Friday, August 09, 2013

Monet Forgetting Himself in the Faces of Others

Benedict Coleridge writes:

I found myself some days later at another Melbourne cultural offering — the National Gallery of Victoria's Monet exhibition. Everybody loves Monet, his work has therapeutic qualities — his waterlilies draw the world up close, enfolding the viewer in a matrix of colour and sensation.
But one of Monet's works stood out in a different way — the portrait of his young son Jean Monet, painted soon after his mother Camille had died. The little boy gazes at the viewer with a bewildered sadness in his eyes. It's the kind of image that draws one away from fantasy, the fantasy of strongly independent selves and Facebook visionaries and even the fantasy of Monet's garden.
In the medieval world, at least in urban settings, people living outside of the decorative centre of town wouldn't have seen much in the way of colour. But walking into a church they would have been met with the splendour of icons, rich with colour. The icons weren't just pretty, they pulled people into relationship with their subjects — you can't stand in front of an icon and not be engaged by the eyes and face. As Rowan Williams writes of Byzantine icons, 'the image gives directions, it essays a way of bringing you into a new place, a new perception'.
For me, standing in front of Jean Monet was equally engaging. One walks in from the outside world, perhaps composing a tweet, and then there is Jean Monet who just lost his mother and doesn't understand it, whose eyes speak of regret and confusion. Only a year before, Claude Monet painted a portrait of his wife lying on her deathbed. In the painting Camille Monet looks as though she is wrapped in a shroud, or covered by flowing water. Here is an image at once full of stillness but alive with motion, the body is still but life flows outwards towards the edge of the picture — it's a deeply meditative piece of art.
And it comes to mind that Monet, in a period of deep grief and loss, made what was in his career a rare decision: to paint other people. The artist forgot himself in contemplating the faces of his wife and his son, in depicting the faces of death and of incomprehension. And it struck me that we need icons like this — icons of incomprehension, reminders of the fragile self that, behind its virtual armour, is beset by doubt and demons.

Source: Benedict Coleridge, Human Faces of Monet’s Demons, Eureka Street, 8 August 2013.

Image: Portrait of Jean Monet.