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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. 

Click any image to enlarge

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.

Waterlily pond at Giverny

Waterlily pond at Giverny

When Claude Oscar Monet arrived at his new home in the spring of 1883, he had to borrow money to pay the rent.

The sturdy burger with the black Babylonian beard, smoker of strong cigarettes and painter of soft paintings was broke. He was one of many Frenchmen still suffering from the economic depression that had hit 10 years earlier and reduced the demand for paintings — among other things. Unable to sell his work, Monet had trouble feeding the mouths that depended on him.

For when he moved into the great barn of a house in Giverny, some 40 miles northwest of Paris, he didn’t come alone. He came equipped with his two sons, his companion, Alice Hoschede, and her six children. The youngest was only 5. They soon added a half-dozen servants.

The painter lived in his pink and green house in Giverny, along with his alternately growing and shrinking family, for the next 43 years, producing the body of work for which he is best known, a body of work that cannot be separated from the home he lived in.

That home served not only to shelter him, but to inspire him. The house and its surrounding gardens became, as he got older, the only thing he painted.

 

House at Giverny

House at Giverny

COMFORTABLY MIDDLE CLASS

Monet was born in 1840 in Paris and moved to Le Havre when he was 5 years old, and grew up there in comfortable middle-class surroundings. When he was a teenager, he decided he wanted to be an artist, began his studies and finally set up as a painter along with a ”brat pack” of his buddies, all of whom challenged the status quo in the French art world of the 1860s.

They later were called Impressionists and among their number was Renoir, Pissarro, Degas, Caillebotte, Sisley and Berthe Morisot.

They were beginning to achieve success when a double-headed ax fell on their careers. First, there was the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, and then the bank crash in 1873.

By 1880, things had improved, but Monet had to start from scratch building his career. He was lucky in that he had Paul Durand-Ruel as his dealer. Durand-Ruel was a saint among dealers and regularly advanced Monet money on paintings he hadn’t painted yet.

That is how he managed to pay the annual rent on the 2 acres of land with the house and outbuildings.

The bank crash had brought him Alice, too. Originally the wife of one of his benefactors, Ernest Hoschede, who had commissioned paintings and decorations from Monet, she gravitated to the painter when her husband fell bankrupt and abandoned his family.

At first, Alice and her six children lived with Monet and his wife, Camille, and their two boys in the town of Vetheuil. But Camille died in 1879 and Monet and Alice set up house together quickly after that.

It was one of the great partnerships in art, a perfect match between people, one intemperate and moody, the other steady and gracious, with all the tact the painter himself lacked.

 

Punt at waterlily pond

Punt at waterlily pond

ON THE BANKS OF THE SEINE 

Giverny was not more than a village, with fewer than 300 residents, when they moved there. It sat on the north bank of the Seine River in the angle where the Epte joins it, on a slightly rising bank above the river and below the wooded hills that rose behind.

Monet’s new home sat near the edge of town between the two main roads. The house itself was a monster of an old farmhouse, looking something more like a warehouse than a home. On one end was a barn that Monet turned into his studio. The building was covered in a pinkish stucco that Monet made pinker, with gray shutters that Monet painted green.

The yard that came with the house had an old orchard in it and room for the gardens that Monet planned. Within a few years, the grounds were overgrown with the many flowers and trees Monet planted.

And life began slowly to improve for the Monet-Hoschede family. At a time when a common laborer made about 10,000 francs a year, Monet was selling his canvases for 12,000 francs each. By 1888, Monet was making 100,000 francs a year.

He spent it lavishly, building studios and greenhouses, adding to the house, improving the garden.

”Everything I have earned has gone into these gardens,” he wrote.

And when his lease ran out in 1890, he had no trouble buying the house and grounds for 22,000 francs, payable over four years.

In 1893, he bought an adjacent lot, on the other side of the railroad tracks that bordered his property, and began making a pond to grow waterlilies.

 

Japanese bridge at Giverny

Japanese bridge at Giverny

AN EARLY RISER 

Monet’s life in Giverny turned into an ordered process of days, not only as the seasons progressed through the year, but even as the day progressed.

He got up early, between 5 and 6 in the morning, took a cold bath and ate a big breakfast, often an ”English” breakfast of bacon and eggs. From then until midday dinner, held promptly at 11:30 a.m. every day, he painted. He carried his canvases with him, often working on more than one, passing from canvas to canvas as the light changed with the hour.

He would sit out in the sun in his tweed suit and pleated shirt wearing a broad-brimmed old hat and smoking his stinky Caporal Rose cigarettes.

Monet had begun working in series, attempting to catch the evanescent effects of light as they flew by. A series of haystacks was followed by a series of poplar trees, each showing what their subject looked like at dawn, early morning, late morning, midday, afternoon and evening. As the sun changed, he changed canvases.

Monet poplars series

His critics complained that he was just trying to sell the same painting many times over. But Monet showed a dogged determination to make these series.

When the land with the poplars was sold, Monet paid the new owner not to cut down the trees until he was finished painting them.

Lunch was the major social event of the day. When Monet had visitors — which was often, more often than he sometimes wanted — they did their visiting at midday.

The afternoon was given over to painting once again, followed by a small supper at 7, and for Monet, bed by 9:30. He was notoriously bearish if this schedule wasn’t kept precisely.

So that, when his son-in-law, who was a slow eater, visited, Monet gave orders to the servants that no seconds should be offered.

And the painter could get out in the field with his canvases and brushes on time.

 

Dining room at Giverny

Dining room at Giverny

THE GOLDEN YEARS 

The 20 years after he moved to Giverny were the best of his life. His prices kept rising, he painted happily and productively through the year, taking time most years for an extended trip. One year, he went to Venice, another to Norway.

In 1892, after Ernest Hoschede’s death, Monet and Alice got married. The following year, he built his first water garden. In 1897, his son, Jean, married Alice’s daughter Blanche. Monet’s solo exhibitions regularly sold out.

The only troubles he had were in getting the municipal cooperation on improving his pond. Local residents were concerned that Monet’s plan to divert water from the Ru River, actually little more than a brook, would affect their crops and cattle grazing, but some help from the mayor swayed them and the permits were issued.

Alice’s daughter Suzanne married the American painter Theodore Butler and another daughter, Germaine, married a businessman from Monaco. The marriages soon brought four grandchildren to the family.

Meanwhile, Monet added more acreage to his holdings, including the ”Maison bleu” — the ”Blue House” — in the middle of town, where he installed a gardener named Florimond to cultivate his kitchen garden, which supplied the family with vegetables for their elaborate menus.

At one point, he employed six gardeners alone, along with a cook named Marguerite, a butler and valet named Paul, who was Marguerite’s husband, a maid named Delphine and a combination chauffeur and wine steward named Sylvain.

He needed the chauffeur because, although he owned automobile after fancy automobile — fast cars were a passion, along with watching auto racing — he never learned to drive.

The family also owned four boats, which they moored on the Seine, including the one boat Monet had fitted out as a floating studio. Monet often was accompanied on his painting forays by his step-daughter Blanche, also a painter, and they shared space on the boat.

Once a month, Monet retreated to Paris to have dinner with his circle of artist friends. He and Alice would take in the latest theater, see the gallery shows, and attend concerts.

Or watch wrestling — a particular favorite of the otherwise demure Alice.

 

Clos Normand

Clos Normand

A DISTRESSING UNDERTOW

Yet underneath the comfortable bourgeois existence of the increasingly wealthy painter was a distressing undertow. If Monet made paintings that soothed — he once called them a ”refuge for a peaceful meditation” — perhaps it was because he had a better than passing acquaintance with death and loss.

His mother had died when he was 18. Friends had died in the war. His wife, Camille, had died in 1879 after three years of lingering illness. The very month he moved into Giverny, his mentor, Edouard Manet, had died and Monet had served as pallbearer.

The early years at Giverny had proved a reprieve, but as Monet’s once black beard turned into a vast white haystack on his chest, time caught up with him.

Monet in the garden

In 1894, Suzanne developed a paralysis and five years later, she died. Alice went into a depression from which she never fully recovered.

”Our beloved Suzanne died last night,” Monet wrote Durand-Ruel, ”while her poor mother was in bed with a bad case of bronchitis which she caught the other day at Moret. One sorrow after another.”

Around him, his colleagues began dying, too. Caillebotte — a particular friend — had died in 1894. Alfred Sisley died only a week before Suzanne.

Pissarro died in 1903; Cezanne in 1906. By 1917, Rodin and Degas were dead, along with Monet’s friend, the playwright Mirbeau. And in 1919, Renoir died.

Part of this was the natural result of living a very long life. But there were special sorrows for Monet.

A flood destroyed his lily pond and large portions of his gardens in 1910. It took several years to rebuild.

In 1911, Alice died after a long illness. Monet entered a deep depression that prevented his painting for some time.

In 1914, his son, Jean, died. Jean’s widow, Blanche, returned to Giverny and served Monet as hostess and housekeeper.

And the outbreak of World War I weighed heavily on the painter.

”I’m back at work,” he wrote. ”It is still the best way of not thinking about present sorrows, although I’m rather ashamed of thinking about little researches into forms and colors while so many suffer and die for us.”

 

Pond edge, Giverny

Pond edge, Giverny

 

FAILING EYESIGHT

There was another sorrow for Monet, one that threatened his very identity as a painter.

Beginning at the turn of the century, Monet’s eyes, which had bothered him since his youth, began to develop thick cataracts that interfered with his vision.

He painted through them, but friends and critics noticed a change in the paintings, which sometimes seemed oddly colored.

”I’m working very hard and I would like to paint everything before I cannot see anymore,” he wrote Durand-Ruel.

The condition worsened and relented over the years, but by 1922, his eye doctor reported that Monet’s vision was reduced to ”one-tenth in the left eye and to perception of light with good projection in the right eye.”

Monet continued painting, sometimes knowing what color he used only by reading the label on the tube of paint.

”I could paint almost blind,” he told a visiting journalist, ”as Beethoven composed completely deaf.”

The operation his doctor recommended on his right eye helped things in 1923, but resulted in a peculiar condition called ”xanthopsia,” which caused him to see everything too yellow. When this condition abated, it resulted in its opposite, in which Monet saw everything as too blue.

”It’s disgusting, I see everything in blue,” Monet complained to a visiting professor.

”How do you know it’s blue?” the visitor asked.

”By the tubes of paint I choose.”

His ophthalmologist finally found a pair of tinted glasses that brought his vision back to something approaching normal, and Monet painted like a demon.

In 1925, he wrote, ”My vision has improved tremendously. I am working harder than ever, I am pleased with what I do, and if the new glasses are better still, I would like to live to be a hundred.”

 

Orangerie, Paris

Orangerie, Paris

A FINAL GIFT

He didn’t make it to a hundred, but the final years were spent on a vast project of painting the waterlilies in his water garden.

Conceived as a gift to France, he worked in increasingly larger formats, finally building a new studio to house the 8-foot-tall, 12-foot-long segments of the murals he was painting.

”These ‘water and reflection’ landscapes have become an obsession,” he wrote the journalist Gustave Geffroy in 1908. ”They’re too much for an old man’s strength, yet I should like to be able to reproduce what I feel.”

He destroyed paintings he didn’t think up to his standards. At one point, he wrote Durand-Ruel, ”I have five or six at most that merit consideration, and have just, to my great satisfaction, destroyed at least 30.”

The large waterlilies marked a significant change in Monet’s approach. In the past, he had been rigorous in painting outdoors, directly from life. But for these ”decorations,” as he called them, he worked inside, in his studio, from his imagination.

Monet at canvas

That underlined not just a change in technique, but in the basic purpose of his painting. What had been an attempt to reproduce an accurate record of what his eye saw became an involvement in what paint can do and mean.

Pablo Picasso had painted his first Cubist painting in 1906 and the winds of Modernism were blowing the old smoke out of the room. Monet caught the fresh air and enthusiastically took part in the change. The late waterlilies are no longer Impressionism; they are modern art.

”I am looking for something I have not done before, a shiver my painting has not yet given,” he wrote.

In 1926, a lifetime of smoking cigarettes caught up with Monet. By late summer, he was bedridden with pulmonary sclerosis. His eyesight had deteriorated; he no longer could paint. He died on Dec. 5 with his family around him.

The following year, his waterlily decorations were installed at the Musee de l’Orangerie in Paris.

As for his beloved home, it stayed in the family, eventually abandoned in World War II. But in 1957, Monet’s surviving son, Michel, donated the deteriorating property to the Academie des Beaux-Arts, along with the paintings left behind by the painter at his death.

The Giverny site, now renovated with gardens replanted in the 1970s, draws about a half-million visitors a year.

On Michel’s death in 1966, the paintings reverted to the Musee Marmottan in Paris.

It is hard to calculate how much this one small piece of provincial property has given to art. Monet painted what he loved, and what he loved for the final four decades of his life was his home in Giverny.

”My heart is to Giverny for ever and ever,” Monet wrote.