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Artist: Claude MONET
Title: Waterlily pond
Lender: Museum of Modern Art, New York
Monet painted hundreds of metres of canvas for the Grandes décorations: more than a hundred large oil studies and over forty works (2 metres high by 4.25 to 6 metres wide) — one of which is the great Waterlily pond. He used twenty-two of these to form eight huge murals. They were his gift to France, installed in the Orangerie in Paris only after his death in 1926. He began work on the Grandes décorations in 1914 and, in 1915, despite the outbreak of war and the shortage of manpower and materials, he had a huge studio built to accommodate his grandiose scheme. Monet had to struggle against his anguish at the horrors of the war, the deaths of almost all his old friends, and the growing threat of blindness.
Preliminary drawings in Monet’s sketchbooks confirm the influence of the dynamic linearism and expressive empty space of Japanese screen painting on his conception of the Grandes décorations. In Soken’s pair of screens, White herons in summer and winter, the artist has painted superb freehand drawings of a willow and a stream with banks accented by bamboo, set against shimmering, silvery space. In Monet’s drawings, bold, shadowless, abstract lines sweep across two pages of a sketchbook, creating long horizontal compositions from the curved banks of the pool; willows and reeds are silhouetted against empty paper that stands for the radiance of water. In other drawings the paper is blank except for scrawled ovals representing lily pads. Monet gradually abandoned the idea of depicting the bank of the pool, probably because it created a barrier between himself or the spectator and the water, and because it made space measurable. In all the Grandes décorations, the centre of the painting is open, empty except for reeds or waterlilies (in some, banks and plants in the foreground were roughly painted out). Monet was probably influenced by the Japanese use of emptiness. Soken’s willow and bamboo set against silvery space that dissolves in front of one’s eyes finds its analogy in the vaster emptiness of the Two willows.
Monet began painting Waterlily pond with huge sweeps of the brush, building up large areas of colour with thick, scumbled paint, and great scrawls of colour over them. With his damaged sight, he must have been painting his memories of light. Yet for all its material density, the painting is a vision of immaterial light. Monet used emptiness to suggest the infinite.
In Yu¯sho¯’s screens Bamboo and morning glories and Pine and camellias, the partially seen forms of nature melt into misty distances. Three panels are almost empty, articulated only by delicate bamboo leaves or pine needles and by soft vibrations which may be clouds or may be water, but which draw the eye into them until the mind dissolves into the infinite space. Other screen paintings are more abstract. For example, in Pampas grasses attributed to Tosa Mitsuyoshi, a series of beautifully spaced, curved brushstrokes on a gold ground draws the eye across the panels, giving an astonishing sensation of the luminous expansiveness of space. There is an analogy here with the way Monet animated his surface with repeated curved strokes that temporarily coalesce as waterlily leaves, but which also move the eye across the horizontal surface.
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