(that is, Mr. Monet’s Non-flowers)

[~ 12 minutes]

Listening to: Marika Takeuchi, Far Away

{Spanish version can be read here}

Tis the year 1895.

Seven months before the Lumière brothers publicly demonstrate how movement can be captured onto still film, a man works in his garden a few kilometres north of Paris.

Twelve years have passed since he chose to set roots in that corner of the world and began puttering around in his garden, transforming what had once been a provincial patch of nondescript greenery into a little piece of plant paradise. Yet he’s no common gardener: the whole world admires his canvases, his brush-strokes’ exquisite ability to capture the fleeting impression of a moment. He has painted stations, oceans, fields and cathedrals. However, and unbeknownst even to himself, a new chapter in his artistic life is about to begin.

’Tis 1985, and while elsewhere wars are kindled, scientific discoveries made, writers convicted for ‘gross indecency’… in a small French village, a love story between a man and a plant has begun. For no less than twenty-five years, the artist’s brushes shall return to his green muse with the devotion of a loving spouse. And, in his tireless tracing of her oval leaves and stellar bursts of blushing petals, he shall consecrate her status as an iconic flower in the history of painting.

self-portrait-with-a-beret-1886.jpg!Blog

Yes, you do know who I am talking about. The painter is Claude Oscar Monet (1840-1926).

And his green Muse? Why, his beloved Nymphéas, or course.

And if Monet = Waterlilies,

and Monet = Impressionism,

we then have that

Impressionism = Water lilies.

Never mind that it was a different painting which lent its name to the movement. In the end, the very concept of Impressionism seems to coalesce around Monet’s garden—a garden which even absorbs the poor village’s entire toponym, Giverny. A garden which becomes a sanctuary of sorts for the latest generations of Impressionists, the Givernistes, who go on pilgrimage to Monet’s paradise in search of inspiration.

But, what if, instead of painting water lilies, Money had devoted the last 25 years of his life to painting the same person, over and over again? What if he’d been like Degas, sketching ballerinas year after year after year?

What if, by some magical spell, those water lilies on canvas became women?

If they were water nymphs instead of flowers, wouldn’t anybody feel the slightest bit curious about their stories?

Hylas and the Nymphs (J. W. Waterhouse, 1896)
No, the painting isn’t Monet’s; it’s by John William Waterhouse (Hylas and the Nymphs, 1896), a contemporary of Monet’s. I’d dare say that the water lilies they’re wearing on their hair are Nuphar luteum, and Nymphaea alba

Where they come from, how they ended up splashing about in Monet’s pond. How they manage to spend all day in the water, patiently posing while the sun-dappled surface of the pond sparkles and light strands get tangled in the painter’s brush, then spread on canvas for eternity.

Why some are fair-haired, others dark-coloured, their cheeks glowing red, copper, yellow or ivory.

Had they always been there, or did Monet find them somewhere else? And if so, where did he find them? How did he meet them, how did this watery love story begin?

How easy it is to spin questions while staring into the evasive gaze of a flock of nymphs.

Easier yet to never think of a single one while staring at their plant incarnations, with their buoyant constellations of leaf and flower.

And yet, their stories are there.

Just as cuisine and gastronomy encompass far more than what happens inside the kitchen walls, plant-inspired art goes far beyond the apparently silent canvas hanging on the wall. Every painted plant is quietly awaiting our questions, and their answers don’t limit themselves to the finished work —not even to the garden where Monet immortalized them.

No. In order to understand their stories, we must jump over the fence and, one question at a time, tug at the thread that will eventually unravel the fabric such mysteries are made of: where did the water lilies come from, where were they cultivated? Who did so, when, why?

Every plant on canvas is a quiet challenge that’s awaiting our curiosity.

Those familiar with Claude Monet’s oeuvre are well aware that he didn’t only paint water lilies. Many other plants graced his works, and we could certainly choose them as a plant-thread worthy of our attention. We could try to find out more about the stories that are: see what plants he painted, delve into their past and unriddle the chain of circumstances that conspired to place them in the right place and the right moment so they could seduce Monet’s eye.

Nevertheless, the stories that weren’t can be just as intriguing.

Those which speak of absences. Subtle, harder to detect, and thus often more mysterious.

Which is why I’d like to bring your attention to an aquatic absence I knew nothing about until recently, and that I find very intriguing:

I’ve been utterly unable to find a single artwork where Monet painted lotuses (Nelumbo nucifera Gaertn.).

(If anybody has seen one and can correct me, pray do so; I’ll be forever grateful).

Jarrón con Peonías (1882), Paeonia sp
Vase of Peonies (1882), Paeonia sp

He paints agapanthus, irises, poppies, chrysanthemums, peonies, wisteria. Mums, peonies and wisteria which come from the Far East, from a legendary Japan whose woodblock prints captivated and inspired whole generations of artists, including Monet himself. Indeed, and judging from the painter’s own correspondence, a Japanese gardener might’ve visited Giverny in 1891.

The same Japan whose fascination with the sacred lotus is emblematic.

Although the land of the rising sun boasts of at least one species of indigenous water lily (Nymphaea tetragona Georgi), art doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to it, and ’tis Nelumbo nucifera who steals the aquatic plants’ show. Take, for example, the country’s oldest poetry anthology, the Man’yōshū (7th cent); there we find several poems hailing the sacred lotus (we find it as hachisu), whereas water lilies are conspicuously absent, their green shadow nowhere to be found.

Yet Monet never paints lotuses..

And I wonder, first of all: why?

Then there’s a part of me, the one that enjoys asking implausible questions (what if…?) and spinning chimerical futures in answer, that wonders beyond the whyWould Monet’s oeuvre, and thus Impressionism itself, have been the same if his chosen plant motif during the last 25 years of his life had been lotuses instead of water lilies?

Would the equation Impressionism = Water lilies still hold?

water-lilies-1899.jpg!Blog
Water lilies, 1899

Were I a painter instead of a writer, I believe my fingertips would be itching to explore that question, despite the knowledge that no answer could ever be reached. What ifs never lead to certain answers —assuming those even exist, at that, and that they’re singular rather than multiple.

Be as it may, for those who enjoy concrete answers, all hope is not lost; we can always turn our enquiries to our first, and better-defined question:

Why didn’t Money ever paint lotuses?

One reason might be that it was materially impossible for him to do so: if there had been no way to see and/or obtain lotuses at Giverny, we would have a good explanation for our nelumbiferous absence.

However, it’s not a valid objection. We do know that, when Monet bought his Nymphaea (among other plants) in 1894 to the nursery of Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac, his order comprised as many lotuses as it did water lilies:

  • 2 Nymphaea Flava (N. mexicana)
  • 2 Nymphaea ‘Laydekeri Rosea’
  • 2 Nymphaea Sulfurea Grandiflora
  • 1 Nelumbium Album
  • 1 Nelumbium Japonicum Roseum
  • 1 Nelumbium Luteum
  • 1 Nelumbium ‘Osiris’
  • 1 Nelumbium Speciosum Roseum

During the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1889, Latour-Marliac had caused a stir in the horticultural world with his successful hybridisations among Nymphaea water lilies. A lesser known fact is that his horticultural efforts also involved lotuses, which he painstakingly and lovingly hybridised from both Japanese and American stock in his nursery at Temple-Sur-Lot.

His weren’t the first lotuses born on French soil (or, rather, water); they already grew in several parts of France, among which the Jardin des Plantes of Paris. Thus it would’ve been perfectly possible for Monet to have seen Nelumbos, even before contacting Latour-Marliac.

’Tis true that in those days, the Western world was convinced that Nymphaeas and lotuses belonged to the same family, but Monet was apparently aware that the latter’s needs differed from those of water lilies. Latour-Marliac addressed the painter’s concerns on lotuses’ proper care and their chances of survival in Giverny, sending him specific instructions along with the purchase receipt:

“Lotus are perfectly capable of growing outdoors in the Eure department, as is mentioned in the catalogue. The rhizomes must be planted horizontally and carefully covered with earth in the pond where they are to be planted. They should not be placed in more than 50 cm of water.”

*Area where Giverny is, in Normandy.

Another intriguing detail: much has been made of the wide colour palette that those new hybrid water lilies brought to Monet’s pond. However, the lotuses that arrived at Giverny alongside the hybrid Nymphaea would’ve been the more colourful bunch of the two: white, yellow, pink and ruby red (‘Osiris’ lotus, c. 1890) against one pink and two yellow water lilies.

Monet's lotuses
The lotus on the right is the cultivar ‘Osiris’ (picture (c) Latour-Marliac, used with their kind permission); the two central ones are the biological species N. nucifera (on the right) and N. lutea (on the left); the last one depicts a white variety.
Monet's-nympheas
Monet’s water lilies as listed on his purchase slip: from left to right, we have N. mexicana, N. ‘odorata Sulfurea grandiflora’, and N. ‘Laydekeri Lilacea’ (well… to be honest: they are the closest varieties I’ve been able to locate on Latour-Marliac’s website). All pictures (c) Latour-Marliac, used with their kind permission.

So, on the one hand we have proof that at least five lotus rhizomes made it to Giverny.

On the other, we have Monet’s artistic production, where lotuses are conspicuously absent.

And I wonder:

is it possible to be a painter, grow lotuses in your garden, and forgo to paint them?

I don’t know about you, but I personally find it highly unlikely.

I’d be more inclined to think that, as others have speculated, those lotuses neither settled nor thrived in Monet’s pond, and thus became Mr. Monet’s most intriguing Non-flowers —or at least they are to me.

The nursery founded by Latour-Marliac is still an active provider of lotuses, water lilies, and other aquatic plants; on their website they humorously mention that

Had he [Monet] had better luck with the lotus, his paintings Les Nymphéas might have been Les Nelumbium!

Yet if it’s true that plants are resources for the mind, and that each can evoke different feelings and inspire different metaphors, could one just swap water lilies and lotuses, and obtain the same 25 years of artistic obsession in Monet, only nelumbiferous instead of nympheaceous?

From the moment he began painting them until his death, water lilies appeared on more than 200 canvasses that have enthralled the eyes and fired the imagination of countless experts and art lovers alike. They’ve been studied and analyzed, dissected, described. In their interpretations, empyrean words and comparisons abound.

Star-like flowers, leaves like clouds floating on a still sky.

They see Monet’s brushwork distilling the very essence of time, while the circadian nuances of day and night tinge the watery patches between the lily rafts.

water-lilies-16.jpg!Blog

Sometimes water lilies seem to be an excuse, the lure that draws Monet’s gaze towards the radiant interplay between light, air and water; in fact, he even acknowledged something very similar to this. He’d certainly always nurtured a profound fascination with these elements, long before he ever set eyes on a Nymphaea. Yet perhaps the plants did coax his gaze to rest long enough on the pond’s still waters, giving him time to remark upon their mirror-like, almost magical qualities: when bereft of wind and movement, the skies could descend from above, come alight and alive on the surface.

For such purposes, water lilies are the perfect co-conspirators. Planted in containers to curb their proliferative urges, their oval leaves and jewel-like blossoms constellate atop the water like green archipelagoes sprinkled with colour.

Plant constellations, strewn like stardust on a water-infused sky.

And if the pond surface somehow becomes the sky, then water lilies become both star-like bursts of colour, and cosmic anchors to orientate ourselves by: they are the only telltale sign that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the painting is still earthbound. They whisper No, dear, you’re not looking heavenward; ’tis only an empyrean illusion of light and shadow, shattered into rainbows of luminescent hues.

Lotuses, however, are an entirely different story. They don’t float; they thrust up and into the light. They don’t rest on surfaces; they rise above them. They don’t blend into mirages of liquid skies, but transcend them instead.

I personally believe lotuses aren’t easily cast into the role of secondary characters, certainly not as willingly as water lilies. They are the stars of the show, second to none.

nelumbo-estanque
Gurgle-chat with water? Hah. If anything, they’ll chat with the people sitting next to the pond…

Unlike Monet’s water lilies, lotuses don’t stay whisper-close to water: they could never dialogue on a face to face basis with a pond’s surface. I thus find it difficult to see how Monet’s hypothetical Les Nelumbium could’ve been a carbon copy of his Nymphéas, only substituting lotuses for water lilies.

This goes both ways, of course: trying to turn the Lotus Sutra into the Water lily Sutra would be absurd, as would be telling the Buddha —or any lotus-riding Hindu divinity for that matter— that they should hop off their nelumbiferous heights and sit on water lily pads instead. I don’t think they’d be comfortable even on a Victoria amazonica leaf, regardless of its huge size.

breakspace-2I don’t know if Monet was saddened by the failure of his “Nelumbium” at Giverny, but one thing appears to be certain: he didn’t order any more lotuses from Latour-Marliac. It’s almost as if our painter-gardener resigned himself to their absence after his first failed try, and focused all his energies on his Nymphéas instead.

water-lilies-19.jpg!Blog

I don’t know whether things would’ve turned out differently had it not been thus; but I’d like to think that maybe it was the very absence of lotuses that which allowed him to explore the metaphorical depths of his water nymphs in all their richness.

Perhaps it was because of this non-flower, that monsieur Monet could delve into the murmured conversations between light, sky, water, leaf and flower, until they became the centre and essence of his artistic maturity.

Because sometimes ’tis the void of an absence that which enables us to discover, and fall in rapture of what is present, in the here and the now…

… and, if you happen to be Claude Monet, you may then transmute the ephemeral into the eternal, a moment that shall forever live in the history of painting and of gardens.

breakspace-2

Yes, this translation (from an original article in Spanish, published in August 2015) has been inspired by much reading about the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse. Although I’d dearly love to visit it, I very much doubt I’ll be able to, alas.

button-offerr

break-pabajo-1

References&Resources

No, I haven’t committed to memory everything that happened in the world in 1895, but I do remember Wikipedia’s web address. So go, go find out what was going on back then; you’ll find there, too, what writer was convicted for ‘gross indecency’, in case you were wondering…

All dates concerning Claude Monet’s life, I’ve checked mainly in two books:

  • Willsdon, C. 2004. In The Gardens of Impressionism. Thames and Hudson.
  • AAVV. 1978. Monet’s Years at Giverny: Beyond Impressionism. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The last one, by the way, is freely available online as a PDF download : )

If you enjoy nitpicking, you might’ve noticed a slight incongruence: Monet dies in 1926; I mention that his nympheaceous love story begins in 1895. If you do the maths, then 1926-1895 = 31 años. And yet, I also declare that his love story spans the last 25 years of his life. How can it be?

Right. So I’ve got a theory.

I’ll confess that all statements aren’t mine: I’m simply quoting Willsdon’s book, where the author repeatedly refers to those 25 years. My take on this is the following: yes, sure, 25 years… during which waterlilies are Monet’s favourite artistic motif, often to the exclusion of everything and anything else. The only possibility I can think of that could solve the puzzle and erase any contradictions is that, between 1895 and 1902, Monet’s paintings depicted many other things besides waterlilies. In VVAA (1978) it is mentioned that in 1895 Monet painted three canvasses of the pond; and in 1897, an eye witness who visited Monet at Giverny, saw already waterlilies in the works, huddled in Monet’s studio. That could solve the mystery…

All information concerning Monet’s order to Latour-Marliac’s nursery come straight out of their own website.

Concerning the sacred lotus’ mention in the Man’yōshū (7th cent), two sources:

Péronny, C. 1993. Les plantes du Man.Yô.Shû. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose: 57 (hachisu)

Griffiths, M. 2010. The Lotus Quest: In Search of the Sacred Flower. Vintage Books: 157-159.

Concerning Latour-Marliac’s lotuses (their Japanese origin, their hybridisation in France), and in addition to the information provided by the nursery’s own website, check out Griffiths, op. cit.: 84.

I’ve had the pleasure to read several books about Monet and his waterlilies; the first one (from which the mention to the givernistes came out, by the way) is the aforementioned Willsdon (2004). My favourite though, which I wholeheartedly recomment, is the concisely poetic book by Vivian Russell, Monet’s Water Lilies.

Obviously there’s a lot more to be said in connection with Monet about waterlilies, than about my non-flowers, the absent lotuses; still, I have found a woman who guides tours around Giverny and writes a blog, Giverny News (in French though…); she does reflect on Monet’s non-existent lotuses, here [FR, opens in new window/tab].

Pictures et al

All Monet paintings come straight out of Wikiart. Monet’s self-portrait was completed in 1886; the digitized series of Les Nymphéas may be seen and downloaded from the section devoted to them on the website, right here.

The painting by Waterhouse also comes out of Wikiart.

The pictures from the lotus ‘Osiris’, as well as those from all of Monet’s Nymphaea waterlilies (N. mexicana and the two hybrids) come out of Latour-Marliac’s catalogue. Believe me, leafing through that catalogue will make you want to order waterlilies and grow them in your bathtub. They gave me their kind permission to use them so I could illustrate the article, something for which I’m very grateful (and will eventually use as an excuse to buy a chawanbasu for myself).

Pictures of the white lotus, as well as Nelumbo lutea, come from Wikipedia, here and here.

And what little else remains is by Yours truly.

Heartfelt thank yous

Once again, thanks to Bea for a wondrously fast and accurate revision of this text. I said it once, will say it again: you are a star!

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2 thoughts on “Les non-fleurs de Monsieur Monet {EN}

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