the nation commemorating both the victory and the loss of life. He proposed this to his longtime friend, now prime minister of France, Georges Clemenceau, two large panels, one of flowers to mark the victory and the other of weeping willows as a memorial to those who died. (Willows were a common symbol of mourning in the 19th century.) 

The day after the Armistice in 1918, Monet wrote to Clemenceau: “I am on the verge of finishing two decorative panels which I want to sign on Victory day, and am writing to ask you if they could be offered to the State with you acting as intermediary.”

The prime minister liked the idea, but suggested a larger series of a dozen panels. It grew to 19 panels at one point, before winding up with the eight we see today at the Orangerie. Monet fussed and painted, and fussed and destroyed paintings he was unsatisfied with, and fussed over where they might be displayed. Several venues came up and were dismissed, for various reasons. 

Ultimately, two rooms at the Orangerie at the far end of the Tuileries gardens in Paris, near the Place de la Concorde were chosen and prepared. It had been built in 1852 by Napoleon III as a place to house citrus trees.

 Unfortunately, Monet never got to see the paintings in place. He died  in December, 1926, and the water lilies at the Orangerie were opened to the public May 17, 1927. 

Orangerie

At the time, both Monet and Clemenceau were seen by the post-war generation as old-hat, a holdover from a previous century and for the next 40 years, they were occasionally walled over to allow the showing of newer art. But after the next great war and with the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Monet was recognized not so much as a holdover, but as a prophet of the coming abstraction.

Musee Marmottan, Paris

During his life, Monet was enormously popular and became rich — something very few artists, even great and now-famous artists failed to achieve — but his water lilies were not always understood. For a show of water lily paintings in 1909, one critic wrote: “One’s first reaction to these 48 pictures is bewilderment. In most of them, objections having little to do with painting are the cause of this malaise; they have to do more with the identity of the subject and the number of duplications and with the at first seemingly fragmentary aspect of these pictures. The paintings manifest an authority and independence, an egocentric quality that is offensive to our vanity and humbling to to our pride. M. Claude Monet is interested in pleasing only himself.”

Nelson Atkins Musuem, Texas

But at least one critic seems to have grasped something essential about the paintings. They are not designs carefully laid out inside a frame, with horizon lines and identifiable primary subjects. French critic Roger Marx noticed that same year, “The painter deliberately broke away from the teachings of Western tradition by not seeding pyramidal lines or a single point of focus. The nature of what is fixed, immutable, appears to him to contradict the very essence of fluidity; he wants attention diffused and scattered everywhere. He considers himself free to place the small gardens of his archipelago wherever he pleases: to the right, to the left at the top of at the bottom of his canvas.”

Several Impressionist painters were influenced by Japanese prints and Chinese art at the time. Monet, like Van Gogh, even copied some of them in oil paint. He built a bridge in his water garden at Giverny in the style of a Japanese bridge on a Hokusai print. He was photographed on it with Clemenceau.

But the influence on the large water lilies has not always been mentioned.

One of the salient characteristics of Chinese landscape painting is that one doesn’t just stand back and take in the whole as a coherent design, but rather, might follow a path the artist has laid out, along a river or up a mountain, finally coming to rest at a little halfway house for contemplation.

  Many such paintings are not even possible to view in toto, since they are scrolls that must be slowly unwrapped and rerolled as you follow a journey from one end to the other. The details along the way are to be lingered over. In such work, there is no controlling or overarching composition or design. Only the detail.

And in Monet’s earlier paintings, there are horizons, rivers, trees, umbrellas, flowers — something to make a shape within the shape of the canvas, a single pattern that one can step back and take in at a single bite.

But when you have a 42-foot long panel that is 7 times longer than it is high, and in a room too narrow to step back to take it all in at once, you are forced to view the work as if it were a scroll, and enjoy detail after detail as you walk along the painting’s length. 

And so, you step from detail to detail in the Orangerie, relishing the daub of yellow and the streak of blue and, if you are in the receptive mood, you let go anxiety and discontent and let the water and floating lily pads calm you into a restful and meditative state. 

Orangerie detail

Or, as Monet put it, “it would attain the illusion of a whole without end, of a watery surface without horizon and without banks; nerves overstrained by work would be relaxed there, following the restful example of the still waters, and to whomsoever [visited], it would offer an asylum of peaceful meditation at the center of a flowery aquarium.”

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