For an idea of why I’m talking about me as well as the paintings, please see the first post in this series.
14. Irises, Claude Monet (1914-17)
As mentioned elsewhere in this series of posts, as a child (and an autistic child at that) I was rather obsessed with Monet. Happily for me both my mother and absent father have pretensions toward artistry and encouraged this particular obsession with more generosity than anything else I’d shown an interest in, which lent itself to a) a visit to a Monet retrospective at the National Gallery which was I think in 1989 or 1990 and I am sure housed in the basement where the coffee shop and so on now live and b) a grandparents-funded detour on a holiday in France to allow myself and my grandfather (a retired horticulturalist) to visit Monet’s legendary gardens at his house in Giverny.
Although my interest in Impressionism and Monet have waned significantly in the intervening 20 or so years, I have a certain fondness for one or two paintings of his, and this one most of all.
As much as Monet represents a leading light of the Impressionist movement to the world, to me his works – and this work in particular – represent the last vestiges of childhood innocence and precocious enjoyment of beauty untainted by the crippling self-awareness and self-loathing that descended on me in the early 90s and never left. Monet’s house in Giverny represents an indulgence of the sort I’d never had before and never would again: I was not harried and hurried around the gardens, I was not nagged and bossed about what I should be interested in, and I was given leave to take as many photos as I wanted. Sadly because I was 9 or so they were not the best photos anyone has ever taken and the light levels were too low in a lot of them, but what they represent, in hindsight, is what matters.
Likewise the exhibition was a circumstance under which instead of being irritated by my propensity for hurtling about pointing at things and talking very fast, people were charmed by it.
This specific Monet has graced my life for decades in postcard form. My mother, who has always been very fond of irises, has or rather had before her madness a travelling collection of art postcards including this painting and Matisse’s Blue Nude II along with some quotes and some rather less intimidating Jacky Fleming postcards. While I grew to hate the Matisse, the beautiful contrast between the yellows and earth colours of the path and the strangely warm blues and purples that spill out from Monet’s irises and into their leaves has kept this painting dear to me.
Many of Monet’s works from this half of his garden, where the Japanese bridge and the water lilies can be found, revolve around this particular palette. Though the irises themselves are little more than purple splotches against the shadows, the sense of evening light pouring down over the top of the picture and turning the leaves to gold-kissed stripes.
Of course it is light which fascinated the Impressionists and of course Monet was a master in the suggestion of light falling elsewhere, outside of the frame of his painting (one only has to look at his water lily paintings to know this), but there is still something a little magical in how with such broad strokes and only the use of colour he manages to infer so strongly the position of the sun and therefore the time of day, the mood, and everything else you could associate with it.