I was about 11 or 12 when I first started secondary education at one of the worst schools in the country. We were set a task in Art class to find out about this fella Rembrandt. I came home and because this was the time before the internet was the source of all knowledge I asked my Dad who this person was. In his typical matter-of-fact way Dad told me Rembrandt van Rijn was a painter from something called the Dutch School and was a revolutionary and visionary artist that transformed light on canvas into dramatic and lifelike representations. I noted this down and nodded. That seemed like enough. A few minutes later, Dad being Dad had pulled down a large tome on painting, flicked through and showed me a portrait of Rembrandt by Rembrandt. (A self-portrait used a stick called a ‘brush’. Very different from the selfies and their sticks used today) At the time I was only dimly aware of my Father’s 4 years in art college, despite his job as a graphic designer and penchant for art on display all over the house. I looked at the picture awe struck. Rembrandt sat staring out at me from two dark marbles amongst a deeply shadowed face framed in a halo of yellow. Dad sat me down and we flicked through the book, explaining why Rembrandt changed so much in the art world. Because light, he said, was so spare in Rembrandt paintings it made everything look dramatic. Every face was coated with brilliant light and dark shadows, his landscapes featuring dabs of shimmering colour and the blackest nights, so solid and vibrant they looked more like models to touch. The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, The Night Watch, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, these paintings sounded more like the short horror stories I was reading at the time and looked like they were too. Haunted faces, doom laden clouds, movement and action, mystery, suspense, all these were locked and frozen in the frames. Dad noted my awed silence and pointed out what is most important in all of these is that they are not realistic. Showing me some Dutch still life paintings he pointed out it is the light that makes them real but every thing else is much more interpretative. I agreed. He told me to keep a hold of the book for now.
A few days later I flicked through the book and found this painting of a boat being towed along the river. I must have stared at that stupid picture for an hour. I looked at more of this man’s paintings and fell in love. Some were wide, nearly empty vistas with detailed buildings, others were just golden plates that seemed to hum and swirl. ‘That’s Turner,’ Dad told me. ‘Got better as he got older.’ He was right, the later ones got more and more abstract and indistinct but more and more beautiful. They seemed like alien worlds to me, heavy with atmosphere and shimmering light. ‘You can tell he was influenced by Rembrandt, look,’ Dad took the page of Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and found a painting by Turner called ‘Dutch Boats in a Gale’. Whilst they both depict a boat on a rough sea over hung with black clouds, their styles differ, ‘But look at the light’ Dad said. He was right. The light caught on the sails and foam of both pictures had exactly the same tone, the shadows the same depth, they both captured the same drama and atmosphere. It was like magic. ‘You think that’s good?’ He flicked forward, ‘You haven’t seen Monet yet.’
I can’t quite explain the sensation of seeing you brain being pulled out and smeared across the pages of a book but that’s as best as I can describe seeing Monet’s water lilies for the first time. It was like someone had seen my dreams and put them on paper. I felt like I could run my fingers through the water. Dad explained this was called ‘Impressionism’ a technique of painting where the artists did not bother with exact detail merely gave the impression of the image, drawing inspiration from ‘Pointilism’, Van Gogh’s own Japanese inspired swirls but most importantly Turner’s magical, misty landscapes. There was a clear line, Dad said, between Rembrandt, Turner and Monet and it all relied on not being real. From that first viewing of Monet’s paintings, specifically the water lilies, I became obsessed. Rembrandt, Turner and Monet are widely acknowledged as three of the greatest artists of all time. That kind of plaudit and acknowledgement normally means that after centuries of analysis and scrutiny and cultural penetration they have nothing left to give and in many ways it is true. Their influence is seen everywhere and in almost every image. They are a visual short hand for so many things in the art world, even the most abstract art has a lineage with these three because they were the first to discover realism was not the objective in art, it was interpretation and the less distinct something is, the more a viewer will project their own details onto it.
Since then I have spent my life chasing these three artists around the globe, but none more so than Monet and his water lilies. My first experience with the water lilies was in London at 15. I was there to see a gig but the famous exhibition imaginatively titled ‘Monet’s Water Lilies’ that was touring the world was at the Tate so I went in early and got my first taste. One thing I was not prepared for was their size. Some, if not most, of the Water Lily studies are enormous. Stood at close proximity to them you could easily fill your vision with them until I get tapped on the shoulder and asked to move aside for other viewers. They are all endlessly inventive, no two alike they literally swim with a variety of colours, painted in different seasons with different strokes and styles. The water lilies are a master working at the height of his powers in the throes of true inspiration. I have now seen Monet in Paris, London, Manchester, Liverpool, Amsterdam, Sydney and New York. Where there is a world famous gallery, there is typically a Monet, a Turner and a Rembrandt. I hunt these down at any available opportunity. On my 28th birthday I made the trip to the Tate in Liverpool to see an exhibition entitled ‘Turner, Monet, Twombly’. This was a fascinating exhibit placing the three directly influenced painters alongside one another and whilst I admit, Twombly is not for me, seeing Turner and Monet side by side was a treat for the eyes and a balm for the brain. The most jaw-dropping and akin to a spiritual experience of seeing a Monet came at the MOMA in New York. Not being a fan of most ‘Modern Art’ the only part of the MOMA I enjoyed was the top floor where the ‘Classic’ modern art hides: Cezannes, Picasso, Pollock and Monet. A three panel, room-sized water lilies painting dominates the main room there and almost literally brought me to my knees. I must have sat there for more than half an hour, dumb struck and wide eyed as I submerged into the purple swirls of silk that rippled around me. Apparently the Orangerie in Paris is where the finest examples reside and I am yet to see them but what a day that will be.
My love for the water lilies drove me to learn everything I could about them. Still whenever there is a documentary or book about them I will have a look to learn as much as I can about my three favourite painters but there was one specific documentary I watched that explained so much. I cannot for the life of me remember the title of it but it involved the presenter going to Monet’s Flower Garden in Giverny where the pictures were painted. Monet designed the garden himself, a keen horticulturalist, and even diverted the nearby river to create the placid waters he depicted. The garden itself is beautiful but oddly small and sterile in comparison to the paintings, but it was then I discovered what really made the water lilies so beautiful. Loss.
Monet’s life was struck with tragedy, repeatedly. He lost his wife and his son and saw his home country torn apart by the Great War after which he stated his intent to paint the water lilies as “A monument to peace”. This blight of tragedy upon a man so talented was no doubt his greatest pain but the world’s true gain. He poured himself into the garden and his painting, every dab of his brush a little blob of his soul on the canvas, the variety of each image a window not merely into the caprice of the French weather and its changing seasons but into Monet’s own tortured or placid mood. To look at the water lilies is to look at Melancholy. As Jacques in As You Like It puts words to the beauty and necessity of Melancholy, Monet gives it voice in his paintings. Yet it is the loss of one thing that made the water lilies what they are: His sight. He had cataracts that he had operations to remove but most certainly altered his vision. This loss of sight combined with his loss of his loved ones means the water lilies stand as some of the most potent exorcisms of grief ever created and are deeply affecting to witness.
I write this because I was in London at the weekend and decided to duck in to the National Gallery. Inside reside some of the best examples of most great painters but in particular Monet and Turner. You can see Dutch Boats in a Gale and my absolute favourite Turner ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ as well as some studies by Monet and some prime examples of the Water Lilies. As I stood in front of the giant wall sized pond I imagined the man himself stood, brush in hand, by the canvas. Rotund, half blind, his long black and grey beard trailing down his front, the light pouring into the garden or studio as he smeared the paint on the canvas. I wish I could have watched. I wish I could have stood next to him and seen him try to capture the peace he and the world so desperately wanted, needed at the time. I make no shame of the fact I began to tear up then as I thought about this, as I looked at a painting I had seen many times before. It takes a lot to move someone to tears, especially in this day and age, and even tougher to do it with a still image.
I will never be a painter but I thank my Dad for showing these great artists and incredible works of art to me. Typically it was my parent who taught me the most about a subject I love so much and not the education system. But more than that, Rembrandt, Turner and Monet have taught me more about the world and who I am than most. I will never get bored of Rembrandt’s black marbles, nor Turner’s glazed mist and I will always come back to wade amongst the water lilies.
(Post Script: My memory isn’t that great so I have filled in some blanks on my Dad and I’s story, for instance it may have been more than one book but the essentials are there and the above tells the same story. History, like Art, is all about interpretation.)