One of the hardest tasks for any art historian is to take something very familiar and make it seem remarkably new. It seems like Claude Monet’s Water Lilies appear in every museum, on every Impressionist calendar, and as every art-related kitsch item imaginable. Jean Dominique Rey and Denis Rouart’s Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series not only brings together all 251 Water Lilies paintings and related works in one book, but also provides a fresh approach to these oh-too-familiar images. Rey and Rouart succeed in recovering the revolutionary aspect of Monet’s strikingly new way of seeing and painting. Works such as Monet’s Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond (above, from 1920) regain their individuality in Rey and Rouart’s treatment. Just as Monet obsessively recorded every nuance of water lilies floating in a pond and the surroundings of that pond, Rey and Rouart meticulously pull apart Monet’s methods and link his unique form of madness with contemporary ideas, adding up to a book that not only delights the eye with reproductions but challenges the mind to reassess the comfortable old furniture that the name “Monet” has become.
In his essay, titled “Appearances and Reflections,” Rouart follows the evolution of Monet as a painter of series. Touching upon Monet’s series examining Poplars, Haystacks, London Parliament , and Rouen Cathedral, Rouart shows how Monet resisted a rigorously scientific approach. “[T]hough deeply committed,” Rouart writes, “Monet’s visual explorations never took on a scientific bent, since he was determined to refer solely to his own sensation, unhampered by any preexistent theory or idea.” In contrast to artists such as Cezanne and Seurat, Monet never shackles himself to a theory, thus freeing himself to follow his visual imagination wherever it led. “Utterly intent on painting whatever afforde him visual pleasure,” Rouart writes, Monet’s “oeuvre is a lengthy exposition of his adoration of the world around him and of life.” Thanks to the comprehensiveness of the book’s collection of images, we can follow Monet’s eye as it roams over the years, fixating on different aspects in different periods, such as Monet’s Water-Lilies (above, from 1917) which shows a period in which Monet concentrated heavily on just lilies floating in water, with almost no frame of reference of grass, trees, or sky. “Fully grown, the various levels of this ensemble of aquatic and land plants constituted a veritable microcosm,” Rouart writes of Monet’s roving eye, “around which all his more or less mythical dreams of an earthly paradise might coalesce.” If Blake could see eternity in a grain of sand, Monet could see it in an ordinary pond.
Rey’s essay, “Mirrors of Time,” Monet becomes the Einstein of painting and his Water Lilies become physical exercises in space-time theory. “In the ten years between 1890 and 1900, Monet modified the dominant emphasis of painting, shifting it from space to time,” Rey writes. “To produce this ‘space-time,’ Monet collapsed the distances between volumes, atomizing them so as to restore the continuity of nature, that fluid movement of the universe from which volume, a mental projection onto the space of the canvas, had estranged his art.” Rey brings this high-flying theory back to earth by connecting Monet’s painting to the impact of the early cinema. Monet’s Morning (left panel shown above), part of the 1920-1926 panoramic series painted specifically for the Musée de l'Orangerie, in Rey’s exposition becomes a cinematic tour de force. In Morning, “elements indexing perspective, instead of receding towards a central point, veer off slightly towards the right… The whole piece—a genuine and indeed masterly ‘dissolve’—is thus conceived as the living unity, subtle and varied, of the successive movements of a symphony.” Andre Masson called the room holding Monet’s Orangerie works “the Sistine Chapel of Impressionism.” Rey’s bold ideas and creative connections recover the relevance of Monet’s art and shatter the misperception of Monet as a painter of pretty, thoughtless paintings and nothing else.
For Rouart, Monet’s greatest triumph comes at his greatest moment of struggle when dealing with double cataracts and the surgical aftermath that led Monet to produce such nearly abstract works as The Japanese Bridge (above, from 1918-1924). “Monet’s fidelity to whatever he perceived through his visual organ, even when this was defective” never falters, Rouart writes, which leads Roualt to refuse to call Monet an abstract artist but rather a “tachist.” Monet always works from his own perception of nature and never strays into pure, selfish imagination. Rey, however, uses these late works to link Monet to the abstract artists of the 1950s. “I’m doing pure late Monets,” she quotes Sam Francis. Pollock’s Cathedral, an early drip painting, becomes an homage to the Cathedrals of Monet. “Borrowing and coexistence here concern the processes, the freedom, the lyricism,” Rey writes of the affinity of the 1950s set for Monet, who had become a second-stringer in art history books to Cezanne up until that time. Even Marc Chagall confessed a hatred for Monet until the 1950s, when he suddenly rediscovered Monet as “the Michelangelo of our time.” Half a century later, that revolutionary freshness and relevance is recovered in Rey and Rouart’s essays.
Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series brings together not only great essays (beautifully translated by David Radzinowicz) and great reproductions, but also includes startling photos of the man himself (above) with his paintings and enjoying the pond and garden he designed as his personal painting grounds. Special praise should go to the book designer who decided to reproduce the Orangerie panoramic paintings as triple gatefolds. Those mammoths have never received such proper treatment before. The interplay between the text and the images never gets bogged down in references and figure numbers, allowing both to wash over your mind and heart as Monet would have wished. After reading Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series you will never look at Monet’s paintings, Monet the artist, or your world the same way again.
[Many thanks to Rizzoli for providing me with a review copy of Jean Dominique Rey and Denis Rouart’s Monet: Water Lilies, The Complete Series.]