Water Lilies transcends and unites
By Jenn Watt
Published July 28, 2016
When the world was at war, French painter Claude Monet was in his gardens at Giverny, painting. It wasn’t a retreat, artist and instructor Andrea Mossop says, rather the famed artist was fighting back with his paintbrush, creating his most iconic works: Water Lilies.
On July 20, Mossop spent an hour taking audience members through Monet’s life, his gardens and his Water Lilies, a mural viewed in the round at Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris.
Mossop’s talk was part of the weekly series offered at Haliburton School of Art and Design in the great hall, which is typically filled with summer students visiting the Highlands to learn a new skill and draw inspiration from the landscape. What better artist and painting to examine than Monet’s Water Lilies with a group immersed in nature and art?
Monet created the Water Lilies mural beginning in 1916 and worked on it through to the 1920s.
France’s history has been an unsteady one, Mossop pointed out, with much uncertainty, turmoil and violence. At the time Water Lilies was created, France was engaged in the First World War.
Creating beautiful things is important in the face of destruction and violence, Mossop said.
The garden, on the other hand, offered abundance, life and extravagance. Monet was a gardener first, she said, with a large estate in Normandy which he expanded during his time there to include Japanese style water gardens – the subject of 250 paintings over 20 years.
At the same time as the country was entering war, Monet’s life became fraught with tragedy. In 1911, his partner Alice died followed in 1914 by the death of his son, Jean.
“Monet fights back with the paintbrush,” Mossop said. He turned back to the garden and work for solace – and promised Water Lilies to the the nation of France during a time of war.
“If they could build this painting that was the garden immortalized then they could give that to people,” Mossop said.
French prime minister Georges Clemenceau is said to have told Monet: “France has lost its sense of who she is and I want you to paint a painting that will remind her of all that she is.”
The idea was always to create the paintings on a large scale and a room was created expressly for that purpose. The viewer is expected to be surrounded by the images and to turn in the centre of the room like a lilypad in a pond.
Mossop recalled for the crowd her visit to Musee de l’Orangerie. It was nearing the end of the day, and she arrived just half an hour before closing. She managed to convince the attendant at the entrance that she needed to get in, despite the hour, and had to gallop to the far end of the gallery to make it to Water Lilies.
“It is a sacrilege to run through a gallery of that calibre,” she said. But when she got there she found the crowds had already left, and she was alone in the room for 20 minutes: “a rare and extraordinary experience.”
The paintings are not clear up close, which some attribute to Monet’s cataracts, but Mossop argues is an evolution of his painting technique.
As an impressionist, Monet was concerned with emotion and light above realism and precision. Up close, the lilypads are “scrubby” and messy, Mossop says, with a physicality in his brushstrokes and layers of paint that mimick the layers of a pond.
The viewer is wrapped in the painting, she said, which presents the pond through the stages of the day from the warm colours of a setting sun to the light pastels of a calm afternoon.
“There’s something about water,” Mossop said, giving a nod to the Haliburton landscape so many of the artists had come to work within. “It catches the light. It immediately has a physically calming sensation on us.” But it’s also hard to capture, with the surface, reflections, and murky bottom.
Though Monet tended his own gardens, he did employ workers, one of whom was tasked with washing the water lilies in the morning before the artist had finished his breakfast. Dusty lilypads don’t inspire in the same way clean ones do.
Water Lilies is not an overtly nationalistic creation, Mossop said, but it does have a strong message.
“It was a journey together and it was a shared vision together, not just of a painting or an artform, but of what a people were about and what a place was about and a nation was about and even hanging on to their republican vision of what liberty for the people was about,” she said. “They are holding to this ideal and this image.”
Art talks are Wednesdays at HSAD from 4:45 to 6 p.m. They are free. Next up is Rosemary VanderBreggen on July 27, Kate Carder-Thompson on Aug. 3 and Robert Bateman on Aug. 10.