La Saison de Claude-Oskar Monet
Anyone who suffers from seasonal allergies will understand what I am going to say. It begins with the accumulation of histamines within the body, usually in the springtime. As the body’s immune defenses become debilitated through pollens of various types, allergies tend to intervene. If the system is in ill repair, these stealthy viral intruders may intensify, further preying on their subject. There is a strong physiological and psychological basis for these reactions. One such manifestation, not found in the customary empirical data, is a hyperesthetic reaction. This degenerative allergic symptom is capable of inciting extreme lethargy, primarily in the human retina. Such a reaction was widespread among connoisseurs in London and Paris in 1872, the year that Claude Monet spun out of control and painted his most sordid experiment in the cylindrical impact of light, “Impression, Sunrise.” This unfortunate aesthetic experiment would ultimately disclaim the value of art to all but the moneychangers, their gallant wives and decadent escorts, thus inciting allergic symptoms among collectors of art that have endured for nearly a century and a half.
Aestheticians know well the penumbra of gradations, yet pay less attention to hard contrasts. And even if aesthetics lends itself to the dark side of art, it is clearly not a systemic enterprise, especially given the mental and sensory components that harness, and at the same time diminish, our conceptual immune systems. More likely than not, the causes relate to a deficiency in the subject who is specifically predisposed to such recurrences. Often this may be traced to a limitation in the subject’s ability to engage with a non-utilitarian entity for which he or she is neither focused nor prepared. Without the purview of aesthetic consciousness, this hypothetical lack of visual acuity will necessitate a surrogate—namely, an obsession with a hyperbolized market—that is, in essence, a desire for the accumulation of art that should have been violently disposed of long ago. The obsession to retain such waste will most assuredly incite a flourish of allergies concurrent with the times: the utter absence of a cogent sensibility with regard to corporeal matters, wherein mental and sensory devices impinge upon a self-centered lassitude—beguiled by nothing, enabled by nothing, curtailed by nothing, other than the indeterminate sequence of allergic blips that scatter randomly across an empty screen. Is this the post-historical future that we have entered? Have we suddenly transmuted into a throng of automatons anticipating the next trend inevitably conceived and manufactured in high style by an international watchdog that lavishes in the silken suds of an increasingly glib art media?
So what season are we in? I wonder, as I recline against a sweet-smelling haystack on a blithe autumn afternoon muttering Monet’s middle name over and over again—“Oskar! Oskar! Oskar!” Between these hyperbolic enunciations comes the contrapuntal sneezing, the itching ears and nostrils, the nausea, the indefatigable watering of the eyes in which the saccharine colors of Monet all run together. The rhythmic sound and visual effects of these allergic synapses are fascinating to observe, but only by distancing oneself from the incessant contortions forever on the verge of suddenly giving forth. One fundamental respite or diversion (as the case may be) from such nasty and unpredictable sinus outbreaks, often accompanied by severely swollen glands, is to contemplate the obsessive sculptural portraits of F. X. Messerschmidt. These portraits are known to represent extreme expressions of certain allergic reactions, and for many who suffer inflammation of the sinuses, Messerschmidt may provide a reflexive analysis of symptoms latent within the viewer. However, any such relief is temporary and essentially a displacement of the actual symptoms. Therefore, the effects offered by the sculpture of this Teutonic dyspeptic are limited and short-term at best. Moreover, the problem at hand is related not to the work of this abject scoundrel but to that of the well-known French chromophobe, Claude Oskar Monet. The mere sound of his name incites sneezes between the vowels.
Most museum visitors do not know—and have not considered—that Monet had a middle name, let alone the name of Oskar, except for those who spend time in Basel. There, the tiny placards that accompany each of the artist’s multitude of landscapes within the venerated Kunstmuseum are destined to include three names instead of two. Over and over, visitors are expected to read ad nauseum—“Claude Oskar Monet”—beside each oil on canvas. Furthermore, you will kindly note that his nom d’entr’acte is spelled with a “k” and not with a “c” in Switzerland. Why do you suppose? Basel, as we know, is fundamentally a German-speaking town with an authentic German “kitsch” kitchen. Therefore, the inhabitants would like you to know that the painter was not all true-blue, i.e., French. There was some German in the mix, interrupting the flow between the two names at either end, the family name and the given name. Yet, how sweet the sound without the Oskar. But if you say to yourself, “Claude Monet,” you soon will be hypnotized by these golden phonemes, by those illimitable vocables, emanating from the French-speaking world. Then, as you enter the galleries of the Basel Kunstmuseum, you get the cold shower, so to speak. Your illusions of pastel purity run down the drain. There, amid the paintings of sweet-smelling poplars, you may softly ululate, “Monet n’etait pas français, seulement! Peut-être, c’était un homme du nord-ouest!” In fact, he was raised in Le Havre at the other end of France, where he belonged. But then came the tepid influence of his teacher, Boudin, precipitated by that monstrous ego, Johan Jongkind, who painted systematic views of Notre Dame Cathedral years before Claude founded his atelier on a cold winter’s day in 1892, across from the Cathedral Rouen, a mere 40 kilometers from his sacred Nymphéas in Giverny.
Has the season for Monet already passed—or has it just begun? Whatever the case, let’s just call it the Monet Season. Why not? “My, oh my—How time flies,” as the English expression goes. Even so, it would seem that the season is right! Stacks of hay are bundled in the French countryside most any time of the year, but particularly in the fall. This is the season in which the farmers make hay for the winter days ahead. One may presume a touch of melancholy here, a nod toward expressionism, even though we are told by the venerated historians of art that Monet was an Impressionist, presumably because he painted impressions. He did not express himself like Munch, for example, or even van Gogh. He was not a Symbolist, but moving through the architectonic landscape on his way to something else. He was not trying to pull the interior self out into the world, but to keep the outer self outside where it belonged through a temporally limited, though extended, act of delimited perception. To his credit, Monet endorsed the concept in his work of “the objective passage of light.” I cannot recall where I read this phrase, whether it was Roger Fry or the French color theorist Chevreuil. Regardless, I find this remark significant in omitting the unbearable nostalgia and sentimentality associated with Monet’s colors. The exceptions are, to a degree, in the “Haystacks” (1891) and in the “Rouen Cathedral” (1892). Each canvas within each series was obsessively painted using a dry glazing technique fraught with titanium white. Each was accomplished over the course of several days during a particular time each day, meaning he came to his site-specific gravitas with a stack of canvases ready for his all-day stint, changing paintings like underwear every two hours. As the light shifted from mid-to-late morning, Monet was compelled to put one painting aside and work on another. At noon he would repeat the process, often skipping his déjeuner, working frantically against the passage of light, working against time, so to speak. The artist would begin at dawn and work till dusk. On some days he would paint the span of an entire 12-hour day on six canvases. Mais oui! Le déjeuner est très importante! The vivid production of these plein-air paintings was systematically programmed over the course of several days, whereby each canvas was given its appropriate time in order to secure the most accurate light.
In comparison with the facade of the “Rouen Cathedral,” the color of the “Haystacks,” also a product of the le paysage de le fin de siècle, appears less maudlin and more “scientific” in its application. In either case, they are less given to the blithering, if heart-wrenching, nuances of “Les Coquelicots” (1873)—a plein-air scene of parasoled strollers mindlessly cavorting amid a field of red poppies. So blustering and precise are these poppies, one may be tempted to inquire if Monet sublimated his desire to remove acne from the human skin and return it to nature. Was he, in fact, seeking the naturalist lifestyle of Jean-Jacques Rousseau as a requiem for human dignity through some kind of painterly expulsion or exorcism? Whatever the reason, it is for certain that whatever was lost in the maudlin poppies, he would gain in the “Haystacks,” thus happily substituting the infestation of one allergic symptom for another. Inevitably, the presence of these paintings may engender what Americans call “hay fever”—a condition that severely reddens the eyes and swells the sinuses, generally arriving in the spring anywhere from April through June, when the grasses and trees wildly flourish.
Allergies—whether physiological, psychological, dietary, or aesthetic—exist in solitary confinement in the body of the host. When they appear outwardly there is little recourse other than to accept the consequences. There are antihistamines and related medications, of course, preferably taken through optical vectors with some form of guidance—an accomplice (if a repository is used), an experienced docent, a milkweed concubine, or a Buddhist monk. If the latter is employed, followers of the Pure Land sect are generally discouraged. Beware of any Siddhartha who dons a leather vest! Ingestion through optical vectors is safest among secularists seeking aesthetic taste, not sentimentalists seeking investment strategies, especially during the early twilight when the sunset stirs the emotions and tears begin to emanate from watery eyes, and suddenly out of nowhere oracles present themselves as solicitors advertising La Saison de Claude Oskar Monet.
Yet the question still lingers: What is the true season of Monet? Where did he discover this ultimate infestation—this pungent sorcery—to assist him in bolstering his lethargic eyesight, his vengeful cataracts and swollen glands? There, amid those maudlin plein-air landscapes—those lethal poplars and bulging, infectious haystacks—we begin to sniffle and sneeze, to exude viscous substances, unctuous specimens that can only be attributed to the strategic or unconscious circumstances of noxious allergens? First we must inquire as to the true nature of Monet’s late aesthetic amid the wisterias that cling and climb over the elevated protractor represented in his final canvases as “Le Pont Japonais.” Where, in fact, do we begin to acknowledge the cause and effect of this relationship? For Monet there is always another beginning that seethes beneath the surface. Is it the pond or the bridge, the lilies or the reeds, the color or the antiseptic delirium of space and time, confused to the utmost, lacking a clear understanding of what aesthetic truth is at bay? Where it will find itself in this chaos of a changing perception of life based on the ambivalent reception of technological advances? Whether our inquiry commences with a soft, bristling light in the gray skies over the River Thames, or we indulge in the final gasping moments of the maestro’s brush swirling again and again in order to resurrect those insipid ukiyo-e lilypads, there is always a new beginning, a renewed awakening, and a raucous allergen seeking its opponent in the landscape of tumultuous haystacks, wreaking havoc from the countryside to the urban excitation of La belle époque!
As the maestro’s brushwork swirls in the night, the dark purples and violets grow colder and darker, the salacious green weeds run wild and wet, and the distempered chromatic primaries infiltrate the pond trickling through the stark light and shadows of the sacrosanct jardin de Giverny. The errant history of emancipated brushwork is further dispensed by the maestro himself. Secure on his rattan throne beside Rive du Ru, a tributary of the impervious Seine, we sense the ultimate impressions of wistful wisteria engendered by this intrepid Impressionist Goliath. As Oskar’s eyes redden, his chroma turns green; as his nostrils expand, his lily pond turns purple; as his ears begin to itch, the weeping willows clutter the surface, the sky becomes a liquid refraction, and tree trunks bend their axes in an attempt to disguise the hideous overpainting of dabs of white blossoms easing the tension of this otherwise raucous and decrepit color. His allergies augment their intensity as these morsels of pictorial flatulence await their turn to inhabit museums in Paris and Basel, Boston and Kansas City, and eventually Chicago. Ah, yes! Chicago with all its yellows and blues! Like dewdrops on those powdered cheeks and chromium purple eyelids of porcelain-faced ladies from Kansas, the sneezing, tearing, choking, and sputtering become a heightened auditory sensation at the auctions. In the event that La Saison de Monet is present or looming nearby, my advice is to brandish a silk handkerchief and prepare for the worst. Sneezing at the auction is simply not de rigueur.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.