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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. 

 

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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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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. 

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