'My Head is Bursting' - Claude Monet as you've never seen him before

WORDS BY PHIL GRABSKY

I am sure you all know the wonderful paintings by Claude Monet - especially perhaps the water lilies from Giverny.  It could be said that he is the world's favourite artist - certainly one of them.  And yet it almost never happened.   On the 29th June 1868 the young Claude Monet wrote the following letter:

I must have undoubtedly been born under an unlucky star. I've just been turned out, without a shirt on my back, from the inn where I was staying. I have found somewhere safe in the country for Camille and my poor little Jean to stay for a few days. As for myself, I leave this evening for Le Havre. My family refuse to help me any more.  I don't know where I'll sleep tomorrow. I was so upset yesterday that I was stupid enough to hurl myself into the water. Fortunately no harm was done.

Claude Monet 1899 Photo:Nadar

Claude Monet 1899 Photo:Nadar

Was he rescued from the Seine by a passer-by? Did the shock of the cold water bring him to his senses?  We'll never know but on such moments the world turns. It is so easy to look back at an artist's life and think the path from youth to old age was somehow pre-destined; that such talent had to find its way, no matter what, to fame and fortune.  I think the opposite is true: such paths are strewn with obstacles: many turn back, or lose their way, or are struck down by misfortune and disappear.   I believe Monet lived with his knowledge all his life - he never considered himself (publicly at least) a great artist.  His letters (the basis of a recently finished film of mine - I, Claude Monet - soon to be released in the cinema) reveal a man forever troubled by the fragility of his own talent.  He never felt that he worked hard enough or saw clearly enough.  He was endlessly frustrated by what he thought of as his inability to capture nature correctly.

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899, National Gallery of Art Washington

Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge, 1899, National Gallery of Art Washington

There are two dangers with Monet - one is that there are folk who are simply disinterested in art or the perceived chocolate box nature of the impressionists.  Or there are those who think they know everything there is to know about Monet.  Familiarity can, as they say, breed contempt.  Both camps are in the wrong.  I can argue all day why I think everyone is - certainly should be - interested in art.  It is such an integral part of our daily lives - the way a New Yorker might decorate their apartment, or a Pakistani truck driver might decorate their vehicle, or a Japanese Buddhist might build their temple...and so on and so on.  Nor is there anything confectionary about the impressionists - look closely, look again - look at our cinema screen and see the works in a way that has never in history been possible before.  And look afresh at the remarkable skill and creative imagination of these artists. 

On a surface level there is so much pleasure to be had - look deeper and harder and you'll be even more rewarded.  As for those who feel they know all about Monet, I ask forbearance.  I often hear folk saying 'oh, we know all about...so & so’.  Never is it true.  I thought I 'knew' Monet until I started reading his letters (around 3000 have survived) and, just as importantly, started really looking at his work again - in chronological order.  Throw in the historical, the economic, his peers, the personal, the technological...and what emerges is one of the most fascinating stories in the history of art.  His gaze may well have gradually withdrawn to his own garden, his own lily pond, the reflections on the water but the results tell a universal story as relevant today as the day he died in 1926.   After 85 minutes in the warm, comfortable confines of your local cinema, I think you'll have re-discovered the wonderful, inspirational Claude Oscar Monet.

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872, Musee Marmottan

Claude Monet, Impression Sunrise, 1872, Musee Marmottan