Christopher Jackson heads to the National Gallery to see the show of the season in its last weeks
The great question about impressionism is: ‘Why was it necessary to do away with line?’ The usual answer is that the invention of the photograph meant that direct description became unnecessary. The trouble with this is that it contains a false assumption – that all previous art was in some sense literal and unimaginative.
The briefest acquaintance with the Renaissance will show this to be false. For all his meticulously scientific bent, Leonardo’s work is hauntingly imaginative: the curious smiling figures, the blue remembered hills. Michelangelo’s is a world of created heroes: figures whose straining after enlightenment is caused by an inner incompleteness – their very muscularity an aspect of that striving. While Raphael’s pictures emanate weirdly from the court of Urbino as embodiments, or perhaps transformations, of a Renaissance idea of ethereal beauty.
In any case, we should be past the point now where we need to think of the Impressionists as a lump – a sort of all-in-one super-artist. If any painter has earned the right to be considered individually it is Claude Monet (1840-1926) who, after all, has as much claim as anyone to Impressionism’s invention.
In fact, the opening rooms of this exhibition are a heartening reminder to any would-be artist that one doesn’t need to be brilliant at the outset of a career to be world-altering later on. These first rooms show Monet finding his way: a visit to Amsterdam, with its tall and wonky houses reflected in the waters, gave him the rudiments of a subject, but at first you sense he wasn’t sure why he found them so interesting.
After a couple of rooms of these essays in the picaresque, which look like they could be the work of a talented Sunday painter, in the third room you find the exhibition’s first masterpiece. This is The Water Lily Pond (1899) (top image) and although the previous canvases have seen him groping towards something like this, it constitutes a leap forward: by now, he has made himself equal with his subject, while coming into a deeper understanding of it.
His career was to be based around, quite simply, light on water: specifically, the analysis of how these two distinct aspects of the natural world interrelate – and how a third, colour, is woven into that interaction. Monet would spend the rest of his life trying to convey all this in art.
It might also be said – and the gallery’s guest curator Monet scholar Richard Thomson deserves credit for highlighting it – that this career would have two points of culmination. The first, as every visitor to Paris knows, is in the Musée de l'Orangerie: that great last pond series where we are so up close to the lilies that it is as if the atom has been split and we are peering deep into some essential mystery.
The second, which is shown here, is his trilogy of great urban series: the Rouen, London and Venice pictures. In these, natural process is offset against architecture. That juxtaposition is already visible in the 1899 picture in Room 3: Monet’s bridge at Giverny divides the composition, and seems to inhabit a smoother world, one set apart from the atomic complexity of the river, the lilies and the pervasive sun. But Monet had a long way to go to develop that idea.
Cathédrale de Rouen, Claude Monet, 1894
During Monet’s lifetime, Einstein would give mathematical basis for what the painter was reaching for in his art: looked at up close, light does seem to splinter, behaving as both particle and wave. Of course, Monet’s pictures aren’t direct precursors of subatomic physics: but they are perhaps indicative of a society whose most visionary intellects were beginning to pose questions – about time, the structure of matter, and light’s quintessence. Human beings were everywhere preparing to face down the world more minutely.
And just as Einstein’s scientific vision can be understood within the wider Spinozan philosophical framework which he implied it should fit within, Monet’s observations are also sometimes given a wider architectural context, and the natural world vying with man-made symbols of power.
The Rouen pictures – predominantly painted between 1892 and 1893, but all dated to 1894 – show Monet examining the façade of that city’s cathedral at various points of the day: as with Degas, it transpired that his only way forward was the execution of repeat motifs.
But Degas was primarily concerned with movement, which could best be explored by considering again and again the figure of the ballet-dancer. Monet’s project was ideally suited to venerable public buildings shown at different times of day, in constantly changing monumentality: when the Rouen cathedrals are lined up next to each other, the viewer can feel the wheeling of the earth and the shifting power of the sun.
The rest of the exhibition shows Monet’s gaze sharpening further, his mind resolute to unlock nothing less than the very nature of physical reality. The second city which Monet returned to time again was, of course, London: it is pleasant to think of Monet on the fifth or sixth floor of the Savoy, gazing on the Houses of Parliament. They don’t give quite the view you’d expect from the Savoy: London is a constant education in the river’s bend.
Of course, the city’s pollution – in its infancy, by our current standards – provided Monet with another complexity: the smog. We know that it caused him frustration, although he also felt it was integral to London’s beauty. Looking at these, one has a sense of a man trying to divest himself of his own ego and, as the sun poured down the sky, working to capture tint, light-slant, every atom of actuality.
If his art was an attempt to be in full receipt of the world, it’s also true that no human being ever empties themselves of subjectivity. Nor did Monet. Even these grand depictions of parliament, which in their spooky stillness seem like precursors of Rothko’s Seagram Murals, show evidence of a preoccupation with power: Monet is showing how secondary a cathedral or a parliament is when set against the teeming fact of light that surrounds them.
Monet visited Venice in 1908 and stayed for two months. By the end, in his wonderful images of the Doge’s Palace, there is a unity between architecture and its reflection within water: everything is doused in Monet’s sense of light as minute, complex and pervasive.
So why was it necessary to do away with line? It was G.K Chesterton who complained that modern man had ceased to believe in the tangibility of objects, and therefore – he was a committed Catholic – in the grandeur of God’s creation. Impressionism under that analysis was an atheistic rearguard action – the admission of a rebellious sense of nature’s instability into art. It might be seen as a pictorial accompaniment to the Bohrian idea of the subatomic as an insecure underpinning for the natural world: Monet’s lilies were gorgeous smugglings-in of Heisenberg’s physics.
But this exhibition shows a simpler explanation, one which feels truer: Impressionism was the result of one man’s singular vision, and his mounting obsession with a few urban scenes. And while Monet’s art does feel free of the dogma of the academy, and untethered from any religious system, it also shows the natural world to be in a state of constant creativity. Chesterton couldn’t see that Monet is always looking up from his canvas to be astonished again by the world: the marks he just made on paper, accurate a moment before, are accurate no longer.
It was this alertness to process within nature – the constantly shifting light above a cathedral, the lap of water in a Venetian canal – which really did away with the line. Because when you’re trying to render the swift beauty of things, you don’t have time to delineate. Monet’s art was essentially respectful of creation.
But my final suspicion is that nature is more precise than we know. That’s its greatness, of course: it’s always doing more than we can render. And it’s the wonder of this exhibition to provoke in the viewer an awareness of that distinction – and to show so clearly how Monet sought to resolve it.
Houses of Parliament, Sunset (Le Parlement, coucher de soleil), Claude Monet, 1900-1 © Kunsthaus Zürich
Christopher Jackson is deputy editor of Spear’s
Featured image courtesy of the National Gallery