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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.”

Click on any image to enlarge

The world is not black and white, but until fairly recently, photography was. For most of its history, the art was an art of silver on paper, spread from inky blacks through velvety grays into pristine whites. 

There had been attempts to add color, either by painting on top of the monochrome image, or by various experimental techniques to capture the color directly. But even after the commercially successful introduction of Kodachrome in 1935, photography as a museum-approved art continued to be primarily in black and white. 

(In cinema, Technicolor predated Kodachrome by about a decade, but that process was essentially three different black and white negatives overlapped through color filters to create the effect. It was an expensive and difficult process and relatively few films, percentage-wise, were made with the process until after the commercial success of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939.)

I have been a photographer for at least 50 years. I have had shows and my work has been published. But for most of that time, I worked in monochrome. I “saw” in black and white. My photographic heroes worked in B&W, the techniques I mastered were silver techniques. I became an excellent printer. But I seldom used color film. It seemed an unnecessary noise to bring to the purity of the medium. 

I was hardly alone in this. When I was younger, even museums shied away from color photography. It was seen as not “permanent.” It’s images faded over time (I’m sure you all have old family snapshots turned rather magenta with age). The real artist-photographers used silver or platinum and made glorious images. 

Back then, art in general was seen with more precious eyes. We thought of “archival processing,” and even paintings were carefully preserved and curators looked down on some artists — such as Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko — who used non-archival pigments or unprepared canvases and whose works, therefore, had begun to deteriorate. 

In current times, few artists or galleries worry much about such things. Art can be made on newsprint, or can even purposely self-destruct. Concern for the permanence of an artwork is seen as elitist. After all, no matter how careful you are, the art is going to be gone eventually, even if it lasts till the sun explodes. 

And besides, color is now no more or less permanent than black and white: Now they are both nothing but ones and zeros. Silver is dead; long live digital. 

Yet there is still a difference between color photography and black and white. It is a difference not simply of technique, but of thought. Thinking in color is different from thinking in black and white. 

The part of vision that deals in color is processed in a different area of the brain than the part that concerns itself with darks and lights. (Vision is ridiculously more complicated neurologically than you might think — the information on the retina is broken down into many separate components, processed by differing regions of the brain and then re-coordinated as a gestalt.)

And so, some people pay closer attention to the hue, others to the forms they see. 

The fact is, black-and-white photography and color photography are two different art forms. To be successful in both requires a kind of bilingualism. Most of us have brains that function best either in seeing forms and shades, or in seeing hues. The two photographies emphasize those different talents.

One has only to consider the work of Stephen Shore or William Eggleston. Most of their meaning comes through the color. Take one of Eggleston’s best-known images and suck the color out. What have you got?

He made this photo of a ceiling and light bulb. The red is overwhelming. But imagine it as a black and white image.

He also made a similar image of a brothel ceiling painted blue. Also overwhelming. The two are nearly the same image, but with very different emotional and sensuous meanings.

But if we make them both black and white, they very nearly merge into the same thing. 

Color can by itself separate forms. Here are four squares in four colors; as distinct as can be. But the exact image, unaltered except for the draining of all color from it, leaves a confused mess, barely a separation between grays. 

Black and white photography requires the separation of parts not by hue, but by contrast: Lights agains darks. It’s what makes great silver prints sing. Where color photographs separate forms primarily by hue, black and white shapes form with contrast.

I am not saying a color photograph has to be garish. Far from it. But the color will carry a good deal of the meaning and emotional resonance of the image. Even in a color photo that has hardly any color in it.

Many years ago, I tried an experiment. Like so many others, I loved the waterlily paintings of Claude Monet. But I wondered if they would make as much sense in black and white. Is there a structure holding the pictures together, a design or composition, that didn’t depend solely on the rich color. 

So, I began making photographs in black and white of water lilies. 

The most successful of them clearly relied on bright highlights and strong shadows. The shapes made the picture.

If I tried an overall design, like Monet’s the picture lost its strength. 

I did the same experiment with one of Monet’s paintings, rephotographing it in black and white. 

Did it hold up? It is certainly a very different beast. 

Then I went back to one of my own color photographs of his waterlilies in Giverny, a photograph that imitated Monet’s paintings, with color, sky, reflection, shadow and lily. In color and side-by-side, in black and white. 

What I discovered shouldn’t be a surprise: Monet was much more effective in color. But I also noticed that because my photos were well-focused rather than impressionistically fuzzy, they translated better into black and white: Black and white is meant to clarify shapes. Color identifies “areas” rather than discrete textures. 

And so, while I have spent the majority of my photographic career making monochrome images, along with many others now working in digital media, I switch back and forth between color and B&W. They do, however, require different vocabularies. They are different languages. 

While I have always made visual art, I made my career in writing about art. 

As an art critic, I had the unusual need to be bilingual in an odd sort of way. As a journalist, I needed to be good with words, but in writing about art, especially visual art, I needed to know how to use my eyes.

I discovered very early on how these two talents were seldom granted to the same person. All around me were reporters who knew a gerund from a copulative, but who often seemed almost infantile when discussing pictures. They could name the subject of the image, but not go much further than that. 


A photo editor of my acquaintance once explained photojournalism this way: “I need to know it’s a house; don’t trick it up with ‘art.’” This was image as ID photo. 

But on the other side, so many artists I knew couldn’t explain themselves out of a paper bag. They effused in vague buzzwords, words that changed currency every year or so. I once taught a graduate course in writing about art for art students who needed to prepare so-called “artist statements” for their exhibits. Most of what they wrote before the course was utter blather, obscure and important-sounding without actually meaning anything. 

Words and images: Worlds seldom interpenetrable. I call the talent for riding both sides a form of bilingualism. 

I do not know if the ability to deal in multiple “languages” is something you are born with, or that you learn early on the way you acquire language before the ability to do so closes off in adolescence. But somehow, I managed to do it, at least well enough to write about it without embarrassing myself.

The mental juice necessary to process each seems walled off from the other, except in rare cases. One either runs a literary program, based on sentence and paragraph structure, linear words building a whole out of alphabetic parts; or one comprehends shapes, lines, color, size, texture, and frame as carrying the information required to convey meaning. 

This doesn’t mean that visual people are illiterate, nor that literary people can’t enjoy an art gallery, but that their primary modes of understanding vary. The squishiness of an artist’s gallery talk can drive a writer bonkers; the flatness of a word-person’s understanding of a painting can leave an artsy type scratching her head: “Can’t you see?” 

Nor does it mean that either side can’t learn, although it will remain a second language, without native understanding of idiom and customary usage. A word person can be trained to see shape and form, but it will always remain as I learned Spanish. No one will ever confuse me with a native speaker.

This split between word and image, though is only one of the bisections. Musicians can think in tone the way painters can think in pigment. Yes, there is a language that can describe the music, but for non-musicians, that language is usually impressionistic and often visual — what the music “makes you think of,” or the “pictures in your mind.” 

For the musically trained, there is also language, but it is completely opaque to the civilian: Dominant-seventh, voice-leading, timbre, reed trimming, tenor clef, Dorian mode, ritornello, de capo, circle of fifths. But even these are merely words to describe the non-verbal reality of the music itself, which can convey meaning through sound alone. The words are not the music. 

The ability to think in the terms of each mode is essential to create well in that form, and a mighty help in understanding it for the audience. If you are not in love with words, the rich cream of Gibbons or the organ tones of Milton can leave you cold. If you have no eyes for color, the nuance of Turner or the pears of Cezanne can zip past without notice. If you think of pop tunes as music, the shifting tonal centers of Schubert are inaudible, the orchestration of Mahler merely noise. 

We each have a frequency our sensibilities are tuned to, and can receive it loud and clear; we may think we understand the rest, but too often we are only fooling ourselves. Do you really inhale the contrapuntal movement of a Balanchine chorus? Do you notice the rhythm of editing in a Spielberg film? Each is a language that its practitioners and connoisseurs understand profoundly, but zip past the mass of those sitting in the cheap seats. 

It’s a different language

Click on any image to enlarge

Some people have a bucket list — of extraordinary experiences they would like to have before the final extraordinary experience. My bucket, however is already full, in fact, it runneth over. 

It is probably much the same for most people. By the time you reach the age of 70, you can look back on a lifetime of extraordinary and satisfying adventures. Perhaps you have not swum the Hellespont like Leander or Lord Byron, nor circled the globe in 72 days, like Nelly Bly, but there are no doubt things you have done that brought your own life to its full. 

I’ve seen the Rhine at night in Dusseldorf; driven the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to the Gulf of Mexico; spent a snowy Christmas eating hot homemade cookies at the home of a Hopi friend in Walpi on First Mesa in Arizona; twice circumambulated Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.; and been charged by a bear in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

I was an idiot — I took the picture

I see birthday number 71 coming up next week and realize that translates to 852 months, 3702 weeks or nearly  26,000 days. They have gone by very quickly, picking up speed as they progress, like a train leaving the station. They are now barreling along at the speed of an express. 

Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

From the rear of that train, I can look back and say I have seen the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa; the menhirs of Brittany; seen Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle live twice; made love surreptitiously in the North Carolina legislature building. 

Menhirs at Carnac, Brittany

I’ve seen the Atlantic and Pacific, but also the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Cortez and Hudson Bay — my personal seven seas. I have crossed the Atlantic on an ocean liner. They don’t really have those anymore.

Mediterranean Sea

I have done other things that now seem quaint and ancient. I have twice crossed the continent on trains, once from North Carolina to New York on the Southern Crescent, from New York to Chicago on the Twentieth Century Limited, and then from Chicago to Seattle on the Empire Builder. Amtrak never had the cache of those earlier routes. 

Years later, under the shrunken Amtrak banner, I took the Sunset Limited from Los Angeles to Miami. 

Each of these things is stamped and notarized in my cerebral cortex.

Given the sum of those years, it is hardly surprising that so many things were seen, done, felt, tasted, smelled, heard. You turn the pages of the book one by one, and sooner than you realize, you are on page 852 and something has happened on every page. 

Chartres cathedral

Been to Chartres four times; and to Notre Dame de Paris half a dozen times; to Mont St. Michel; and to Reims, where French kings were crowned; and climbed the bell tower (illegally) at the National Cathedral in Washington; and descended the kivas at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. 

Kiva, Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Been to 14 countries, including Norway and Namibia. Been to all 48 contiguous United States and all Canadian provinces except Prince Edward Island, and to the Yukon Territory. Alaska made 49 states (still haven’t been to Hawaii).

Omaha Beach, Normandy

Been to Lascaux and to Font de Gaume to see prehistoric cave paintings; been to the Normandy beaches of D-Day; to the shell craters still visible at Verdun; to all the major Civil War battle sites, and across the Old North Bridge. Stood on the piazza that Herman Melville built at Arrowhead, his home in Pittsfield, Mass. with its view of Mount Greylock (“Charlemagne among his peers”). 

Mt. Greylock, from Melville’s piazza

Three times I have walked Monet’s gardens at Giverny and seen the great waterlily murals at the Orangerie in Paris.

Giverny, France

I have ridden a horse into Canyon de Chelly in Arizona and paddled a canoe down the white water of the Mayo River in North Carolina (admittedly, not a scary rapids). 

Once, I stood at the top of the raging Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge and stupidly jumped across the cataract, rock to rock, to get to the other side of the river. I’ve also climbed to the top of Pilot Mountain in the Sauratown Mountains of Surry County, N.C. (a climb that is now illegal). 

Linville Falls, N.C.

Hiked a fair portion of the Appalachian Trail; camped in the Canadian Rockies; and 65 miles from the nearest paved road on the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Been to the telescopes at Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar and the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff and the Kitt Peak observatories southwest of Tucson. 

 When I hear Hank Snow singing “I been everywhere, man,” I count the place names as they tick off and check them on my own list. “Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota…” Yes, yes, yes, check, check, check.

And Bobby Troup singing “Don’t forget Winona,” well, yes, been there many times. 

Glacier Bay, Alaska

But it isn’t just geography. There are cultural touchstones I count, experiences that have breathed oxygen into my soul. Not only Wagner, but also I heard Lenny Bernstein conduct La Mer with the NY Phil; heard Emil Gilels live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music; heard Maurizio Pollini play all the Chopin Preludes, Stravinsky’s Three Movements from Petrushka, and the Prokofiev Seventh Sonata. I heard Jeremy Denk play Ives’ Concord Sonata and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier in the same recital: That is like climbing Everest and Mont Blanc on the same day. Itzhak Perlman play the Strauss violin sonata — and made it seem like one of the most important sonatas ever. That was magic. Heard the Matthew Passion live twice and Haydn’s Creation. And, of course, twice heard Yo-Yo Ma perform all six Bach suites in a single program. 

I’ve seen a dozen Balanchine ballets with live orchestra, including my favorite, Apollo, five times, once by the NY City Ballet at the Palais Garnier in Paris. 

I’ve seen the full Angels in America four times through, including its original Broadway production. 

Remnants of shell craters, Verdun, France

These are all gifts, and made my life ever richer, and informed my growth, emotional and intellectual. I can say, they made me a better human being. 

I can’t count the art shows and museums I’ve visited that gave me rare treasures. The first I can remember was in high school when I went to the Museum of Modern Art in 1966 to see “Turner: Imagination and Reality.” It yanked the rudder of my craft and steered my life in a new direction. 

“Blue Poles,” Jackson Pollock

I also grew up with Picasso’s Guernica. I visited it over and over and never expected it would leave me for a new home in Spain. But in return, I never thought I’d get to see Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which had been sold to Australia; it came to New York in 1998 for the big Pollock retrospective at MoMA. 

I cannot mention everything. The list is already grown tedious and begins to sound like bragging. I don’t mean that: I believe a similar list can be put together for almost everyone, although it will likely be very different from mine. Not everyone has eaten grilled mopane worms or drunk spit-fermented Zulu beer. Or needs to. 

But we can all say, after a long life, full of boons and banes, joys and privations, evils we have done, and those we have suffered, the loves we have failed at and those that stuck and nourished our lives, “We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow.”

Someone, and I can’t remember who, once said that the best way to critique a photograph is to make another photograph. 

You can learn a great deal by the doing — a great deal more than by reading or hearing lectures. In the past, painters learned to paint by copying master paintings in museums (you can still take canvas and easel into the Louvre, with proper permission, to copy). 

If there’s any one thing that you discover by the process, it is that it ain’t easy. Things you hadn’t so far considered turn out to be crucial. I tried this many years ago, wishing to take black-and-white large-format photographs of waterlilies to find out what, besides the color, went into the structure of Monet’s paintings at Giverny. The color is so dominant in the images, that we too easily forget the form. 

There is form in them, but very like the harmonic structure of Debussy, it is subtle. The black-and-white photographs I made amplified form over color and made for very different results.

Years later, at Giverny, I made color photographs of the waterlilies and the resemblance to the paintings was much more overt.

This sort of copying, in order to learn, is something I have always done. I have a self-portrait, made in 1980, when my beard was still dark, that mimics Van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Gachet. 

Of course, Van Gogh himself was well known for copying to learn, such as his oil-painted imitations of Japanese woodblock prints. The translation from Hiroshige to Van Gogh tells us a great deal about the Dutchman. 

A portrait I made of Sharon Vernon in the early 1970s patterned itself on Degas’ Woman with Chrysanthemums. 

In 2011, I extended the copy to a series. As art critic for the daily newspaper in Phoenix, Ariz., I spent a lot of time at the Arizona State University Art Museum. It was housed in the Nelson Fine Arts Center, which opened in 1989 on the university campus.

The building was designed by noted architect Antoine Predock and won many awards — although there was a significant backlash from more conservative commentators who thought the windowless building looked too much like a prison. 

The building itself was a labyrinth of stairways, running up past others descending. There was a barred gate at the underground entrance to the museum, and many sight-lines that seemed to defy logic.

The entire complex is immense, and includes a theater, an outdoor movie screen and staircase that goes nowhere. But it is the art museum and specifically the entry to the museum that I was concerned with.

Of course, my source material — the Piranesi etchings (Link here) — are quite dark and airless. They are dungeons, after all. 

In contrast, the Nelson Fine Arts Center burns in bright sunlight, with bright walls. So, it would not be the murk I was trying to recreate in the photos.

Instead, it was the hallucinatory perspective that I tried to capture, the sense that up wasn’t always completely up and that down wasn’t always clear. 

I must note that I am not claiming for these exercises the status of art. Whether or not they achieve that level is quite beside the point for me. 

The point was simple and direct: I had fun in the doing, fun in the editing, fun in the printing and in the collating. 

I wound up with 24 prints, compared with Piranesi’s 16. The set, printed out on archival paper, I gave to the director of the art museum as a gift. 

I kept another set for myself, and I had the digital versions to arrange here for this presentation. At least, here are 16 of them, to match the number of the Carceri. 

I am also not the only one to consider the Nelson Fine Arts Center as a photographic subject. 

Arizona photographer Johnny Kerr has also attacked the building for a series; his series, however, is more consciously graphic, and sees the shapes and shadows as a form of Minimalist art.

You can see his version at: (Link here). 

Imitation, such as my meager attempt, is a great way to learn what you cannot just through cogitation. You get to engage with the physical world and see how it becomes transformed in the act of having its picture made.

It reminds me of Garry Winogrand’s manifesto: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”

But it goes beyond that. It makes the three-way connection between the subject, the photograph, and the long art history that stretches out behind us. Each photograph is a hinge between the real, physical world we wish to capture and its echo in the accumulated culture. 

Click any image to enlarge

In 1873, an amateur German archeologist working in western Anatolia, claimed to have dug up a trove of gold he called “Priam’s Treasure” and ascribed to the king of Ilium during the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad.

Whether any of his claim was true remains contentious; Heinrich Schliemann fibbed about many of his claims. But what is not under question is the public attention roused by the gold. Nothing dug from the earth quite hypnotizes the layman so much as gold. Treasure. Pirate’s booty. Roman coins.

The fascination seems unquenchable. Museum blockbuster shows are predicated on that fascination. “The Treasures of Tutankhamun;” “Treasure Houses of Britain;” “Catherine the Great: Treasures of Imperial Russia;” “Splendors of the Ottoman Sultans;” “Treasures of the Czars.” The list is long. And so are the lines to get in.

But while traveling blockbusters are tarted out with gold, the permanent collections of major museums also offer more humble relics of antiquity. Visit the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Boston Fine Arts Museum, even a smaller one, such as the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Va., and you find vitrines highlighting the pottery dug up from the historic layers of soil. While the gold glitters, the simple ceramics — more common than the jewelry — yield up more useful information about the people who lived before our ancestors knew they were our ancestors.

Shards of Egyptian pottery have turned up in Afghanistan, evidencing the far-flung trade network from before the 12th century BCE, Greek red-figure ceramics show up from Spain to Iran. When archeologists want to find out about the lives of the earliest European settlers in the New World, they search out the middens of refuse from those early outposts and it is the broken dishes, cooking vessels, drinking cups and flatware that tell us perhaps the most. We learn where those dishes were made, how they were used, about the trade networks that brought Delftware from the Low Countries to southern England and to Massachusetts, where the village burgermaster showed off his status, while the laborer ate off tin plates.

But such clayware isn’t shown in museums only for its historical importance. You can find great esthetic value in archaic Greek ceramics, in red-figure and black-figure pottery, in the designs of pre-Columbian figurines, in Egyptian clay palettes, in ancient Chinese vases. They are shown in museums for their beauty. They are works of art.

On a visit to Colmar in eastern France, to see the Isenheim Altarpiece, that huge symbol of the sorrows of life on earth, the museum also had a whole wing of domestic arts, including some fabulous dinnerplates, hand painted with flowers, abstract floral patterns and the occasional family crest. There was no question that those beautiful plates deserved their spotlight behind the glass.

Which brings me to my own kitchen. I have way too many dinner plates. The cause is esthetic, not practical. In fact, it is anti-practical.

My interest in what I ate off of was nil until my second unofficial marriage. I have no recollection at all of what plates we had during my first official marriage. Anything that held victuals was sufficient.

I know we had a few blue-speckled enamel tin plates. As humble as our incomes at the time. (I still feel a nostalgia for tin plates). Years later, between relationships, I lived with friends whose plates were a traditional Pfaltzgraff design. I came to feel a comfortable homeyness about them. Who knew you could have emotional feelings about baked mud?

But with my second unofficial pairing, the two of us sought out dinnerware that expressed who we were, or who we thought we were. Something vaguely arty.

We found the perfect answer in the stripped-down esthetic of Dansk breakfastware. The large plate was as plain as could be, with a mildly speckled blue ironstone, about 10 inches in diameter, with a half-inch lip around the edge, almost as if it were a pie tin. We had the bowls and mugs to go with them, and for years, they served as a signal of the kind of Modernist esthetic we cared for. Others might choose more flowery plates, or something elegant with gold rims, but we liked the showy simplicity of our Dansk dishes.

Where those dishes went, I have no idea. Through divorce and  break-up, they have vanished. But many years — many decades — later, I came across a pair of Dansk plates in a thrift store. These were brown rather than blue, but they were the same design. I snarfled them up and use them to this day, still enjoying that heavy crockery feel, that masculine, stripped-down directness.

Pfaltzgraff pattern

But when it came to my second official marriage — the one that took — there was a problem. Although Carole and I were perfectly matched in so many ways, there was a significant rupture in our esthetic senses. Where we were the same was that neither of us tolerated bad design. We both wanted something well thought-out and pleasing to our senses. But Carole tilted toward the traditional, the more feminine, the more what I called “doilied-up.” While I, of course, favored the blunt, direct and undecorated and modern look. This could be a problem.

So, over 35 years of living together, we tried many ways of satisfying both of us. She usually won in this struggle. She came with an heirloom set of Haviland settings, well over a hundred years old. But they were too valuable to actually use. So, they sat in a cupboard looking elegant. Elegant if that is the sort of thing you value.

She also had a thing for Blue Willow ware, and collected platters and plates, bowls and tureens in the pattern. Some so old their whites had begun to turn brown. They came from Goodwills and Salvation Army stores, and while they didn’t cost us a whole lot, took up way more pantry space than their use warranted.

Blue Willow was perhaps the sweet spot for Carole, but it wasn’t enough. She brought home random dinner plates from her sallies into various thrift stores. We collected quite a few floral plates. Then, there was a mismatched set of autumnal plates that she meant to use for Thanksgiving dinners. Those plates featured grouse or hunting scenes.

There was a new set she bought without telling me. One day, it showed up: A bright red and white set of Christmas dishes, bordered with reindeer and sleighs. The whole disaster — plates, salad plates, bowls, cups, saucers. Hardly room in the cabinet to hold them. And they were used, maybe, once a year. The crowded shelves hardly left room for the wine and water glasses.

Fiesta ware

My Modernist taste was clearly being drowned under a welter of semi-kitsch. Meanwhile, the growth of Blue Willow continued.

Clearly, there had to be some kind of compromise. Weighted to her side, of course, but at least a little give.

The clue came in France, while we were visiting the gardens painter Claude Monet had established for himself in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris. We have been to Giverny three or four times, in different seasons. It is powerfully beautiful, restored to its original glory.

And in the inevitable gift shop, there were offered for sale reproductions of the tableware that the painter used for his guests. In 1898, Monet designed a porcelain dinner service by painting a simple white plate with a blue edge and a yellow rim. It was executed by the company of Godin and Arhendfeld and perfectly set off the bright yellow dining room the painter fitted out in the old farm house that he refurbished.

In 1978, the Foundation Claude Monet commissioned the Robert Haviland and C. Parlon company of Limoges to recreate that original set of crockery. We gawked at it in the Giverny gift shop, salivated over it, distressed by its price. If you wanted to buy such a dinner plate now, it would cost you $155. Yes, per plate. A single five-piece place setting was $570. Standard setting for six, nearly $3500. Clearly this was out of our price range.

Yet, we knew we had found that compromise. Both traditional and Modernist, with the imprimatur of a great artist we both loved, it would have been the perfect set for our kitchen. We pined; we sighed; we longed.

In the meantime, every few years, we would see some place settings we liked, and if it was in our price range, we might buy it. We did both love the joy of the hunt for dinnerware we both could live with. There were compromises, mostly by me.

But then, we found a perfect knock-off. The Italian firm of Pagnossin had a set of blue-edged, yellow-rimmed plates. They were on sale. They weren’t exactly the same as the Monet plates. Monet’s had a light, powdery blue edge. These had a navy edge. But the yellow was identical. They were elegant, traditional and modern. We fell in love with them. I still have them and use them whenever company comes over.

Now that Carole is gone, the Blue Willow is gone, too. So are the red Christmas dishes. Alone, I find myself eating off of paper plates more than I care to admit. But I still have the faux-Monet plates and the replacement Dansk plates. And I keep several of Carole’s additions. There are two beautiful, simple plates with blue flowers drawn, not painted, on them. And there is a set of four Rita Monti hand-painted dishes, with floral and Renaissance patterns on them, very Mediterranean, which are perfect for pasta or fish. It seems I have mellowed; my need for masculine simplicity has softened into an absorption of some of Carole’s personality into my own, where it persists, even as she no longer does.

Waterlilies Brookgreen Garden, SC

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — when I was still earning a crust as an art critic, I wrote a nasty review about a painter who had genuinely made me angry. This artist had some currency in the region, and a cadre of fans. I was not one of them.

Some years later, I discovered that the review I wrote had caused the artist to stop painting altogether for five years. When I was  asked if I felt bad about that, I always said, no, I felt I had performed a public service. There was a smugness in my flippancy which I now regret.

Because, now in my senescence, I have become somewhat gentler, and regret the tone of that review, although I cannot gainsay the content. (When I met the artist many years later, when she came to a lecture I was giving — after she had survived not only my review, her hiatus from work and a fight with cancer — she was surprisingly forgiving and said she did not hold the review against me. I don’t know why not.)

She has recovered from her cancer and from my review and recently mounted a new show. She still has her cadre. I wish her well. But I do want to explain my anger. It wasn’t simply the quality of her work, or its purported subject.

I didn’t get angry over her technique, which was rather sloppy — I’m sure her fans call it “spontaneous,” although I took her to task for it. And I didn’t get angry over her popularity. Certainly lots of popular artists are awful, sentimental, shallow — but there are also quite popular artists who are among the best. It’s hard to knock Van Gogh or Monet for being popular, although the general run of popular, in the demotic sense, tends to be in the Thomas Kinkade and LeRoy Neiman or P. Buckley Moss camps.

The sins of this painter I refer to — aside from painting poorly — was that she presented her work as “spiritual,” and surrounded it with all the cliche buzzwords that accompany such pretensions. The show was called “The Lotus as Metaphor,” and it purported to lead us on a spiritual journey.

There is a whole class of artist who gush spiritual, a quality less evidenced in the work, but more in the words they pack around their work. They claim a kind of spirituality and it is usually of the soft-focus kind that blurs all inconvenient edges. Often they pick up the conventional symbols and signs of a religious tradition and use them like bumper stickers. This is mistaking the Völkergedanken for the source.  Not so much spirituality as it is cultural tourism.lily-lotus comparison

The particular show that got my dander up was a series of paintings of “sacred lotus.” The first problem was, she had not painted lotus but waterlilies. Not the same plant, not the same cultural meaning.

It isn’t that I was being pedantic about botanical nomenclature, but that I have noticed over the years that those who wax ecstatic about the spiritual often have such an indifferent relationship with the real.

The lotus (genus Nelumbo) has a different growth pattern, leaf shape and flower — to say nothing of cultural meaning — than the more common water lily (Nymphaea). The painter’s plants were not clearly drawn, but they grew more like Nymphaea, have the heart-shaped leaves of Nymphaea and the flowers of Nymphaea.

This may seem like caviling, but I firmly believe that before you start jumping on the otherworldly bandwagon, you should learn something about this world. This retreat into “spirituality” evidences a certain medieval contempt for the world that is not earned. In fact, as any dedicated artist knows, looking closely at something, as when you draw it with total concentration, will lead you to the edge of mystical experience. (See: https://richardnilsen.com/2012/06/21/apple-of-my-eye/ ) Without the commitment to this world, you cannot break on through to the other side.

Rather than starting with the here and now and taking the path to eternity, the artist seemed content with the road map. She approached spirituality from the exterior, with not a hint of introspection. She started — and ended — with the public symbol — borrowed though it be from an alien public — instead of finding a fresh, direct and personal symbol that might express personal experience. Borrowed profundity isn’t profound. It is hearsay.

That kind of facile pontificating on “harmony with nature” and “celebrating the joyousness of life” is what I call “Mah-jong mysticism,” the kind that seems to satisfy bored middle-class housewives with too much time on their hands. Surely one should be suspicious of any warm and fuzzy mysticism that tells us only what we want to hear. And make no mistake, this sort of thing is usually quite self-congratulatory.

In fact, after seeing these paintings, I’m not convinced the artist has ever had a mystical experience more profound than the buzz from white wine at a gallery opening. The artist wore the word “spiritual” the way some coffeehouse poets used to wear berets.

The paintings were like third- or fourth-generation color Xerox copies of Monet waterlilies, with all the subtlety of color and drawing sucked out. Indeed, my initial response was generated by the effrontery of copying Monet so blatantly and yet so ineptly.

It isn’t that waterlilies aren’t a perfectly good subject, but for many of these paintings, the painter adopted the same angle of view, the same distance from her subject and the same loose, scumbly brushwork that is so familiar from Monet. The debt was too obvious.

monet waterlilies st louis

monument valley 2It was as if she hadn’t looked at waterlilies at all, but looked at Monets instead. This is secondhand experience, like reading the Cliff Notes instead of the book. If she had looked at waterlilies intently and followed them down into the depths of her mind and heart, she might have painted something astonishing. That’s what Monet did. But imitating the look of Monet is no better than standing at the visitor center of Monument Valley and photographing the Mitten Buttes, thinking you have equaled Ansel Adams.

Her art mimicked the words and images that have conventional currency among those who bask in what is held to be spirituality. But those words and images have less to do with genuine spirituality than they have to do with conventionality. They are like gamepieces in a board game with all the rules known and understood, at least by the initiates. They are Tarot cards, ouija boards, seance knocks, and are at root just as fraudulent.

All this might well provoke a bad review in the local newspaper, but it might not, in any other critic, provoke anger. My reaction was not merely to the work on the gallery walls, but to an entire class of thought, a class that seems to me to be cheating. I felt cheated. Here the world is all around you, a vast forest of burning bush speaking “I am that I am,” and yet the artist does not see it, but rather gives us the names of metaphors other people have used to describe the ineffable. I have always called this “imitation art,” not just imitation of already existing art, but imitation of the origin and purpose of the genuine article. It is a variety of “play-pretend,” and avoids the real work of art to give us instead a pale simulacrum.

The deep roots of art is a profound love for the things of this world. Not ideas about things, but the things themselves. We live so much by habit and fail to notice what is about us. Not merely raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, not just birdsong and clouds, but the smell of hot tar on the road, the hurt of a stubbed toe, the layer of dust on the enamel gloss of a car hood. And not solely the physical manifestations of the world, but the inner workings as well, the emotions and sensations, the perceptions and the occasional borborygmus. That is, the entire world filtered through your sensibility. It is only when you are not aware of the world and the things of the world that you find existence so drab and monotonous that you need to invent a bogus “spirit” world to revitalize your life, to make it — and you — feel special.

hare krishnaThose who see “auras,” read horoscopes and feel the cold presence of “emanations,” seem precisely those who are incapable of finding the transcendent in fleas or sphagnum moss. Those who wear yellow robes in downtown Cleveland and chant “Om” are not actually connecting with the source, but with an imitation of it. The Edgar Cayce-ites, the crystal gazers, the astral-projectionists and clearers of engrams, seem not aware of or interested in the fact that the ordinary world given us is astonishing enough on its own. Nothing they have come up with matches the weirdness of an elephant or coconut or the shimmering skin of a squid.

I suspect any use of such buzz words as “energies,” “toxins” or “healing.” They are bogey-words, intended to invest their users with a sacerdotal shine. You can have Atlantis; I’ll take the Bronx. I can predict what  you will find in Atlantis — such things are defined by the conventions of the occult, and seldom vary much — but I could never predict what I might find on any house on any street in the Bronx, or in any city. The real world is too varied and multifarious and constantly challenges our expectations.

cezanne

So, I say, look at those apples and pears in the Cezanne painting, look at the roofs and olive trees in the Van Gogh, or hear the birdcalls transmogrified in Messiaen’s music, or regard the madeleine in Proust. Engage with the world, become engorged with it, swallow it whole, let it illuminate your inner life and become the passageway to transcendence. All of it, good and bad, joyful and hurtful, fulfilling and frustrating, pointed and aimless.

It is inexhaustible and inextinguishable.