I have recently returned from a solo trip to Paris, the main purpose of which was to see a great deal of art. I succeeded in this, and I took quite a lot of notes as I was doing so. Some of the museums I had never been to before, and so I’ve recorded them, as an extension of my usual ‘First Impressions’ pieces. Here is the first of these entries, a ‘First Impression’ of the Musee de L’Orangerie, in the Jardin de Tuileries, in the centre of Paris. Within this piece is of course a first impression of Monet’s paintings for which the museum is famous.
Entering the L’Orangerie feels like entering a temple. The large, rectangular building (similarly proportioned to an Ionic Greek temple) is entered from the end, and you are drawn into a fairly wide, open space, as your ticket is checked. From here one is drawn into spaces of decreasing size, until one is led into a curving passageway. It all feels rather mysterious. The walls are tall, thick, and white, and the curvature is such that you can’t see where you are going. The passage then opens up into the wide, oval room which holds Monet’s Nympheas. These are given priority in the museum, understandably (there are certainly the main tourist attraction within the museum). Four doors separate the four paintings. Alas few visitors paid attention to the request to ‘please visit in silence’m giving the room more the feeling of a medieval cathedral than a modern temple. Just as I wrote that the steward sat forward from her chair and shouted ‘shh!’, and then requested silence. Alas, another request that went almost completely ignored.
Each of the four paintings is quite different. Almost to the point where it is difficult to see them as a single work, as the curvature would suggest. It does however, with the gentle curves leading you round the painting, have a similar feeling to a Chinese painted scroll – you feel that you are not supposed to view even one painting all at once, but rather to progress around it. The paintings almost ask this of your, adding the movement of the viewer to the animation of the brushstrokes.
Bold though it may be to say this, it is almost harder to believe that this was all created by one man than it is the huge Renaissance fresco cycles, simply because it seems to beautifully woven together out of apparently disparate elements. The brushstrokes are huge (probably made using the thick hogs hair brushes that were popular with the Impressionists). Though as first glance you can see why it is popular to call Monet’s work of this period ‘almost abstract’, in fact I feel that the more you look the more order you see. They are labelled Green Reflections, Morning, Clouds and Sunset, and it is clear which is which. Despite the large brushstrokes and the sometimes unexpected colours, it is clear that he was still trying to capture the affects of light and weather, in the reflected surface of his garden pond. It is thought that he built the pong at Giverny for this very purpose, and in the painting you can see his delight at the different effects he has been able to achieve.
On a side note, I can’t help but be dismayed at the short period of time most people stay in the room for. In the time I have been wirting, three sets of people at least have come in, plonked themselves down on the bench, stared for a bit, and moved on. While the museum, and France as a whiole, may treat Monet as a kind of cult figure, he is the figure for a cult which few people seem to feel great devotion to or interest in. Those who do stay for longer seem to be delayed largely by the fact that they haven’t finished the track on their audio guides.
There is a strong sense of the tactility of the paint in these works. Attention is drawn (whether this is deliberate or not is another matter) to the surface of the painting by the fact that the canvas is frequently visible, and that the brushstrokes are almost incomplete, you can feel the brush dragging the thick, sticky paint across the rough canvas. While the paint is obviously applied in several layers, I think several layers must have been allowed to dry before the next one was applied – the surface has an almost chalk-like, plastered appearance in places. In other places you can see little bits of paint that have flown off the brush as a different stroke was speedily applied. The joins between the canvases that make up each painting are obvious: while some strokes carry over, some stop abruptly, suggesting that in the early stages they were separate, while in the latter they were not. The brushstrokes really are massive, in places inched wides, and some have several colour within them. They are a ticket of strokes which are confusing when viewed close, but from a distance (cliché coming up) coalesce into forms. Not necessarily recognisable, solid forms, but rather forms evocative of certain conditions. They remind us of things we’ve already seen as much as they suggest a sight in their own right. It is truly astonishing that Monet was able to build such a dense array of strokes and colours into a ‘finished’ painting. The vision he must have had must have been incredibly sure. I suspect he also used very long brushed.
Jackson Pollock’s art is sometimes compared to Monet’s of this period (in fact, the Tate Modern has made a direct comparison in its hanging), but the key difference is really that Monet did not aim at abstraction. They may both build up brushstrokes intricately, but there is no doubt that Monet aimed at recreating something he had seen in nature. This is perhaps what makes this work so popular – it has a sense of modernity, vitality, and freshness, but it is still grounded in the recreation of natural forms, a universally popular theme in art, which gives it a comforting sense of familiarity.
What is almost more fascinating than how Monet handles light is the way he depicts areas of shade. Clouds has dense areas of shadow at either side, particularly on the right, but neither is actually black – he follows the Impression (and ultimately Newtonian) principle of using coloured shadow, making this area a richly colour patch of dark purples and greens, resulting in a very realistic feel.
Walking along the painting, letting it unfold on one side of you, the variety and contrasts of colour in the brushstrokes gives a strong impression of light on water. The movement of the viewer animates the brushstrokes, making it feel as if the water is responding to light and movement. This is true of all four paintings.
I have looked forward to coming here for many years, and I can truly say that I was not disappointed: my admittedly high expectations were certainly met.
I now progress to the second room, the passage through to which is blocked stone, not plaster. The Four Willows Room is larger, the paintings longer, but more uniform. Again the impression is amazement that he was able to bring such uniformity to such vast canvases. The trunks of the willows are interesting; like the shadows, they are not solid colours, but a building-up of purples, blues, oranges and greens. If I were to pass judgements I might say that these paintings are prettier than Nympheas – there is a sense of calm given by the draping willows and the subtler variation of colours. There is once again a sense of different times of day, progressing around the wall. I should desperately like to be here on my own. This room feels even more deserving of quiet than the last, and if anything even less receiving of it. I am tempted to get up very early tomorrow and see if I can make it over before it gets busy [I did not, although I suspect such a museum as this is never quiet]. The paintings inspire an almost meditative state, in me at least. It almost feels like there’s just too much of it for my brain to take in, so it’s lulled itself into a semi-conscious state as a coping mechanism. Both rooms are lit from above by a great oval, screened skylight. The steward in this room seems to have completely given up on asking for silence. It is astonishing how thick the impasto is in some areas. It looks like he’s laid a fern over the canvas and painted over it (technical terms here of course!), several times.
Visiting here has been an incredibly experience. I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and have been greatly moved by the artworks.
The rest of the museum is well worth investigating, with a variety of works hanging in the basement of the museum. Artists who particularly caught my eye included Chaim Soutine, Maurice Utrillo, and Derain. The basement has a beautifully polished concrete wall. There is a rather strange wall, a long wall with a light well above, with a single line of Impressionist paintings hung on the line, in intricate golden frames, opposite the modern polished concrete. The juxtaposition made all the stranger by the fact that the paintings include the softer of the Impressionists, late Renoir paintings and such. Interesting and unusual. There is also a little room, Les Salle de Interieurs, which recreates a room from Paul Guillaume’s house. He was an influential dealer and collector (he was Modigliani’s dealer, for instance), and on either side of the Salle there are little models of other rooms of his house, with the paintings he owned, all now incredibly familiar, set in their original places. Quite an interesting little insight into the lives of the dealers of the avant gard art of the time.
On a final note, almost all museums and art galleries in Paris (including the Louvre) are free to EU residents under the age of 25, an offer I made great use of. All that is required is that you show some ID to prove your nationality and age (as it is to hand, I use my passport).
I would highly recommend a trip to the Musee de L’Orangerie, it is one of the most interesting museums I have visited, and its modest size makes it a more relaxing experience than the Louvre, or even the Musee d’Orsay. Well worth a visit for anyone, essential for the art historian.