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I’ve spent my whole life soaking up Western culture, with a good dose from the East as well, and now that I am 72, I am wondering if it was all worth it. 

To what end all this reading, all this music and art, all this delving into history, psychology, science — this collection I have amassed of Ovid, Livy, Homer, Hesiod and the rest, the reading of modern novels I began in high school, the vast commonplace book of my brain, the syncretization of all national arts and philosophies? I have only a decreasing fraction of my time on the planet remaining to me, and when it is reduced to zero, all this accumulation of cultural clutter will evaporate. Poof. Gone. 

I see my granddaughters at the beginning of their accumulations, making all the same mistakes I made (well, not all of them, and some that are entirely original to them), and I know that if I have acquired any knowledge — I hesitate to call it wisdom, for really, it is only the giant ball of string I have collected through living — it can not save them an ounce or tittle of the troubles they will have to pass through. 

There are people who I admire with infinite appreciation who have avoided all this “high culture” and have contributed meaningfully to our lives. The teachers, nurses, chaplains — to say nothing of the mothers and the uncles and aunts — who have, through compassion and the service they have given to the benefit of others, are so much more directly worthy of praise. Even so simple a job as waiter seems to me now a more meaningful metier than my own life of page-turning and thought-gathering. 

William Yeats, in his A Vision, postulates two conflicting sensibilities for humans, which he names the “primary” and “antithetical.” All of us, he says, are composed of bits of each, in different ratios. The Primary sensibility understands the here and now, the useful, the social; the Antithetical comprehends the mythic, poetic, the psychological, the parts of our psyche that might be called the “hard wiring.” The ur-profession of the Primary is nurse; that of the Antithetical is the poet. 

Yeats measures the ratios of these two urges in the symbol of the phases of the moon and counts 28 tinctures — and that’s the word he uses — with a growing proportion of Antithetical as the moon waxes, and a decreasing proportion with the waning. No one, he says, is either all Antithetical or all Primary, but always an intermixture. 

 He goes on to apply this metaphor not only to psychology, but to history and I’m afraid he has lost me there. Yeats can get a little wacky at times. But I am looking for a purpose to my own Antithetical inclinations. Can this lifetime of lucubration have any wider value? Can I justify the ways of me to humankind? 

I am reading George Orwell’s “Inside the Whale,” in which he very thoughtfully takes to task Henry Miller, not for his obscenity or for his ability as a writer, which he admires, but for his quietism, Miller’s refusal to consider the political consequences of the times. Orwell, of course, was famously committed, having gone so far as to fight in the front lines of the Spanish civil war, and been shot in the throat for his efforts. 

Miller, on the other hand, is, in Orwell’s words, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive accepter of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” He is, in another passage, a Nero fiddling while Rome burns, although unlike other such fiddlers, Miller does so while facing the flames, not denying them. Miller’s ultimate stance is “a sort of mystical acceptance of the thing-as-it-is.” 

Orwell was writing in 1940, when “To say ‘I accept’ in an age like our own is to say that you accept concentration camps, rubber truncheons, Hitler, Stalin, bombs, aeroplanes, tinned food, machine guns, putches, purges, slogans, Badaux belts, gas masks, submarines, spies, provocateurs, press-censorship, secret prisons, aspirins, Hollywood films and political murders. Not only those things of course, but those things among others.”

Miller, he says, would hardly disagree with him. 

And, while I do not share Miller’s anarchism, I, too, have come to feel the individual has almost no effect on the historical machinations of his age, and that the recognition that little can be done means that the best approach is to let the universe move on its way and to accept whatever is dished out, including the annihilation of the self, which is death. Not so much that whatever is is good, but rather, that whatever is, is. What Joseph Campbell calls “the willing participation in the sorrows of the world.”

It is what Krishna counsels Arjuna to do in the Bhagavad Gita section of the Mahabharata, before the battle of Kurukshetra. Arjuna is to signal the beginning of the fighting, but stops short, considering the bloodshed and the misery that will ensue, including the slaughter of his own relatives. Krishna, disguised as his charioteer then more or less stops time, like Joshua halting the sun, in order to give the warrior a lesson in Dharma. You must do what you must do, he says in essence; the world will continue anyway. 

And so, I value those who with practical efficiency ameliorate the suffering. Surely, they are willingly participating in the sorrows of the world, and doing their best to lessen that suffering. 

But there are those of us who have other functions in the world. Scientists, for instance, aim to understand the world. Their work may be useful latterly, but their primary aim is understanding what is not known. Pure science precedes applied science. We value the work of pure science for what it tells us about the universe; the knowledge gained may — or may not — lead to practical application. 

There are, however, other paths of study that further the human endeavor, and these, too, may or may not ultimately be helpful. 

Science is the test we give to the objective world; art is the test we give to everything else. If we want to understand what happens inside another’s brain, we look to a neuroscientist; if we want to understand what happens in another’s mind, we read a novel. 

Each of us has a world inside us, TARDIS-like, bigger inside than outside, and that teeming interior world governs what we feel about the outer world, how we act in it, what we believe is true. It is in the arts, literary, visual, musical, physical such as dance, that we explore that interior and attempt to plumb its depths. 

And, as a pure scientist’s work can lead to an applied use, so the work of an artist, philosopher, historian, can lead not only to a better understanding of our humanity, it can have practical effects in the world. One has only to think of Harriet Beecher Stowe or so simple or ephemeral thing as the way Jean-Claude Belmondo hangs a cigarette off his lip in Breathless. 

The effects are normally less world-shaking than the shift in attitude toward race-slavery, but those effects are measured in each individual life, and how much a psyche is opened and bloomed in the world. 

Delving into that interior, one finds its mirror in the books one reads. One studies them to study the self. Such is a lifelong process of discovery and whether it has real-world uses or not, must be attempted, just as pure science must be continued. 

I began my adult career as a teacher, and after that, as a writer; but in either job, the goal was the same, to spread knowledge. I fervently hope that my efforts have been, in at least some tiny smidgeon of a way, a benefit to humanity. 

As I write this, I am conscious that all this may very well be pure rationalization, making for myself an excuse for my life. But I will offer this apologia. When I was young, I was so much more self-absorbed — as young people tend to be — but a life of reading, listening, and looking have opened my emotions to much that was little more than words, words, words when I was beginning. I have been cracked open. I have become infinitely more compassionate and more sympathetic to others than I was. I see peoples’ emotions on their faces in ways that were invisible before. The pains and joys of others have become my own. Perhaps not to any great extent, but enough to make me aware of how others must navigate their lives. 

And when my wife became ill, I became her caregiver until the end, and doing so was, with not a shred of doubt, the most meaningful thing I have done in my life. I believe I would not have been capable of such empathy, such caring and devotion, if it had not been for a life opened to all that was outside of myself, and opened by art, literature, music, dance, reading of history, philosophy, biology, physics, chemistry, and all else that would otherwise have been blank to me. 

As I watched her decline, I saw all of suffering humankind in her, and all of aspirational humankind in myself, and they were the same thing. And so, when she died, I did, too, with the exception that I am still here. But then, so is she. 

There is the echo of this in all of the books that I have ingested, all the music, with its sonic analog of emotion, all of the perennial philosophy. “Alle menschen werden brüder.” 

For most scholars, as with most scientists, a career is built specializing, knowing more and more about a smaller and smaller angle of the whole. They become tenured professors and further the knowledge of the world in meaningful particulars. I have, in contrast, attempted to know more about a wider range of things, in effect seeking a unified field theory of the humanities. The endeavor has been so far as fruitless as that of physicists, but it has been why I read Dante and Saul Bellow, study Raphael and Francis Bacon, listen to Bach and Glass, feel in my own muscles Petipa and Pina Bausch. 

Someone has to put it all together. Our outer lives are vital; we need to aid the suffering, feed the hungry, still the wars, cool the fevers. But we also have inner lives, and they need attending, also. Human beings “shall not live by bread alone.” 

If all I have said here is nothing but rationalization, a kind of weaseling out of my responsibilities in the practical world, that does negate the truth. Motives are one thing; truth is another. 

And finally, if none of this counts, if none of this weighs on the good side of the scales, I can only say: It is my nature. Learning ever more is the satisfaction of an insatiable hunger. May those I love and those who love me forgive what I have made of it. 

How did I ever become such a sobersides? An old fogey? So donnish?

My late wife used to call me “the man who can’t have fun.” But I do have fun. I have lots of it; it’s just that I get pleasure out of things most people find impenetrably dull. I find them incredibly fascinating. I watch C-Span Book TV on weekends, for instance. I read Homer and Dante, and listen to Paul Hindemith. I pine for ballet. And little makes me happier than digging into some arcane research. 

It goes way back to when I’m this kid, see. When my classmates were listening to Cousin Brucie on the AM radio and loving the Drifters or “Splish-splash, I was takin’ a bath,” I was spinning Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring on the Sears Silvertone. 

In third grade, I enjoyed diagramming sentences. Why?

 These things come to mind because I recently came across an essay written by Artsy editor Casey Lesser about how seeing Guernica when she was 15 years old changed her life and set it on its course. I had an instant reaction to her piece because when I was about the same age, I also came across the painting. 

It was in the early 1960s and I was a high-school student in New Jersey. I took the bus to Manhattan as often as I could and practically lived in the city’s museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, where I became lifelong friends with Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jackson Pollock’s Number 1A and, of course, the wall-spanning expanse of Picasso’s Guernica. 

Back then, when I would exit the elevator on the third floor of MoMA, the painting — more than 11 feet high and 25 feet wide — dominated the view to the right, on the far wall through two other galleries. It was on “permanent exhibition,” and I was confident it would always be there for me to see. Nothing is permanent in this life, and in 1981, the painting absconded to Spain. 

With its powerful and painful imagery, the painting was proof to my adolescent mind that there was a world more real and more meaningful than the suburban life I was stuck in. And like countless young “sensitive souls,” from Wilhelm Meister to Holden Caulfield, I urgently and earnestly yearned for something that cast a larger shadow on the screen. I was a little too conscious of being the hero of my own Bildungsroman. 

That early exposure to the art at MoMA, and especially Guernica, aimed me at my eventual career as an art critic. Parvis e glandibus quercus. Or, as Pope had it, “As the twig is bent, so the tree inclines.”

But this recognition also set me off to consider what other early exposures bent that twig. Of course, some of the most transformative influences were people: teachers, friends, and eventually, wives. But I am concerned here primarily with arts and books that yanked the steering wheel from my hand and sent me in new directions.

I was in high school and my new exposure to history, poetry, foreign languages, both Latin and Spanish, all kindled a growing sense that there was more to life than sitting in the living room watching Bonanza and eating Oreos. 

Many of us rebel as adolescents against the banality of our lives, and that of our parents’. Most of that rebellion is inchoate and poorly aimed, leading to teen drinking, minor car theft or simple sullenness. But in some few cases, such as mine, there was a clear alternative: For me, the life of the mind. 

Art and literature spoke of an existence that was not banal, but intense and meaningful. I began eating it up. 

For instance, theater. I had little experience of live theater until my freshman year in high school, when the class was bussed down to Princeton, N.J., to see Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the McCarter Theatre. It was the perfect introduction to the Bard; the story was clear and simple, so, while the language was baroque, we could still follow the play easily enough. 

McCarter Theatre Center

Then, the following fall, we went back to the McCarter to see O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. What crazed educator thought that a three-and-a-half hour play about a screwed up family in 1912 was a good one for high school sophomores, I don’t know. But it struck just the right note of high seriousness for my nascent psyche. I loved it. I wanted more. 

I’ve already written about my high school girlfriend, who became a professional musician, and how we used to make out on her couch while listening to Stravinsky on the phonograph. We went to countless concerts and recitals in New York and I came to love classical music. I bypassed the doo-wop: My Four Seasons were Vivaldi’s, not Frankie Valli’s. 

I took up reading contemporary literary fiction: Updike, Bellow, Pynchon. Two books especially hit the mark. I was bowled over by Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I sought epiphanies. It’s a book I still read again every few years. 

Then, I discovered Kazantzakis after watching the movie of Zorba the Greek, where I read the book and found in the novel a deeper level of Buddhist thinking, which sent me on to discover Zen via Alan Watts and poetry via Matsuo Basho. 

Each taste made me seek out more. Haiku eventually expanded into Paradise Lost — an inflation equivalent to the early seconds of the universe after the Big Bang. 

All this was heady stuff for a pimply-faced teenager, but even if only dimly understood at the time what I was reading and experiencing, I knew it was bigger and more important than my paper route or the Reader’s Digest. The desire for a richer, deeper, more profound life has been the driving force behind my inclination toward what used to be called high-brow culture.

There has been an ersatz distinction between high-brow and low-brow. But that distinction is characteristically middle-brow. There is a snobbery of the middle classes that seeks to distinguish itself from the uneducated tastes, and an aspirational striving for the status (and wealth) that seem to mark the upper classes. In this dynamic, there is an inherent self-loathing to the middle class, at least when it is self-aware. 

And no doubt my allegiance to fine art was originally spawned by this loathing of what seemed a mundane and insipid upbringing. Art told me there were more serious concerns in life, and bigger adventures. If I didn’t want to be squelched by the 9-to-5 life, hanged by the necktie and imprisoned by my own front lawn, then I would have to take on Bach, Joyce, Hokusai, Zora Neale Hurston, Laurence Sterne, Miles Davis, Correggio, Xenophon, and Philip Glass. Gobble them all up and look for even more with an incessant appetite. 

That was all a half-century ago. I have sucked up every bit of knowledge and wisdom I could find, only to discover that I knew less and less, and was more foolish than I ever knew possible. Now at 72, I no longer feel intolerant of the middle class that gave birth to me, but find it is the foundation of a society that allows me space to be an outlier. Only with the solid support of a functioning culture could I have found a means to leave it behind. Its tolerance allows me my eccentricity. I know I would have found none in Stalin’s Moscow nor Pol Pot’s Phnom Penh. 

So, I have been allowed to read what I want, see and hear what I want, and if that has led me away from the class that a-borned me, it has led me to a place where I find it hard to judge anyone. Not impossible, but difficult, knowing how little all my education and cultural exposure has taught me. Much information; little wisdom. 

But it has informed my life, made it richer, provided endless pleasure, occupied a mind that hated inactivity, and, as all great art and literature does, nurtured compassion and forgiveness, an awareness of others both locally and globally. It has been the key to let me step out of the prison of myself. 

I once wanted to change the world. Most of us did in the 1960s. We knew we could make it a better place. That has all collapsed. Now, my idealism is drained from me, my expectation for the future and future generations is quelled. I expect no better than life can serve up. There is no end, only perpetual churn and change. I cannot fix the world; it needs no fixing, it only needs accepting, faults and all. And my need for improvement turns in on myself. 

Someone once said in defense of our youthful enthusiasms that what is called maturity is made up of equal parts of cowardice and exhaustion. I once would have agreed. Exhaustion, maybe, but cowardice, no. Maturity is acceptance. “The wrastling for the world axeth a fal.” 

I still find myself bored by the simple and simple-minded, and find myself excited by the complex and the beautiful. And so, I read Tolstoy, listen to Bartok, examine the canvases of Titian and Francis Bacon, weep over the dance of Pina Bausch, and soak in the films of Tarkovsky. These may not be plebeian tastes, but they are my tastes. They satisfy. 

It is is not just the life of the mind, it is life to the mind. 

“Do not move. Let the wind speak.” 

May those I love try to forgive what I have made of it. 

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. 

 

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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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Reidsville is a small town in north-central North Carolina halfway between the city of Greensboro and the Virginia border. It was once the home of the American Tobacco Company and at the north end of downtown is a huge factory complex with a smokestack that still says “Lucky Strike” on its shaft. 

Like so many Southern towns, there is a main street where the shops are found, and a parallel street where the old factories and warehouses are located, with the railroad tracks running alongside. This pattern is repeated throughout Dixie, but is especially common in the Piedmont, which was once the industrial heart of the Southern states. 

The downtown in Reidsville is not as vibrant as it used to be. There are many empty storefronts and some of those have been filled with “antique” emporia and consignment shops. I don’t want to imply it is a dying town; in fact, it seems quite happy and busy, even though its heyday ended with the closing of the tobacco plant. 

There were also textile mills and other factories and their old buildings, now repurposed or abandoned, line the back street and railroad tracks. I find such relics irresistible. 

As I explained in the previous blog entry, I am compelled to make things — the compulsion is itself a relic of the old Protestant work ethic; I feel guilty if I am not producing something. So, as a retired writer, I still pump out blog entries, and as a former photographer, I am still driven to make images. These usually group in series; which I call “projects.” For years, I made serial images of gardens, always meant to be seen not singly, but as a cohesive group, rather like a book. I hope each image can stand on its own, but it is not designed solely for that purpose. 

In the entry previous to this one, I presented bits of a series of fruit and vegetable images, and a recent bunch of “tree nudes” — winter trees with their branches and bark naked to the weather. 

I also spent a day driving the industrial streets of Reidsville, looking for the past poking through the present. Along SE Market Street, alongside the rails, there are the shells of old warehouses and factories, textured with brick and sometimes closed off with tornado fencing. 

I have been fascinated by such places since I was a boy, loving the less visited side-streets in New York, looking at old apartment buildings and second-story residences above storefronts. There is something about the edge of decay that is beautiful. A fresh new building just seems unripe; one that has been settling for decades, even a century, has gained character.

This is something like the Japanese esthetic concept of wabi-sabi, or an appreciation of the imperfection and impermanence of things, and why a Japanese potter will often crack or warp a vessel before firing it, finding the result more beautiful than bland regularity. 

In the past, when I made photographs of old buildings, I made them in black and white, which seemed a way to emphasize form and texture, and was then the accepted presentation of “art” photography — color not making it into most museums because of its perceived impermanence (consider your old snapshots, turned magenta and faded. A museum didn’t want to pay good money for an artwork that would go south in only a few years). 

Black and white was what all the photographers I admired used (with a few exceptions). And if I looked at one of Walker Evans photographs for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s, I found beyond the images of poverty, a way of making beauty out of decaying architecture. 

One of the few classic artworks I actually own is Evans picture of the Rock Hill Cafe in Alabama. It is beautiful and I love it. 

But as I get older and as technology has improved and my perceptions have changed, I find myself making color photographs more often, and often the color is the point. So, I might see an old welding shop in Reidsville and see it in monochrome.

Or I could present an old rusted doorway in B&W

I saw, though, a range of subtle color that just delighted my eye. 

Interestingly, Evans himself took up color and in the 1960s made a series of color photographs of old buildings. His materials were not as good as we have now and the color never completely satisfied him. 

Walker Evans 1960

There have been some truly impressive color photographs made by such artists as William Eggleston, Eliot Porter or Ernst Haas. They forced me to reconsider the esthetics of color.

To say nothing of the melancholy and beautiful streets of Edward Hopper. 

So, I drive through the streets of Reidsville on a December morning and see so many absolutely beautiful wrecks. Because it is cold, and because I am old and my hams have gone weak, I aimed my camera through the opened side-window of my car and made my series. 

There were times I parked and got out of the car, but mostly, I made the window-height camera a part of the esthetic — or I’m just lazy. 

I drove down Market Street and up the other side of the tracks, then crossed back by Harrison, Gilmer, Settle and Williams streets. There was beauty everywhere. 

The question of whether what I have made is art no longer interests me. There was a time I wanted to be an artist, but now my emphasis in not at all on how I am seen or judged by others, but rather the direct fact of making stuff. It matters little what it is called. 

The photographs are my way of engaging with the world, reminding myself to see it and see it whole, not just the sunsets and mountainscapes, but the sagging doorways, too, and the cracks in pavement. The way the clouds gray-up and dull the shadows till they flatten completely. The roundness of an orange, the spatter of mud on my tires, the layers of paint on my back porch. 

I now consider this engagement far more important than the artifacts that results, however much fun it is to share them. 

I have talked with my brother about this, who is an artist — a real one, with sales and exhibitions — and he rather laughed. “What do you think an artist is? A vocation? Something you go to trade school for, like plumbing or accountancy?” 

The urge, the need to make things, he said, the fact that you do it makes you an artist, whether you think of yourself that way or not. Being an artist is not so lofty a title; it is simply something one does. 

And so, I drive up and down streets looking at the world that amazes me, and I find color and shape and texture; shadow and highlight; past and present; banality and transcendence.

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I don’t know if it is just me, or my generation — a cohort of Baby Boomers who once felt, or more precisely, knew they could change the world for the better (sigh). 

Or perhaps it is some random mutation of the Protestant work ethic. I think of stately plump Buck Mulligan telling Stephen Dedalus, “You have the cursed Jesuit strain in you, only it’s injected the wrong way.” Only, in my case, it is a dour Lutheranism, a faith I have never believed in nor practiced, yet discover somehow in my Scandinavian blood, where it lingers and makes me feel that if I am not working, not producing, I am not making quitrent on my existence. 

It is not simply a compulsion to work, but a crippling sense of guilt if I do not. The joke is that I am fully aware in my rational mind that there is no reason to feel this way. I am 71 and no one will threaten me with a cat-o-nine-tails if I don’t pull my oar till I drop dead. I worked steadily during my working years, and even after I retired, I managed to pump out more than 500 essays on this blog in just a few years. 

When I was employed, even on my vacations I managed to squeeze out travel stories for my newspaper. I was writing all the time, and making the photographs to accompany those stories. “Your business is producing; your business is producing,” a tiny Stalinist voice is grinding in my subconscious. 

So, even now, five years on from my paycheck, when I go visiting out of town, I am compelled to spend at least a portion of my time on one project or another. Several of these projects have been displayed on this blog over the years. One such project was to photograph nothing but circles; another to photograph ceilings and floors; another to document every house on a given street. 

Well, I am just back from visiting my brother- and sister-in-law. I drive three hours from Asheville to Reidsville, N.C., several times a year to spend a few days with them. He is an artist of some reputation; she keeps him in line. And this time I managed to work on three different ongoing art projects. 

The first I’ll mention is a series of images of fruits and vegetables in bowls. A bit of the round rim usually crosses and edge of the frame. I love the organic and geometric shapes interacting. 

I am also responding to a famous sumi-e Zen painting by the 13th century Chinese artist Mu-Chi, in which he lines up six persimmons and cleverly evades the monotony of an even number of fruits by making three groups, of one persimmon, of two, and of three. I have always loved this painting.

There is no way I can ever match it. But I have my own interest in the roundness, the ripeness and the color of fruits and vegetables. 

There is a one-off I made this trip. Looking out the window in my bedroom and seeing the branches through the Venetian blinds, I was reminded of a three-part Japanese shoji screen. 

The second project is a continuation of a lifelong fascination with the complex, ungovernable patterns of tree branches in the winter. I always think of them as a metaphor of the tangle of axons and dendrites in the human brain. The macro mimics the micro. 

It is a series I have called “tree nudes,” and I feel toward the rough bark, the curves in the tree trunks, the graceful dance of the end-twigs in a breeze as a similar kind of sensuousness you find in a classic nude painting or photograph. 

I made my first tree nudes at least 50 years ago and my solander boxes are filled with old silver prints I made from that point until I gave up chemical photography and took up digital. Now my hard drive is silting up with jpeg tree nudes. 

I used always to photograph in black and white and tree nudes are a perfect subject. The trees are usually rather color-drained in the winter and their silhouettes are perfect for a monochrome. But I have also discovered the magnificently subtle colors that can be found in a completely grey image. Grey is never just neutral; it always hints at something on the color wheel. 

In my senescence I have discovered color. I never thought to think in chroma, perhaps because color film, whether Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Fujichrome, or Agfacolor, was always such a poor conveyer of color. A Kodachrome image looks jammed with Kodachrome colors, not the colors of the world. And transparencies never printed out well enough to make a satisfyingly crisp picture. Even Cibachrome looks always like a Cibachrome. 

But, for some reason, my own sensitivity to color has rejuvenated and I find myself seeking out images that work best in color, and I like the look of digital color, which I can control so much better, thanks to Photoshop, than I used to be able to control the color of a transparency or a print from color negative film. 

Almost all my art has been unmanipulated. I am not a fan of solarization, double exposures or all those godawful “filters” that Photoshop provides. But I did make one experiment this trip. 

The tree nudes were inspired, perhaps, when I was a teenager visiting the Museum of Modern Art in Manahattan — I lived just across the George Washington Bridge in New Jersey — and I came to love the great Jackson Pollock hanging there. The business of the paint drips was the first neuronal metaphor I was aware of. 

So while in Reidsville, I made three photographs of some vines out the front door. Here’s one of them as an example:

I then edited the three images, lightening them up, and layering them one atop the other. The result is my simulacrum of a Pollock, only with the lines and shapes of nature. 

I made a second version in which I tinted one of the images yellow, a second one cyan, and the third magenta, so they might make a color version of the monster I had created. 

Finally, I had my third project this trip. I sought out the older parts of Reidsville and made a series of images of post-industrial Piedmont. For those images, I will wait for the next posting. 

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