(c) beyeler fondation, basle, schweiz

Nipponese Influence in Monet‘s Art (Satis Shroff)

It was a beautiful day in May with just the clouds moving languidly across the sky above the Rhine Valley. You could see the Vosges beyond the vineyards of Kaiserstuhl and the Schwarzwald seemed to be receding. It was lunchtime that I arrived in the second biggest town (after Zurich) in Switzerland, namely Basle. This Swiss town has almost the same population as Freiburg. I headed straight for Minamoto: a Japanese restaurant to fortify myself..

Apero was Riesling Kung Fu Girl, followed by Salat Kaarage, which turned out to be a salad compositae, as the French call it, with baked poulet pieces  in a plum vinnaigrette. Mundgerecht, as we say in German.  I opted for the Minamoto Don: meat in a Japanese onion sauce with Bei Shoga ginger. I skipped the Tiramisu because my inner man doesn’t prefer it and  chose Umeshu-plum wine choya.

Influence of Japan: Why does my visit to an art museum begin in a Japanese restaurant, you might ask. Monet was fascinated by the picture series of Japanese artists. For instance the landscape-painting with a row of poplars by Audo Hiroshige is one of the 69 stations on the way to Kisokaisso (1835-42). Through the passage of time Monet’s similar series of paintings were sold as single pieces and are scattered throughout the world from Boston and Chicago to London and even Japan, where it all began.

Monet and his Impressionist friends were fascinated by the way how Japanese artists created lighted colour spaces and enhanced the art. The colour wooden paintings of ‘Tsukuda at Fullmoon’ by Ando Hiroshige is an example. Monet’s bridge in Giverny is an expression of his homage and admiration to Japan, especially the bridge of Hiroshige.

Great Impressionist: Now I was ready for the 20th century anniversary of Fondation Beyeler devoted to one of my favourite artists. When you enter the Fondation you’re greeted by an outsized black-and-white photograph of Claude Monet (1840-1926). The great Impressionist started reorienting his art work after the demise of his wife Camille in 1879. He was the pioneer of Impressionism    but later he left it to others. Unlike other painters of his time, Monet was growing independent financially as seen by his journeys to Mediterranean, the Atlantic coast and , of course, London. He dedicated his work to subjective sensations ‘the strange and tragic’  quality of landscape, as stated in a letter he wrote to his second wife Alice Hoschede.

The exhibition has 62 works which have been borrowed from European, American and Japanese museums, and from rare private collections. When you observe all these paintings you begin to be awed by the endless possibilities of playing with your palette of colours. You discovered Monet’s diversity in art.

Recurring themes: One thing that strikes you is not only the choice of pastel colours in blue, orange, yellow and red but the recurring themes of the lily pond and the subtle differentiation of shadows in his art, whereby the shadows and the mirroring effect of the ladies fishing from a wooden Norwegian boat and the poplar trees appear in countless variations.

Ice floes become lilies: Winter is a hard, cold, frosty, icy season in Europe. History has shown that two great armies suffered heavy losses not from Ivan’s artillery but the enemy winter. The winter of 1879-80 was particularly cold and caused waterways to freeze—even Monet’s beloved River Seine. The thawing ice at night caused the ice to crack loudly. Monet went out to paint the spectacle and created a dozen paintings of the riverine winter landscape with white chunks floating in the thawing river.

The water lily pond in Giverny became a great motif from 1899 onwards. The layout of the Giverny garden was inspired by Japanese wood block prints. Monet used superb brushstrokes to evoke water lilies, algae, reeds, grass, bushes, leaves branches that dangled to the water surrounding a Japanese bridge. Monet’s garden came to its flourishing existence through his own perseverance: he dug, planted and cut out the weeks himself. And in the evenings the children watered the plants.

Although there were protests, he let the river Ru to be diverted to a pond where he planted meadows, iris and bamboo. The water surface was covered with exotic lotus flowers. This pond remained the middle-point of twenty-five years of Claude Monet’s life.

Claude Monet was born in Paris in 1840. In his days art just wasn’t ‘in.’ He spent his youth in Le Havre, a harbour town. He didn’t like school but he was a promising caricaturist. Even as a youth he earned a lot of money through his caricatures of the citizens of Le Havre. The local artist Eugene Boudin talked him over to accompany him during his outdoor paintings.

‘Suddenly a veil was torn away and my calling to be an artist stood there,’ said Monet. His father didn’t like the idea but eventually allowed him to study Art in Paris. Monet had to do military service in 1861, was sent to Algeria. When he came back to Paris in 1862, he decided to make a name as a free artists. Monet’s family bought him free from military service under the condition that he continue his Art studies in Paris with his teacher. Claude Monet was obstinate and went to the atelier of Charles Gleyre against his will. Gleyre hurt his feelings deeply by criticizing the way Monet painted. But Monet met also similar thinkers: Frederic Bazille, Alfred Sisley and August Renoir. They painted together in the forest of Fontainbleu.

In his painting ‘Sunset on the Seine in Winter,’ Monet uses warm scarlet hues which form a contrast to the cold tones of the scene. The setting sun is a red fireball, which is reflected in the water in pink and orange hues. The ice floes dabbed in brush strokes of white and blue  impart the picture flashy patches and impart the impression of  ice floating on water. Monet experimented with this method and used it successfully by putting water lilies instead of ice floes. A genial transfer of technique from one theme to another.

More in haystacks than meet the eye: Haystacks in detail backlit with strong sunlight showing long shadows cast by them. The haystacks and grain were fascinating because they were painted  from various angles and light-conditions. The farmers in the Black Forest and alpine countries (Switzerland, Austria) do the same to store their harvest.

The pioneer of abstract art Wassily Kandinsky observed Monet’s painting in Moscow in 1896, and for him it was a work of artistic revelation. Kandinsky simply couldn’t identify what he was looking at. He said: ‘..for the first time, I saw a picture. That it was a haystack, the catalogue informed me. I didn’t recognize it..Painting took on a fairy-tale splendour.’ (W. Kandinsky, Reminiscences, 1913).

In the painting ‘Jean-Pierre Hoschede and Michael Monet on the Banks of the Epte’ the artist depicts the riverbank in pastel  tones with a series of naked poplar trees. There’s a certain rhythm the way the poplars and their reflections are shown, whereby the reflections of the poplars appear just as grand as the original objects above the water.

After Camille’s passed away, Monet lived with his two children and the six children of his companion Alice Hoschede. They lived in a big house in Giverny, which Monet bought in 1890. This was a period in which the artist filled his canvas with humans. Thereafter, he devoted his time singularly to landscapes.

Low tide at Varengeville: Claude Monet went to Normandy in 1882 for several months and lied in a town called Dieppe. But it was the fishing village of Pouriville where he painted the wonderful landscape: rugged chills and the Atlantic. His works with magnificent clouds reflected on water pools, in the background the receding tide. It’s amazing how the master captures,, fixes and reveals the objects and translates into unforgettable images with light and shade in pastel and oil. Monet loved to experiment with different angles and perspectives on the same object.

Like his contemporaries, Claude Monet and Alice also went to Venice in 1908 as tourists and were so happy at the Piazza San Marco with pigeons around them and even perched on their heads. Monet wrote: ‘She was so proud of my drive.’ He also painted the gondolas of Venice and found the extraordinary light in Venice  fascinating. Since she didn’t want to return to Venice alone after Alice’s death, he started working in Giverny with his Venice paintings. He said: ‘It is difficult. I always have to think of her, when I paint.’

London’s beauty and the fog: ‘Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is the fog that gives it its marvellous breadth. In 1870 he painted ‘Views of the Thames in fog.’ He returned in the winter of 1899 and the following year. He had a view of  the Waterloo Bridge to the left and Charing Cross Bridge to the right. While painting London, Monet was perplexed by the fog because it was fickle and changed fast. He had to work feverish simultaneously with many pictures, and created around 100 works of art in the British capital. Monet began with the Houses of Parliament in 1900 and they were finished and signatured  in 1903 and 1904. He set up his easel on the terrace of St. Thomas’ Hospital in London to paint the Houses of Parliament at Sunset. He re-worked on the paintings for three to four years.  Like a work of literature, where writing is re-writing, the artist works on his themes till he has the impression that he can’t add anymore after an incubation period of several years.

I remember talking with my friend Herbert Tombreul after a vernissage about how long it sometimes takes to paint and finish a theme. You can actually see certain paintings   have taken time to be what they are. For Monet, the challenge comprised in conveying the visual impression experienced at the moment of watching the object.

Monet didn’t idealise London. He transferred the fog, light and atmosphere into their respective hues.

What does the artist or poet in you see when you look at an object? How do you see it? An interesting question to ponder about.

I’ve embarked on my homeward journey to the Schwarzwald. The sun is going down, as the scarlet double-decker train moves towards Freiburg from Basle Badische Bahnhof. You can see the blue Vosges mountains in the distance and rows of green bushes, interspersed with apple trees. Past Efringen-Kirchen. The while plastic covers of asparagus mounds lie bundled in a coerned of the field. A beautiful sunset, the sky above has retained its bluish colour. A Luftwaffe jet is climbing vertically in the distant sky, leaving behind a condense vapour trail.  The train stops at Auggen a short while, then starts slowly after the doors slam shut. It gathers momentum on its way to Offenburg via Freiburg. Next stop: Müllheim.

The small  fiery ball in the distance above the mountains has a scarlet glow, as we pull out of Müllheim.Stretches of light green grass and yellow rape seed flowers appear. ‘Meine Damen und Herren, der nächste Stop ist Freiburg im Breisgau. Der Zug hält hier.‘