Back in April, sitting in the Cleveland Museum of Art and knowing that we’d be in Paris in less than two months time, we decided that after all the many versions of Monet’s Nymphéas, the water lilies we’ve seen in all the many museums over the years, it was time to visit Giverny. We knew that what we’d be seeing was an approximation, a modern curation of Monet’s creation. But the paintings are so elusive, shifting back and forth between representation and abstraction with such ease, that having some kind of reference point in objective reality might not be such a bad thing.
And so we booked a tour out to Giverny, and I’m glad we did it.
Giverny lies about an hour’s drive northwest of Paris, near the town of Vernon. We booked with Day Tours Paris to spare ourselves the driving or the navigation of public transit (if that’s even a possibility). The tour was a mixed bag. On the positive side, we got to Giverny without expending much psychic or physical energy; in fact, I napped half the way there. On the negative side, we spent a great deal of time fighting traffic on the way to Versailles, where the tour dropped half the coach riders en route. Only after spending a considerable amount of the promised five hours of the tour getting someplace we weren’t going (i.e. Versailles) did we embark on the hour’s drive to Giverny. In the end, we had about 90 minutes out of that five hours on site. There was no commentary, no explanation, no insight offered. The “guide” suggested that we check out the water garden with the nymphéas first, before the house and the formal gardens. That was good advice. But I can’t help feeling I got ripped off somehow.
The gardens, all of them, were stunningly beautiful, even on a day that was heavily overcast. There’s the pond with its two Japanese bridges (I’d thought there was only one) and an abundance, a richness of water lilies. Weeping willows hang over the pond, and thickets of yellow iris spring from its shallows. It’s long and narrow, and at one end there was a pair of rowboats tied up, most likely maintenance vehicles. I liked that touch, the notion that this is a living, working creation, a farm of beauty and imagination’s desire.
Across the road (reached via a subterranean tunnel emblazoned with signs warning that it floods easily and a mural that looks strangely like a giant painting by the American colorist Gene Davis) stand Monet’s house and the formal gardens.
You can’t actually walk through the gardens, despite the many paths that cross them. I understand that: everything would be trampled to a pulp an hour after opening time. Still, it’s a little frustrating to be kept to the edges of all that floral glory, the irises and hollyhocks and foxglove and poppies achingly just out of reach. The congestion that results from dozens of tour groups descending in the middle of the afternoon doesn’t add much to the allure either, but there are spots here and there where you can flee the madding crowd, sit on a bench, and contemplate, at a distance, the riotous color, the improbable purples, the palette that reveals itself if you squint just a tiny bit to be the source of a painting you’ve loved.
Of the house I can say almost nothing. The line to enter it was clearly longer that we had time remaining to wait in. From the picture postcards I saw later (exit through the gift shop), it appears to be hung with lots of paintings of the gardens, but that’s only a guess. And I’d guess that, like the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Monet house in Giverny doesn’t have much in the way of masterpieces.
Reading over what I’ve just written, I hear the disappointment I feared I would meet, and yet….
I knew that the crowds would be overwhelming, just as I knew that I would be just another tourist in that crowd, elbowing my way to a place where I could point my camera towards the reflection of an iris in the pond. But in the end what matters is that I saw the point of embarkation. When we went to the Orangerie two days later to see the grand presentation of the Nymphéas that Monet left to the French state, the experience of looking at those paintings, and even the experience of poring over reproductions in books since then, has been enriched in ways that I tried to imagine and still came up short. I’d like to say that I understand the paintings better for having been to Giverny, but they remain so elusive, so puzzling, so challenging that it feels presumptuous to say something like that.
And so I circle back to where I started: I’m glad I went to Giverny. Somewhere upwards of thirty years ago I received Monet’s Years at Giverny as a Christmas present. It was probably the first Christmas that I spent with my adopted family in the South and it was an extraordinary day, with temperatures climbing almost to the 80’s my mid-afternoon. I remember sitting out on our front porch in cut-off shorts with the books slippery with sweat on my legs, entranced by the visions of mornings on the Seine, by the water-lily ponds and the paths full of poppies. I don’t think I dared dream then that I would set foot in those gardens, but I remember the afternoon as one of intense happiness, and while I walked the gardens at Giverny, I was also back in America with people I loved, with friends on the verge of new lives. Giverny has always been a metaphor for the sudden discovery of beauty and happiness. C. S. Lewis talked of being “surprised by joy.” I’m not sure this is what he meant, but yes, I’m very glad I went there.
Two days later we spent most of a sunny afternoon ensconced in l’Orangerie gazing deep into the eight murals of the Nymphéas on permanent display there. I find these gigantic paintings to be among the most abstract in their representation of the water-lily pond among the dozen or so of this series of Monet’s that I’ve been lucky enough to see in person. Without horizon lines of any kind, and in most cases without any sense of a foreground, the water lilies float suspended between the water and the reflection of the skies. The dissolve quite easily into nothing more than pattern and structure. And then they shift back, sliding into recognizable forms, here a cloud, there a willow tree, farther off the deep darkness of a section of the pond where the direct sunlight doesn’t reach. Having seen the physical gardens at Giverny, I found it much easier to summon up the realism in the paintings. But oddly, the abstraction asserted itself powerfully.
Resting as they do on that knife-edge between depiction and pure color, the Nymphéas in the Orangerie are my emblems of the transition from nineteenth-century romanticism to twentieth-century modernism. I’m sure art critics educated in the fine points of historiography would scream at such a characterization; even as I write it down I know it’s inaccurate. Perhaps I should just say instead that these paintings, for the reasons that I have tried to state above, are the threshold of the modern age in painting to me. Reality dissolves into subjective vision. I’m not surprised when I think that many of the paintings in this series were executed almost exactly one hundred years ago, as the great war erupted across Europe. You would never think to know that from these paintings. In that way they look backwards to a more georgic, idyllic time, to a countryside not devastated by the trenches. They truly are works on the cusps of many worlds.