It is rare, and always impressive, when an older artist turns a winter’s passion into a new body of work. If we knew Michelangelo Buonarroti only from his work after 74 years of age, he still would be considered a great artist, or rather a great architect: the final plan and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome are his design. Henri Matisse began his paper cutout series at age 78 when he was too ill to get out of bed. Again, if we knew only this more graphic style, and the books, interior design, stained-glass windows, and textiles that the cutouts engendered, we would still consider Matisse a great artist with a major influence on the art and design that followed. But, in a way, the last works of both Michelangelo and Matisse can be seen as a continuation of the aesthetic philosophy developed throughout their lives. Monet does something more daring. Monet’s choice is to turn Impressionism on its head; the paintings change from the specific to the general; he takes on the avant-garde and becomes an abstract artist.
A Change in Aesthetic Goals
This evolution of Monet’s last style can be told as a story about edges. As the series of Rouen cathedral paintings progresses, the edges of the architecture dissolve. It just happens that there is a recognizable building: it is not drawn and filled in. By 1892 (the orange-lit Rouen façade in the Marmottan) the painting is cropped so that the edges of the building are outside of the canvas. This is clearly willful, as the artist, seated in the same spot, previously pictured the edge of the facade to be in the painting. As the light plays across the architecture, different features, such as the tympanum, advance and recede; the stone dematerializes into light. Architectural ornament becomes gestures of brush and paint.
After 1906, another type of edge is discarded. In painting the water lilies, Monet moves the bank of the pond, which is effectively the horizon line, up the canvas until finally it is off the painting. The view tips up. This is not flatness; rather, there is a volume on top of and also behind the canvas, as in Glycines (1919–20). Now the edge of the canvas itself disappears, as the paintings become more horizontal, encompassing our peripheral vision, even to the extent of being continuous ovals.
Finally in Roses (1925–26), the surface of the canvas as the plane through which we see is discarded. The blue that is both sky and ground is slapped on top of the reds and oranges of the roses. What is figurative is almost completely lost in what is paint.
Painters draw edges and fill in; Monet escaped from that. The paintings flicker between subject and object, between figure and gesture. No longer an observation of the hour of the day, they become a meditation on the passing of time. And in so doing, as an old man, Monet made the break, the terrifying break, with reality, cut painting off the world, made it pure sensation, made it abstract.
In the 1950s, art history was psychoanalytical: artist so-and-so did what he did because he was a repressed homosexual, the Agony and the Ecstasy, and so on. The 1960s rejected so romantic an approach for the formalist: an artist inherited a tradition of making a work of art and structuring the response of the viewer, and then played with that tradition. The artist’s life experiences and personality were largely irrelevant. In the 1970s, Linda Henderson, myself, and others argued for a more contextual approach: artists exist in a culture whose members all have the same opportunities and limitations of consciousness. It is our human destiny to expand our awareness. In a way, everybody (artists, mathematicians, scientists, jurists) is working on the same problem. Unfortunately, “context” has often been seen as another way to focus on identity politics, and there is less understanding of the broader movement of consciousness. Now perhaps it is time to return to the life experiences of the artist.
Bodies, minds, brains change and age. People make art and people are changed by circumstance. If art history cannot know that, then what can it know?
A Face in the Clouds
The Water Lilies – The Clouds (Detail)
I have described Monet’s last paintings in formal terms, as a story of edges. I have also mentioned the aesthetic context and Monet’s desire to compete with younger artists and their new painting of the abstract. But what of Monet himself? Such an absorption in self, to be the center of a vortex of sensation that includes no companions, speaks of a degree of misanthropy, or at least feelings of isolation. There were deaths: his second wife Alice in 1911 and his eldest, closest son in 1914. And Monet had more and more trouble with cataracts; he surely knew about Degas’s blindness. Monet’s delight was in seeing the world; he must have felt that world closing in on him. I may be seeing things, but is there a face in the painting called Les Nuages at the Orangerie? If so, then the forehead, closed eyes, nose, mouth, ear, and beard are all in their right places. And if so, it is a portrait of the artist as an old man.
A longer version of this essay was first published on TonnyRobbin.net.