En plein air – Claude Monet in Giverny

Don’t we all long to live like flowers, alive with perfect beauty? The work of Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) is a seed that has firmly taken root in the world’s artistic heritage. As an artist and editor of intercultural art books, the occasion of Monet’s 180th birthday and my visit at his garden in Giverny inspired me to create an homage for him – in the form of a book featuring flower paintings. Flowers possess a lyrical aura; trees are said to be antennae connected with the universe. Rejoicing in the beauty of a flower or a picturesque landscape often makes us feel like we, ourselves, are bursting into bloom. Every flower has a “deva”, a “higher spirit” possessing a mysterious power of attraction that can be further intensified by the spiritual aura of artworks. Like Claude Monet’s Giverny, like his paintings, this gift book, too, emanates its own, unique scent. While the subtle color shades of flowers often exceed our imagination, artworks and poems have one advantage over them: They do not wilt. We can lean back and enjoy their emotionally charged beauty any time. “Flowers for Monet”, however, is not a printed florilegium, but a garden designed as an homage inspired by poetic spirit. In the broadest sense, flower paintings are also gifts of nature, because the aura of the flowers is reflected in their artistic expression – we may discover it in the artists’ delicacy of style, or in their pursuit of botanical precision. Equally, flower paintings, like Dutch vanitas still lifes, may be inspired by the unstoppable decay of nature. My selection of haiku poems was doubtlessly influenced by the lyrical poetry of Claude Monet’s own œuvre.

It was a trip that inspired Claude Monet to create his vibrant garden in Giverny. After traveling through the night, the flower fields of Holland appeared before his eyes like a bright sea of colors, in which the radiant individual flowers simultaneously dissolved and fully unfolded. The artist loved the colors of the landscape and the reflections of tulips in the canals. It was probably the distinctive composition of the tulip fields that inspired the design of his flower beds at Giverny. Flowers unite the light energy of the sun and the mythical spirit of earth and water. Based on this idea, 67 artists from 29 countries came together at the occasion of Claude Monet’s 180th birthday to honor the well-traveled impressionist with contemporary artistic abundance. Apart from Antibes, Venice, London, Norway, and Brittany, Monet mainly painted in Normandy: In Étretat and Rouen, and in Giverny where he finally found a haven in his art-inspired garden. The editor of this flowerful almanac has divided the artworks from around the world into chapters and added selected haiku poems, quotes, slogans, and illustrations. The result is a multifaceted homage from the imaginative perspective of modern artists.

On painting under open skies, on fragrant flowers and music

There is probably no other artist whose works come so close to floating sounds and flowery scents as Claude Monet’s. The subtle color shades of the petals are represented by symphonies of colored dots. Also Monet’s garden art is composed as purposefully as a musical score. When the American opera singer Marguerite Namara came to Giverny, she insisted on singing for Monet in his water lily garden. Claude Debussy took up the painter’s ideas in his compositions “Reflets dans l’eau“ (“Reflections in the Water”) and “La mer” (“The Sea”). Like Monet, the composer made different color shades blend into each other at the threshold of modernity. Equally, his prélude „La cathédrale engloutie“ evokes the misty atmosphere and the bright sunlight of Monet’s famous series of cathedral paintings produced in Rouen at different times of the day. Monet saw the cathedral not as a religious but as a purely aesthetic form. Only after he had consciously taken in the motif and reflected on it for a long time did the artist feel capable of creating the “Cathedrals”. In the same way, he had already painted the white rocks on the coast of Étretat. In letters to his wife Alice, he compared the rock needle of the majestic limestone cliffs to a cathedral. When it was rainy or stormy, he painted at low tide inside a cave that is still accessible today. This artistic recipe would help him later in his pursuit of uncovering the secrets of his water lily pond at Giverny.

It was his friend Georges Clemenceau who, after Monet’s death, unveiled the nymphéas (water lilies) cycle at the Musée National de l’Orangerie des Tuileries, a small skylit museum in the gardens of the Louvre. Monet had officially gifted the work to the French State. It took till 1980, however, before Giverny was reopened, a feat made possible only through the refurbishment of a former Paris railway station into the Museé d’Orsay, and generous donations from the United States.

Visitors to Monet’s garden will immediately feel drawn into the world of his paintings. The essential work of land art was clearly designed to be painted; the dialogue between the interior of the house and the garden is palpable. The chrome yellow dining room seems to emanate the exotic aroma of lemons and the radiance of Monet’s “Sunflowers” (1880), while the blue kitchen evokes images of cornflowers.

In the past, the family estate served as something of an independent principality dedicated to art and nature. Today, its unique microcosm lives on in the rhythm of its flowering seasons and the colorful interior of the country house. While the flower garden is dominated by straight lines, the water garden abounds with curves and arches. The garden by the house brims with flowers, while the water landscape brings out the foliage of the trees. Monet owned an extensive botanical library. He was in the habit of ordering unusual plants from all over the world and was enchanted with his orchids, among other specimens. His comprehensive collection of Japanese woodblock prints on show in the blue room today was also a source of inspiration for his art, and can be seen as a link between his country house and his water garden. The bold flower compositions from the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) among them seem to emanate an especially exotic aura. It was these works that inspired the artist to plant his bamboo grove and create the lily covered pond that has become so famous. The Japanese bridge veiled in the floating scent of wisteria became the dominant motif of several of Monet’s painting cycles.

Born in Paris, Claude Monet grew up on the coast of Normandy. His father ran a colonial goods store in Le Havre. Smells from remote countries, and the coming and going of ships at the largest trading port of France must have sparked the young artist’s imagination and wanderlust at an early age. In the beginning, he made a living drawing caricatures but soon turned to realism. In spite of tight finances, Monet kept moving ever further away from the taste of his time, making the Salon in Paris reject most of his paintings. Together with his friends Auguste Renoir and Alfred Sisley, he left the strict academic rules behind. It was Monet’s famous view of Le Havre “Impression. Sunrise” from 1872 shown at one of the group’s first independent exhibitions that gave the new art movement of impressionism its name.

Monet was no older than 22 when he developed a kind of stenographic painting style that enabled him to capture elusive light effects in landscape paintings. The motif recedes and virtually dissolves, making color, light, and atmosphere come to the fore. All his life, Monet ceaselessly continued to work on capturing the changeability of light and color in its nuanced variations and at different times of the day. In his works, objects are almost immaterialized and taken to the edge of abstraction. This makes them the basis of Kandinsky’s, Jackson Pollock’s, and Mark Rothko’s work. In London, Monet met his future art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who introduced him to the luminous paintings of William Turner. It took Durand-Ruel thirty years of dedicated work in the US, however, to finally help Monet become financially successful.

In his third studio at Giverny, he worked on his “Grande Decoration”. After effecting a first significant change in the world of art as a leading impressionist, the water lily pond he had created added another, meditative dimension to his art. Throughout the last 18 years of his life, he worked almost exclusively on this motif. This finally led to another art historical breakthrough: Monet invented an almost abstract style of painting aimed at representing light and spherical space, achieved in an installation lit by daylight. The sky merely appears as a reflection, the artist’s emotion triumphantly rises above the motif. At Giverny, Monet had found his haven. This was the place that allowed him to take his time experimenting with the floating harmonies of light and color, and guide his art towards a highly lyrical experience. Finally, the exotic tones of the “Japanese Bridge” in the water lily series and the rose path in “Garden Path at Giverny” dissolve into a symphony of colors.