Time and Place: 8:00 Sunday morning, at my main computer in the living room.
Reading: I finally decided to take the plastic wrap off of my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, and read the latest novel by one of my favorite authors. I’m now about three-quarters of the way in, and, while musing that the book could perhaps have profitably been 500 pages long, rather than around 700 (just a little too much repetition and marking time for me), I’m still enjoying it very much. At the same time I’m also a ways into Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, among the most-recommended “advice” books for authors, and one that seems to have lifted me, at least temporarily, out of my recent writing slump (or was it just laziness?)
Viewing: Perhaps it’s because I check out reviews before watching films, or because most of my viewing comes either from my own collection of Blu-rays and DVDs or from reliable sources like MUBI and the Criterion Channel, but I have watched a string of really fine films in the last couple of weeks. Just to mention a few … Love Education (2017) by the multi-talented and prolific Sylvia Chang, Joanna Hogg’s first feature Unrelated (2007; her first three films are all happily available on the Criterion Channel), the classic I Remember Mama (1948), and the most recent, and in my opinion probably the best, film by the wonderful Kelly Reichardt, Certain Women (2016). It is perhaps not a coincidence that three of these four films, all excellent, were written and directed by women.
Listening: I’ve lately been gravitating back toward my usual sort of music – modern and contemporary classical music that straddles the line between consonance and dissonance, between tonality and atonality (or at least free tonality). Recent enthusiasms include the symphonies of Allan Pettersson, orchestral and chamber music by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, and Become Ocean by John Luther Adams, a remarkably atmospheric work that deservedly won Adams the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Living amidst the desert as I do here in Reno, I can hardly wait for Adams’s “sequel,” Become Desert, to come out on CD next month.
Blogging: I’m still not making promises about my blogging on a more regular basis, although I’ve got lots of ideas and plenty of items partially finished.
Pondering: Throughout this morning, I’ve been listening to a very loud bird singing from the tree just outside my front door. Her song seems to have a seven-note core: roughly E, E, E, down to D, up to F#, back down to D, and a return to E. There are a multitude of variations, though. For instance, there can be anywhere from one to four soundings of E at the beginning, at the end there might be an added D or a second E, and so on. It is very pleasant, but it also got me thinking about composer Olivier Messiaen, who was famously obsessed by bird songs, transcribing many hundreds of them and including them throughout his compositions. I’ve noticed that my bird isn’t absolutely predictable about pitch, and definitely has a liking for microtonal variations of her song. This has me considering how Messiaen dealt with these variations, and the ways in which he adapted the songs for fixed-pitch instruments like the piano. I’d like to read more about this.
And finally: Speaking of Messiaen, for many months now I have been enjoying Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s recording of Messiaen’s Catalogue d’Oiseaux, thirteen portraits of birds (their songs, their habitats, their flight) composed in the second half of the 1950s. Even before I’d heard a note of the set, I was favorably disposed to it, having found inside its box, along with the CDs and booklet, a couple of feathers!
I’m a big fan of Aimard’s playing – his recording of György Ligeti’s Études is another great favorite. Having studied with both Messiaen and his wife, Yvonne Loriod (for whom he wrote the Catalogue), Aimard’s Messiaen performances seem pretty authoritative. Before the Catalogue recording came out, Aimard performed the entire set in a very special way at the 2016 Aldeburgh Festival, documented in this short video. I truly would have loved to be part of the audience for this!
Time and Place: 10:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer in the living room. I’m obviously getting my day off to a relaxed, or one might say slow, start.
Reading: It has been a good couple of months since I checked in with a Sunday Salon, so I’ll try to be selective about describing what I’ve been up to during that time. Much reading has occurred, fortunately. Among the books I’ve completed in recent weeks are Hiromi Kawakami’s The Nakano Thrift Shop, Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, Yu Miri’s Tokyo Ueno Station, Belinda Thomson’s Impressionism, and, because I spend more time trying to motivate myself than I do actually motivated, James Clear’s Atomic Habits and the recently-released Keep Going by Austin Kleon.
Viewing: My enthusiasm about the recent launch of the Criterion Channel has been significantly tempered by the fact that its copy-protection methods are incompatible with my seven-year-old television. Therefore, I have to watch its films on my computer. Even so, I may continue the subscription simply because the offerings are so interesting. Film watching hasn’t been a huge focus for me lately, to be honest. But among the fine films I’ve watched are the classic William Wyler version of Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning Shoplifters (as great as advertised), and, a very pleasant surprise of a film I hadn’t heard of previously, Microhabitat, the first full-length feature by South Korean writer-director Jeon Go-woon (thanks to MUBI for making this gem available).
Listening: There are two significant reasons why I haven’t been active on the blog recently. One is that I’ve started a new job as Content Coordinator and Producer at KNCJ Radio, where my task is to bring music, interviews, and such from our area’s excellent classical music community to the airwaves. My other reason for being away is that I agreed to do a series of three ninety-minute presentations on the connections between visual art and classical music for our local OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute). As usual, I vastly over-prepared for all three classes, and much of what I put together went unused. Even so, I learned a lot in the process. The topics were the Renaissance, Impressionism, and music inspired by specific works of art. This allowed me to listen to quite a range of music, from Renaissance choral music (Josquin des Prez and Monteverdi were my faves this time around) to Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead, Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel, and music by the Impressionists Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel (see one example below).
Blogging: As explained above, there hasn’t been much blogging lately, other than posting some paintings that I’ve been dealing with in the OLLI talks mentioned above. I hope my blogging habits will improve … but I’m not making any promises!
Pondering: An unfortunate thing I’ve had to deal with lately is the need to say “no.” In the last few weeks, I’ve been nearly inundated by requests for unpaid work, mostly writing projects but also donations of time and other services for non-profits. While there hasn’t been a project brought to me that wasn’t totally worthwhile, and while I appreciate that so many people like my work and want me to share it with them, I’ve had to put my foot down about how much I can, or want, to take on. I hope to get better at this “no” stuff one day.
And finally: Since I’ve been spending so much time with the Impressionist painters and composers recently, I though I’d end today’s Salon with an example. Water was, obviously, a major theme for the Impressionists. Musically, both Debussy and Ravel turned to the idea often. Maurice Ravel wrote his Jeux d’eau – which can be translated as “Fountains,” “Playing Water” or literally “Water Games” – in 1901, “inspired,” as he put it, “by the noise of water and by the musical sounds which make one hear the sprays of water, the cascades, and the brooks.” Here, Martha Argerich plays it with profound musicianship and appropriately dexterous fingers. This video was made back in the 1970s, but I’m willing to bet she could still tear through this piece in the same way today.
Time and Place: 9:00 Sunday morning, at my main computer in the living room.
Reading: I’ve managed to get somewhat stalled in my reading the last week or two. I’m making good progress in The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin, and have spent a few very enjoyable moments, mostly in the evening, slowly making my way through The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer. Both are quite large books, though, and may not be completed any time soon.
Viewing: A showing on Turner Classic Movies last week of F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise, the first film he made after moving to America from Germany, got me hooked on Murnau again and led me to a couple of his other films. One was his third American film, City Girl (the second American film, 4 Devils, is, sadly and highly frustratingly, lost), as well as the film he made in Germany immediately before Sunrise, the highly atmospheric Faust. I may well continue with more Murnau, moving forward to his final film, Tabu – he died in a car crash at age forty-two right after completing Tabu – and backward to some of his German films, like Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh), Herr Tartüff (Tartuffe), and perhaps even a tenth-or-so viewing of the classic Nosferatu.
Listening: My music listening recently continues to be tied to the program note writing I do. Just a couple of days ago, I finished up notes for the next Reno Chamber Orchestra concert, which allowed me to revisit, and write about, favorites like Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin and the Variations on a Theme of Haydn by Johannes Brahms. Next up are notes for the Reno Philharmonic that will include Antonín Dvořák’s famous “New World” Symphony No. 9.
Blogging: My main post this past week was also inspired by recent program note writing, as I looked at some of the bad reviews received by Pyotr Tchaikovsky over the course of his life. I’ve also finally finished (I think) the article on the connections between Claude Monet’s work and Japanese art that I’ve been considering for many weeks now. That should appear in the next few days, as should a look at Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto, as I get back to the Japanese Literature Challenge I’ve been participating in.
Pondering: I feel myself being pulled in a bunch of different directions lately, and am getting a bit frustrated by my inability to focus on any one thing. There’s the Japanese Literature Challenge. There’s the ongoing program note writing. I’m also making a presentation on “Music and Renaissance Art” in a couple of weeks, and am fairly drowning in facts, dates, names, music, and paintings as I prepare. A couple of potential job offers are floating out there, too. All this and trying to maintain my daily schedule of exercise, meditation, and Japanese language studies are rather overwhelming me. Wish I had a larger, better-functioning brain.
And finally: This showed up on Facebook yesterday, and it provided a nice laugh to end the week.
Time and Place: 7:00 Sunday morning, getting an early start for a change, at my main computer.
Reading: As reported a couple of weeks ago, the reading year has gotten off to a fine start, with eight books completed already, and another two underway! Much of that recent reading has been related to the Japanese Literature Challenge 12, hosted by Dolce Belleza, that I have been participating in. I’ve already posted a review of the first book read for that Challenge, Masks by Fumiko Enchi. Reviews of two further books, Banana Yoshimoto’s Kitchen and The Japanese Sense of Beauty by Shuji Takashina, will be coming in the next week or two. My current focus is a volume I’ve been anxious to read since it came out a few months ago, The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, edited by Jay Rubin (who is also one of Haruki Murakami’s main English translators). For a blog article or two as well as a presentation on Impressionism I’m doing in a couple of months, I’ve also completed Karin Breuer’s Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism.
Viewing: I only watched two movies this week. One was middling, a Korean historical drama called Empire of Lust. But the other, Gabbeh, a 1996 film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, was outstanding, atmospheric and poetic and wonderfully colorful. Makhmalbaf is a prolific, highly-regarded Iranian director, but Gabbeh was just the first film of his I’ve seen. I will be seeking out more!
Listening: My main listening for the last week was related to program notes I wrote for the next concert of the Reno Philharmonic Orchestra. The program is an interesting one: Missy Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (this gave me an excuse to revisit her excellent Vespers for a New Dark Age that she recorded with her group Victoire), Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, and the famous Piano Concerto No. 1 by Tchaikovsky. The latter inspired a short blog post on Tchaikovsky’s bad reviews that I’m going to post tomorrow, so stay tuned.
Blogging: This week saw only the posting of my review of Fumiko Enchi’s Masks and a Wordless Wednesday bit of medieval illumination. Coming this week, I hope, are a look at Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto and the short article I’ve been planning for some time on the connections between Claude Monet’s work and Japanese art. My problem with the latter, which I’ve been thinking about for weeks, is the same one I often have – I enjoy the research too much, accumulate way too much information, and then have a hard time figuring out exactly what my subject is. I’ve got dozens of pages of notes for this darn Monet article, which probably won’t end up exceeding 1,000 words. We’ll see how it turns out, and what I actually end up writing about.
Pondering: I feel strongly the desire to travel, but also feel equally strongly the need to keep a close eye on my finances. What to do?
And finally: Something I came across this week, which has pleased me greatly and gotten itself lodged in my head, is a version of Queen’s song “Killer Queen” played on, of all things, a hundred-plus-year-old fairground organ. It’s much too delightful; the entry of the chorus (“She’s a killer queen…”) makes me laugh, in a good way, every time I hear it. The introduction to the video mentions a version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” for the same organ, which you’ll also find below in case you need it … which you might.
Fumiko Enchi (pen name of Fumiko Ueda) is regarded as one of the most important female Japanese authors of the twentieth century, although, sadly, only a few of her novels and plays have been translated into English. One of the best-known of her novels is Masks, published in 1958. Masks is suffused with the literature and arts of Japan, and this is no surprise – Enchi (1905-1981) was the daughter of a linguist and philologist, and was introduced to both literature and traditional theater as a youth. She had some early writing successes, but her real fame waited until after World War II. Spirit possession and shamanism, especially shamanism among women, became a focus of her work in the late 1950s and 1960s, including Masks.
As Masks opens, Yasuko’s husband Akio, a professor at Tokyo University who studied spirit possession in ancient literature, has been killed in an avalanche on Mount Fuji. Yasuko has decided to carry on her husband’s research while continuing to live with Akio’s mother Mieko, who edits a poetry magazine. Both Ibuki, another professor who is married, and Mikame, a psychologist and bachelor, are in love with Yasuko. While much of the novel is told from the perspectives of Ibuki and Mikame, it is clear that Yasuko and Mieko are the central characters and drive the action.
Each of the three chapters of Masks takes its name from that of a mask from No (or Noh), the ancient theater of Japan. The first chapter’s “Ryo no onna,” a mask of a dead woman or ghost, represents, according to one website, someone “whose beauty has been destroyed by the suffering she has experienced in hell for her passionate attachments.” The mask seems to represent Mieko. All the other main characters come to feel that they are under her spell. As Yasuko says of her, “She has a peculiar power to move events in whatever direction she pleases, while she stays motionless. She’s like a quiet mountain lake whose waters are rushing beneath the surface toward a waterfall. She’s like the face on a No mask, wrapped in her own secrets.”
An old article written by Mieko is uncovered. “An Account of the Shrine in the Fields” tells of the Rokujo lady, a former wife of the Crown Prince who has an affair with Prince Genji in Murasaki Shikibo’s famous The Tale of Genji (between 1967 and 1973, Enchi translated The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, a huge project encompassing ten volumes). The Rokujo lady is also a shamaness whose spirit kills one of Genji’s wives. Mieko sees her as “an archetype” of woman as the object of a man’s “eternal fear, representing, perhaps, the shadow of his own evil actions.” It becomes clear as the book goes on that Mieko in some way identifies with the Rokujo lady. Whether consciously or not, Mieko is projecting a spirit that is influencing the lives of the people around her.
The “Masugami” mask of the book’s second chapter, according to Toyoichiro Nogami’s No Mask Commentary that Enchi cites, represents “a young woman in a state of frenzy.” This seems to refer to Akio’s twin sister Harume, who was born with severe learning disabilities and now lives with Yasuko and Mieko. Ibuki has begun an affair with Yasuko. One fateful night, after his rival Mikame has announced his surprise engagement to Yasuko, Ibuki goes secretly to Yasuko’s home. They sleep together, yet when Ibuki wakes at one point, he mysteriously finds Harume next to him, her face twisted in the manner of the Masugami mask.
Mikame has done some research on the mysterious Mieko. He finds that Mieko’s late husband Masatsugu had a maid, and his mistress, Aguri, living with him when he married Mieko, and Aguri continued to live there after the marriage. When the pregnant Mieko later fell down some stairs and lost her child, it was apparently because Aguri had strategically placed a protruding nail near the stairs on which Mieko’s clothing got hooked, causing her to topple. Later, Mieko has her own affair, and she admits that she really wrote her article on the Rokujo lady for just one person to see – her lover, and, as it turns out, the secret real father of Akio and Harume.
According to the Japanese Performing Arts Resource Center, the third chapter’s “Fukai” mask represents “a middle-aged woman torn by separation from a loved one,” a face “filled with a melancholy that comes from experience and feeling.” Ibuki continues to carry on his clandestine affair with Yasuko, even as it has been discovered that Harume is now pregnant, likely by Ibuki. The family housekeeper Yu speculates that Mieko, or Mieko’s spirit, is somehow taking revenge on Akio and Harume, as well as her late husband Masatsugu because he was not their father. One article, though, speculates that what Mieko actually wants is a substitute for the dead Akio, a child with her lover’s and Akio’s blood. Harume, Akio’s twin, is to be that child’s mother, Ibuki the father, Yasuko the bait, and Mieko the manipulator of all. At the end of the book, Mieko receives as a gift the Fukai mask, and the final image is of Mieko contemplating it: “The mask seemed to know all the intensity of her grief at the loss of Akio and Harume – as well as the bitter woman’s vengeance that she had planned so long, hiding it deep within her…”
Enchi’s descriptions of places and moods are not only careful and precise, but also sensual. All the book’s characters are intellectuals to one degree or another, and so they, like the author, tend to see their situations and actions in the context of Japanese history, theater, and literature. While Enchi possibly presupposes some knowledge of these on the part of her reader, there is sufficient information to provide context for those who are unacquainted. Masks is a most mysterious novel, with fascinating characters and motivations that are rooted in and haunted by the past, yet come to inevitable, painful manifestation in the present.
Time and Place: 9:45 Sunday morning, at my main computer, newly moved to the dining room table (a useful change).
Reading: 2019 has gotten off to a great start in my reading, as I’ve already completed five books! Granted, a couple of these were relatively short, and one was an art exhibition catalog with lots of illustrations. Still, I’m happy about the start. Not only that, but as I mentioned on the blog this week, I’ve joined the Japanese Literature Challenge 12, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. So I’ll be joining several bloggers in focusing on Japanese books through the end of March. Without even knowing about the Challenge, I had already decided to devote a lot of the coming year to novels in translation by Japanese authors. So the Challenge came along at just the right time. I finished my first book for the Challenge, Masks by Fumiko Enchi, yesterday; I hope to write about it in the coming week.
Viewing: After a gangbusters finish to 2018, with seven films viewed in the last five days of the year, I’ve gotten a bit of a slow start this year. I did, however, watch again Hirokazu Kore-eda’s first feature film, Maborosi, in a very nice new Blu-ray issue. The film moved me as much as ever, and remains in my Top Ten films of all time.
Listening: Music has been a bit of a non-issue in my life in recent weeks, so I’ll mention a couple of current favorite podcasts instead, both of which happen to deal with film. I continue to listen to and enjoy You Must Remember This, in which Karina Longworth talks about, as she puts it, “the secret and/or forgotten history of Hollywood’s first century.” I’m currently in the middle of a series in which she analyzes stories from Kenneth Anger’s famous, scandalous, very enjoyable, and occasionally accurate Hollywood Babylon. Newly a part of my podcast lineup is Her Head in Films, in which Caitlin talks about her favorite films in very personal terms. She is attracted to foreign and art house films, as am I, and the repertoire of films she has talked about in the podcast is such a close match to my own tastes that it feels I have found a friend in film in this podcast.
Blogging: My main accomplishment this week was returning to blogging at all. After a month away, this is my fifth entry in five days, which pleases me very much. The pace may slow a bit in coming days, but I have a couple of things in the works for this week, including the aforementioned review of Fumiko Enchi’s Masks and a short article on the connections between Claude Monet’s paintings and Japanese art and gardens.
Pondering: Should I take in some of Noir City 17, the festival of films noirs coming to San Francisco in a couple of weeks? I know I would love it, but I also need to be careful of finances, having little regular income at the moment. We’ll see…
And finally: With his most recent film Shoplifters having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, and with my own recent viewing of Maborosi and The Third Murder, I’ve had the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda, one of my favorite film directors, much on my mind recently. One of the best introductions to his films is this short piece by the filmmaker and critic kogonada that I posted here on the blog several years ago (you can read what I wrote about it then here), and am happy to present again.
I have decided to take part in the Japanese Literature Challenge 12, hosted by Dolce Bellezza. Along with several other bloggers, I will be devoting a lot of my reading time from January to March to Japanese books. Oddly enough, even before finding out about the Challenge, I had already decided that books about Japan or by Japanese authors were going to be a focus of mine this year, and just a couple of weeks ago I made a large purchase of such books (darn you, Powell’s Books, and your online sales!)
This is the reading list I have assembled. While I probably won’t be getting to all of these during the current three-month Challenge, I hope to complete them all during the coming year:
Sawako Ariyoshi: Kabuki Dancer
Fumiko Enchi: Masks
Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki: Oishinbo: Japanese Cuisine, Vol. 1: A la Carte
Hiromi Kawakami: The Nakano Thrift Shop
Donald Keene: The Pleasures of Japanese Literature
Keiko I. McDonald: Reading a Japanese Film
Shion Miura: The Great Passage
Kenji Miyazawa: Once and Forever: The Tales of Kenji Miyazawa
Haruki Murakami: Killing Commendatore
Kenzaburo Oe: The Changeling One Hundred Poets, One Poem Each: A Treasury of Classical Japanese Verse The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
Sei Shonagon: The Pillow Book
Shuji Takashina: The Japanese Sense of Beauty
Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen
I’ve read almost all of the works by Murakami that have been translated into English, and have enjoyed several books by Oe and Kawakami. For most of the other authors, though – even popular novelists like Yoshimoto – the above books will be my first experience of them. I’m sure there are some great discoveries ahead. My first book for the present Challenge, Fumiko Enchi’s Masks, is already underway, and proving to be quite fascinating.
I am very much looking forward to this Challenge, and to learning more about Japanese literature!
Time and Place: 9:30 Sunday morning (I slept in), at my main computer at home.
Reading: This week I finished two books, Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe and John David Anderson’s delightful Granted. I’m now at that great moment where I get to choose my next book – but haven’t yet!
Viewing: With the end of FilmStruck in just a few days, I’ve been engaging in a bit of a marathon of film watching, more or less a double-feature every day. I’ve completed watching the early Ingrid Bergman films included in the Eclipse DVD set Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years, seen a bunch of Japanese films from the 1950s through 1970s (perhaps my favorite segment of film history), and even made room for classics like last night’s viewing of Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, with the unbeatable combination of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. I’ll miss FilmStruck very much, but also look forward to the new Criterion Channel on its way in a few months.
Listening: Not a lot of music in my life this week, although I’ve been enjoying Recurrence, featuring the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daniel Bjarnason playing works by contemporary Icelandic composers.
Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies
Bloomsbury, 2016, 404 pages
By 1914, Claude Monet, now seventy-three years old, was ready to give up painting. His eldest son Jean had died that year, just three years after the passing of his beloved wife Alice. Monet’s own health was poor, his eyesight failing due to cataracts. World War I was looming, with the assassination in Sarajevo of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June. Yet the world-famous painter, newly inspired, carried on with some of his most adventuresome works, including the huge paintings of the water lilies at his Giverny home that are the subject of this book by Ross King.
King, a well-known Canadian art historian, has made a name with his books about great artists and their masterpieces, including Leonardo and The Last Supper, Brunelleschi’s Dome, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, and another work about Impressionism, The Judgment of Paris. Mad Enchantment is yet another such winning combination of biography and art history, with an abundance of fascinating digressions and a helpful wider historical context.
Giverny, a picturesque small town around forty miles northwest of Paris, was home to but 250 or so when Monet first visited in 1883. Years later, the walls of Monet’s home there were covered by his own paintings and his extensive collection of Japanese prints. His renowned garden, including a lily pond and his famous Japanese bridge, was populated by water chestnuts, wisteria, rhododendrons, Japanese apple and cherry trees, and water lilies of various colors. While he once had traveled widely for the subjects of his paintings, after 1890 or so Monet focused his attention on the area within a few miles of his home, eventually dealing almost obsessively, in hundreds of paintings, on his own garden, pond, and flowers.
Claude Monet, Water Lilies (1906)
In the spring of 1914, Monet started painting on huge canvases for the first time since youthful efforts like 1865’s unfinished Luncheon on the Grass (recently seen in San Francisco at the Legion of Honor’s exhibition Early Monet). He started to describe this series of big works as the Grande Décoration, calling to mind the public murals by the likes of Delacroix, and began seeking out large spaces where his work might appear.
Monet always wanted to capture his subjects in their particular circumstances of light, color, and atmosphere: as he once said, “to render my impressions before the most fugitive effects.” Guy de Maupassant was among the many who observed Monet’s peculiar way of moving between “five or six paintings depicting the same subject at different times and with different effects. He worked on them one by one, following all the changes in the sky.”
King describes Monet’s technique: “Monet chose canvases with a pronounced weave, one whose weft threads were thicker than the warp. He then applied a series of undercoats, allowing each one to dry before adding the next. He brushed his paint at right angles to the weft so that its threads trapped more of the pigment, creating a series of corrugations and giving the canvas what has been called a ‘textural vibration.’ In other words, he used his pigments and the texture of the canvas to suggest both the ripples of water on the surface and, in the declivities marked by the warp threads, the underlying depths.” Eventually, surroundings like sky and the opposite bank disappeared – except as reflections – as Monet concentrated on the water of the pond, and what lay on and below it.
A focus of much of the Grande Décoration is, of course, water lilies. As King describes, aside from the many appearances of the water lily, and its relative the lotus, in mythology from Egypt and India to the Aztecs – with which Monet was probably unfamiliar – the water lily had a multitude of associations in France. King mentions a number of these, “the mysterious and the unknown, the feminine, the oriental, the exotic, the voluptuous, and often, at the same time, the sinister, deathly, and gruesome.” The fact that water lilies anchor themselves in the mud, and their beautiful flowers blossom on the surface of stagnant waters, held symbolic meaning for writers ranging from Maeterlinck to George Sand. Stéphane Mallarmé was by no means alone in finding the water lily symbolic of the mysterious, hidden, and inaccessible: “those magical, still unopened water lilies which suddenly spring up there and enclose, in their deep white, a nameless nothingness made of unbroken reveries, of happiness never to be.” Water lilies have for many a distinctly feminine quality. Even a common French name for the water lily is nymphéa, or water nymph, described by King as “the female deities of place, always represented as young girls, graceful and naked, who personify the forces of nature, haunting the waters, woods, and mountains.”
Claude Monet, Nymphéas (c. 1907)
Little could persuade Monet to set aside his work on the Grande Décoration, even the outbreak of World War I, which his longtime friend and former Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau early on dubbed “The Race Into The Abyss.” For many, art was quickly coming to seem irrelevant. As one newspaper of the time phrased it, “Throughout the terrible tests imposed on us by the abominable war, art can hardly raise its voice except to make a complaint.” Many artists, including Braque, Derain, and Léger, were themselves soldiers. France underwent waves of optimism and pessimism in the course of the War, one of the worst of the latter being the bloody Battle of Verdun, with its hundreds of thousands of casualties (and in which Monet’s son Michel was one of the combatants). France’s government faltered, going through three prime ministers before giving Monet’s old friend Clemenceau the opportunity to serve once again.
Monet carried on. He had a huge new studio built on his property, even though he continued to do much of his work out-of-doors. We are lucky enough to get a glimpse of this in Sacha Guitry’s 1915 film Ceux de chez nous (Those From Our Home), which features footage of Rodin, Renoir, and Monet as well as people like Camille Saint-Saëns and Sarah Bernhardt. Monet even made his way to Paris in November 1915 to see the film’s premiere – silent, of course, with Guitry’s live commentary accompanying it. Totally uninterested in film otherwise, it is said to be the only movie Monet ever saw.
As he followed the events of the war closely from Giverny, Monet continued to work, both on the Grande Décoration and on smaller paintings of his Japanese bridge and the weeping willows by his pond. King finds evidence of the war and of Monet’s personal struggles in these “vertiginous” bridge paintings with their “bloodred accents,” and the “contorted branches” and dark colors of the weeping willows suggestive of “torture and suffering.”
Claude Monet, The Japanese Footbridge (1920-22)
Finally, on November 11, 1918, an armistice ending the war was signed, after more than four years of fighting, 1.4 million French citizens killed, and more than 4 million wounded. Clemenceau was recognized as a national hero. Within a week of the armistice, and around the time of Monet’s seventy-eighth birthday, Clemenceau traveled to Giverny to visit his friend. Among their topics of discussion was a home for the Grande Décoration, which Monet planned to donate to France. Only a portion could be exhibited, given that by the end of 1920 the Grande Décoration encompassed, according to Monet himself, 45 to 50 panels, in fourteen series, all but three of the paintings roughly 14 x 6.5 feet (the others were even longer).
One plan for their home, a Musée Monet housed at the Hôtel Biron, where a museum devoted to the sculptures of Auguste Rodin was already located, was rejected. Then Monet’s attention turned to the Orangerie at the Louvre. A deal was struck for the Orangerie to be remodeled so as to become the home of nineteen Monet paintings spanning some 274 feet, arranged in eight sets or compositions, with titles like The Clouds, Green Reflections, The Three Willows, Morning, and Reflections of Trees.
Claude Monet, Le bassin aux nymphéas (1919)
Monet continued painting even as his eyesight continued to deteriorate; an ophthalmologist he saw in September of 1922 found him legally blind in his right eye and with only 10% vision in his left, leading him to two surgeries in January and July 1923. By 1924 Monet felt that he couldn’t complete the paintings for the Orangerie on time. In a crisis of confidence, he canceled his donation.
But he continued working. Again and again in Monet’s life, the deaths of those close to him – his stepdaughter Suzanne, his first wife Camille and second wife Alice, his son Jean – released in him the need to paint. It happened again in 1925 with the death of another stepdaughter, Marthe. Monet returned to work on the Grande Décoration, speculating that it might actually come to completion by the spring of 1926. By then, Monet’s health was in great decline. As he told Clemenceau of his paintings, “When I am dead, I shall find their imperfections more bearable.”
Monet died on December 5, 1926, with Clemenceau and family members at his side. King quotes a writer from Le Figaro who attended Monet’s funeral three days later: “Normandy was dressed as her painter would have wished. In the still waters of the river vibrated the thousands of glitters of gold, pink and purple from which he had made his palette. The waters reflected a mysterious sky of pink, purple and gold, dissolving poplars, and the misty outlines of low hills. Normandy was a Monet.” Two weeks later, twenty-two of Monet’s paintings were rolled up, taken to the Louvre to be photographed, then forwarded on to the Orangerie.
The Musée Claude-Monet finally opened at the Orangerie in May 1927. By this time Monet’s star had dimmed somewhat, and tastes had moved on from Impressionism. Not many people attended the opening, and the reception of critics was at best mixed. Light at the Orangerie was poor, and few visited the paintings in ensuing weeks, months, and years. Not until 2006 was the space restored and natural light returned. Nowadays around a million people visit the Orangerie each year.
The first work one sees on entering the Orangerie is Green Reflections, described thus by King: “From a background of brilliant blues and deep greens leap bright blossoms of water lilies: flames of burgundy and yellow, amaranthine tongues, flashes of salmon pink – what seem to be dozens of distinctive colors all delicately harmonized.”
Claude Monet, Green Reflections (1914-18)
King ends his book with a description of “the darkest and most unsettling of the compositions,” “his most disquieting vision,” Reflections of Trees in the second room. In the middle of “gently fluorescing twilight,” one sees “the sinuous apparition of a willow glimpsed upside-down in reflection, a liquid shadow wreathed in clouds of blue lily pads. Its bifurcated trunk forms an anguished human body, even perhaps a drowned shape passing through the shadowy fathoms … in this wraithlike afterimage we feel the painter’s rage and suffering but also his defiance and resilience.”
As this is my first blog post in quite a while, I will resist the temptation to detail my activities over the last year-and-a-half, and just talk a little about the last week or two (and the future!)
Time and Place: 7:30 Sunday morning, at my main computer at home.
Reading: In an attempt to find motivation, feed my creativity, and address my ever-faltering self-esteem, I’ve been spending a lot of time with self-help books recently. The one I’d like to call special attention to is Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit, perhaps (along with Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist) the best book on creativity that I’ve ever come across. Tharp is direct, detailed, revealing of her own pretty astonishing creative life, and full of practical suggestions. I’m also currently in the middle of Michael Pye’s very entertaining and informative The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe, and have been eyeing hungrily my as-yet-untouched copy of Haruki Murakami’s new book Killing Commendatore.
Viewing: The imminent demise of the invaluable FilmStruck service – apparently to be replaced in a few months by the new Criterion Channel announced a couple of days ago – has led me, and many others, to try to go through our queues of movies before FilmStruck disappears on November 29. My focus has been on two areas: expanding my knowledge of the works of Japanese directors like Kon Ichikawa and Masahiro Shinoda, and becoming acquainted with the films Ingrid Bergman made in the early, Swedish part of her career (many featured in the Eclipse DVD set Ingrid Bergman’s Swedish Years). I’ll save for another time the overwhelming experience of last night’s viewing, in its beautiful new Criterion Blu-Ray edition, of Andrei Tarkovsky’s magisterial Andrei Rublev.
Listening: Over late October and early November, I spent a couple of weeks writing program notes for a chamber music festival. It was such an intensive and awful experience – 63 compositions and 16,000 or so words written (edited down to 10,000 for space) over fourteen days! – that I came out of it with a genuine, and I suspect temporary, aversion to classical music. So I’ve been checking out lots of other fun stuff: Thai and other southeast Asian pop and folk music, my old favorite Stereolab, Bollywood soundtracks, and more (see below for another example). A lot of my listening, too, I have to admit, has been to my own music, as I’ve recovered my music-writing groove and am busily assembling bits of what will eventually be a long piece that I trust is going to be great!
Blogging: As I mentioned above, this is my first blog post in a year and a half, but I’m pretty sure not my last. I’ve been accumulating some content which will be turning up here soon, as well as developing a new project about which I’m going to remain silent for the moment. More news soon! By the way, my Twitter feed is now much more active than before, so I encourage you to follow me there.
Pondering: I left my previous job, a very demanding and time-consuming one, about three months ago. As with the last time I left that organization, it has been a difficult transition, especially on a personal level. I had always guessed that most of my friendships within that workplace, even some of the close ones, were not actually friendships but rather relationships of convenience, existing simply because of my title and possible utility to people. It’s not really unusual or surprising, nor am I really complaining about or condemning those people. But it has admittedly been painful to see my social circle diminished by something like 95%. However, I’m also extremely grateful for the people that have stuck with me and stayed in contact! And my social horizons are growing, gradually…
And finally: I’m pleased to share some music by a recent, very pleasant discovery, Khruangbin. This Houston-based band brings together a diverse group of influences, from Thai pop music to progressive rock to surf-rock instrumentals to film scores and more, via the rock-solid grooves of drummer Donald “DJ” Johnson, the hypnotic and melodic bass playing of Laura Lee, and the virtuoso guitar of Mark Speer. When I found out that (1) Laura Lee came up with the name Khruangbin, Thai for “flying engine” or “airplane,” because she’d been studying the Thai language at the time and liked the word, and (2) they have a website, AirKhruang, where they put together Spotify playlists of cool and obscure music from around the world, I knew this was a band I would like. Their NPR Music Tiny Desk concert features three songs: “Maria También” is a great introduction to their musical world, the bass line of “August 10” has been stuck in my head for weeks, and the closer, “White Gloves,” pretty much makes me cry every time. I absolutely love this stuff, and hope you will too…