Claude Monet, Grainstack [1890-91], oil, 257/8 x 361/4, Art Institute of Chicago, IL.
By Jack Hines
Most art appreciators are familiar with the career of French Impressionist Claude Monet [1840-1926], particularly his series of paintings on a single subject. In repeated paintings as many as 40 in a series Monet explored London’s Waterloo Bridge, Rouen Cathedral, landscapes of poplars and grainstacks and the Japanese bridge and water lilies at his home in rural Giverny, just outside Paris, France.
For Monet the subjects of these series were not so much the physical objects but the movement of light over identical forms. Form, he theorized, was not seen in the solidity of the objects but rather revealed in the sensual, evanescent patterns of light observed in various climatic conditions and during different times of day.
This serial phenomenon is a captivating feature of the creative process, and in this month’s issue Sandra Bierman, Dave McGary and Rosetta discuss their need to pursue the same or similar subjects again and again. To some, this penchant may seem puzzling, if not down-right repetitious. Without doubt there is an element of “exercise” in the practice. However, examining a sub-ject repeatedly and in depth can also result in artistic validity and maturation achieved in no other way.
Grainstack (top) [1890-91], oil, 255/8 x 361/4, private collection.
Returning to the Monet story…. By the time he began his serial efforts in the 1890s, the 50-year-old artist was an accomplished, admired painter who was able to rest on his considerable laurels. He had no burning need to enter into some torturous exercise in virtuosity in order to draw more plaudits from his public, nor was he attempting to cash in on highly salable subject matter. What drove this artist was an affliction that infects truly creative people: curiosity and the need to stretch personal boundaries of achievement.
Monet imposed upon himself severe subject limitations, then set about an intense process of examining those subjects through light and color relationships, in search of their essential character. As he wrote in the fall of 1890, “I am becoming a very slow worker, which depresses me, but the further I go, the more I understand that it is imperative to work a great deal to achieve what I seek: ‘instantaneity,’ above all … the same light present everywhere….”
Simplicity and forthrightness of compositional structure, to the point of honest, emotive minimalism, are apparent in the 15 grainstack paintings that Monet exhibited in May 1891. Painted at different times of day and in all seasons, the paintings met with critical acclaim. Con-temporary art critic Gustave Geffroy proclaimed that the grainstacks were “transitory objects on which are re-flected, as in a mirror, the influences of the environ-ment, atmospheric conditions, random breezes, sudden bursts of light. They are a fulcrum for light and shadow … in harmony with the distance, the earth and the sun.”
Paul Hayes Tucker, author of the exhibition catalog Monet in the ’90s [1989 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Yale University Press], explores Monet’s many series, concentrating on the artist’s use of the term eprouver to describe the grainstacks: “It refers not only to participation in or perception of an event and the feelings directly associated with it but also to a broad range of sensations, with things revealing themselves slowly so that they become known in their fullest dimension. Thus, it refers to a heightened awareness of knowledge and emotion that is stored in the depths of one’s unconscious, as well as to what one sees and feels in the present…. The grainstacks are about such things as time and change, innocence and age grand themes that were critical to someone as demanding and driven as Monet.”
We can learn volumes from Monet’s self-search. When an artist isolates himself with a specific subject, investigating its every possible nook and cranny, it is inevitable that personal abilities and conceptual capacities will also be tested. Truly great art is invariably the result of examining a subject from more angles than seemed possible at first observation, thereby facilitating understanding and problem-solving.
A word of caution: The in-depth work discussed here must not be confused with work by painters or sculptors who latch onto a single theme and repeat it endlessly, with neither imagination nor growth. Artists who repeat technical bravados such as back-lit crashing waves or trite subjects such as weathered barns or stylized horses are often driven less by exploration than by limited imagination and skills.
The exploration of a theme in a series of work can make an artist content with the sureness of execu-tion engendered by repetition. But it can also greatly expand the content of a subject that at first glance appears limited. When examining an artist’s series of paintings, be sure to peruse as many as possible … and determine for yourself the integrity of the artist’s investigation of both the subject and the self.
Featured in April 1997