Last week I had the privilege of spending a day wandering around the galleries of London’s Royal Academy of Arts. To celebrate a friend’s birthday, we treated ourselves to visit the current exhibition ‘Painting the Modern Garden’, a specially curated collection of paintings by 20th century artists whose subject was ‘the garden’. Although there were a whole range of paintings and styles from many familiar and less familiar artists, the main draw was the collection of paintings by the great impressionist, Claude Monet, some of which had never been seen before in Europe.
Monet, it turns out, along with several other well known artists of his time, was a deeply passionate and accomplished botanist; gardening and the cultivation of plants are what gave him his subject matter. The exhibition cleverly leads the viewer chronologically through his work from 1860s through to those he painting during and after the First World War, most famously the Water Lilies and Japanese bridge over his pond at Giverny, north France.
Although I wouldn’t describe Monet as my artist of choice, he is undoubtedly a master of the art of capturing light and water on canvas. I didn’t want to miss this rare opportunity to see so many of his works together. Some of my favourite artists were featured (Macke, Matisse & Dufy) and I discovered some unknown gems (Klimt’s garden). But what I didn’t expect was to learn some very true life lessons.
This was a man who clearly knew what his gifting was, what his purpose was, and even its future value.
When the First World War broke out, he decided to remain in his beloved house and garden at Giverny, a garden he had tended for over 15 years before he put brush to canvas. This despite the trenches being at one point only 50kms away. Being in his 70s, he was of no service to the war effort yet he could easily have taken the safer option and retreated to Paris. Yet as far as he was concerned, he was doing more for the country by staying than not. He apparantly saw it as his patriotic duty to continue studying form and colour. “…if those savages must kill me, it will be in the middle of my canvases, in front of all my life’s work.”
One might be tempted to misunderstand this as stubbornness or mere madness, a kind of King Lear raging at the storm around him. But as we progressed through the exhibition, it was clear that this was no mad man, and that the depth of his anguish at the suffering that the war inflicted was very real. The same subject matter (Japanese bridge, and lilies) change in perspective and tone as we moved through the exhibition: at first soft, dreamy pastel shades, then striking, angry hues of red and yellow, the paint thick and violent in themselves. Willow branches start appearing more frequently, a symbol of mourning. As the years pass, the perspective becomes intensely intimate as he zooms in on just the water and lilies and enlarges the canvas. At last we sense a quiet stillness, a serenity, maybe even peace.
Although failing eyesight and an intimate knowledge of his subject had an influence, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was him coming to terms with the war.
“Aside from painting and gardening, I’m good for nothing” he once declared in 1904. This struck me deeply. At once self deprecating, this was actually a manifesto, a declaration of who is was. If he hadn’t been aware of this or stuck to it, if he’d left Giverny and given up, we wouldn’t have the great legacy that we have today. Genius, excellence, and fulfilling one’s calling requires not just hard work but single-minded focus.
As we reflected on Palm Sunday yesterday, when Jesus resolutely faced Jerusalem and entered that hotbed of a city very publicly on a donkey, I was struck at the similarity of the two men: both knew exactly what they were about and both stuck to it tenaciously, even as the guns, bombs and threats closed in. In so doing, they fulfilled their life’s purpose whilst those around them either thought them daft or crazy.
There’s an important lesson here for those of us living in this hyper-distraction filled 21st century. One I, more than anyone, would do well to heed.
Who knew Monet & Jesus had so much in common?
If you want to visit, the exhibition doesn’t end till 20 April, but booking is essential. Go to https://tickets.royalacademy.org.uk/performancelist.asp?ShoID=2697 to book tickets. The Royal Academy of Arts is in Piccadilly, near Piccadilly tube station, central London. Admission: Adults £17.60, children under 16 and Friends of the RA go free.