A Visit to The Water Lilies

The gravel crunched satisfyingly under my feet as I walked through Le Jardin des Tuileries on my way towards the museum. My sense of anticipation grew as I saw the rather inconspicuous building come into view before me. I was about to do something I had neglected to do on previous visits to Paris; I  was going to see Monet’s ‘Les Nymphéas’, or the Water Lilies.

The collection now housed in L’Orangerie contains some of the most famous examples of Impressionism, but what struck me most about them when I entered the first of the three oval rooms is how atypical they are of the movement. Painted late in his life when his eyesight was failing, they sit at the abstract fridge: their forms hide from cursory examination and rise to the surface only when time and patience is allowed. In order to try and get some perspective on them, I sat down on a bench in the centre of the room. It was here that I first noticed the cameras.

A strained smile: a boy dutifully poses for a photo
A strained smile: a boy dutifully poses for a photo. Copyright Simon Bonneau.

A great many people were taking photos and the more that I looked, the more I realised that I was in the minority as a simple viewer. A young woman walked from painting to painting, quickly snapping off photo after photo. A middle-aged man with a high-end DSLR took photos of every square metre of one of the canvases, creating what must have been gigabytes of data in the process. Couples and friends took turns posing in front of them and parents turned their lenses on exhausted children forcing smiles. Two girls struck elaborate poses in front of them, first resting on one hip, then looking over the shoulder.

It is the sad fate of many famous artifacts that once they reach a certain level of celebrity, their particular qualities somehow become irrelevant. The Mona Lisa is surrounded every day by people too busy pushing and shoving each other out of the way in order to get a good shot to actually appreciate it for what it is. It must be placed behind thick plate-glass in order to ensure that its ‘fans’ do not destroy it. When a painting reaches celebrity status, it almost ceases to be a painting at all: overwhelmed by the aura of greatness, the audience metaphorically averts its gaze; it looks without seeing.

More visitors capturing their visit for posterity
More visitors capturing their visit for posterity. Copyright Simon Bonneau.

Why was it that so many people who have gone to the trouble to visit these beautiful paintings don’t even bother to take the time to contemplate them? As previously mentioned, their celebrity status doesn’t help. If someone has been told that the painting in front of them is one of greatness, perhaps they don’t feel as though they need to make their own minds up about it and, as a result, they merely cast their eyes over it and walk on: they were there and that’s all that matters – they have the pictures to prove it.

The movement of photography to the digital format has, like the innovations made during the last half of the 19th century, made photography more accessible, both in terms of price and the ease by which a photo can be produced. The incorporation of cameras into mobile phones means that many people now carry one with them practically all the time.

Photos play a critical role in the way that we ‘historicise’ or record our experiences. When we go to an event and realise that we have forgotten our cameras, we are likely to go into a panic and think that we have failed in some way. We may even fear that once the event is over it will be like it never happened at all. I am not suggesting that we throw our cameras away and rely purely on our memories, but there is a balance to be struck between simply having the experience and attempting to record it.

To illustrate this point, we could consider Plato’s thoughts on writing in The Phaedrus:

“I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence.”

Plato suggest here that although writing and speaking both involve the use of language to communicate ideas, writing is different insofar as it retains the same ‘solemn silence’ as the painting when asked a question. Writing is static in comparison to speech, “[the] intelligent word graven in the soul of the learner, which can defend itself, and knows when to speak and when to be silent.” I would suggest that the same can be said of the lens and the eye. Both are alike insofar as they involve photosensitive surfaces that capture light and both use the same mechanism in order to focus light to a point, the lens being more or less a mechanical simulation of the eye.

Photography and Impressionism grew up together and one could say that they were once friends. Claude Monet, who personifies the movement, was born in Paris in 1840, a year before Hershel’s discovery of the fixing process that enabled Daguerre to perfect the first photographic process capable of producing a stable image, the daguerreotype. By the time that Monet was eleven, Archer invented the Collodion process, reducing the required exposure time to seconds, further making photography more practicable and accessible. By the time that Monet began to paint, the camera was ubiquitous.

Photography did not, as some predicted, spell the end of painting. Indeed, the opposite became true: it played a hand in freeing artists from the constraints of the rigid, formalist approach now known as the ‘academic style’. The Salon de Paris, the annual exhibition of the Academie des Beaux-Arts, rarely exhibited the work of anyone that did not adhere to its prescribed style, however, in 1825, it showed the work of Englishman John Constable, and his paintings of pastoral life inspired many young painters, including Manet. In the years following, he and other notable painters of the period went on to create the Barbizon school, founded on the principle that the approach of the Academie led to paintings devoid of genuine emotion. In order to find this emotion, they turned to the everyday life of the average person. Millet’s work The Gleaners, completed in 1851, one of the most renowned paintings of the time, focuses on a group of peasants searching for food.

Despite the Salon’s lack of acknowledgement of their merit, this group of painters was beginning to change public perception, and we see evidence of this in the immense popularity of the Salon des Refuses (in 1863, 1874, 1875, and 1886), an exhibition of artwork rejected by the Academie: members of the public were clearly interested in seeing paintings of people that looked and lived more or less like them. Painting was becoming a mirror of contemporary society rather than a musing on history, mythology or religion.

The over-the-shoulder look
The over-the-shoulder look. Copyright Simon Bonneau.

Considering that the camera freed painters in this way, there is irony in the fact that it is now beginning to destroy our ability to appreciate their creations for what they are, to simply sit there and be in the same space with them. This is the reason for which we go there in the first place, the reason that we fly half-way around the world in order to stand or sit in front of them. Anybody can google the images and see them – being there is an entirely different experience. This is because the paintings are (somehow) living presences, not just images. Perhaps this is why I got the impression that despite all the people milling around them in the gallery, the paintings were stunningly alone, like celebrities attending a suburban house party – such an intimidating presence that no one will speak to them.

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