When I made my list of 26 artists at the outset of the Blogging A-Z April Challenge, I simply chose my very favourite artists and their works, while then going on something of a quest to top up the missing letters. While I’d fully intended to have the entire series ready to go by April 1st, perhaps you could say that I became the April Fool trying to write a letter each day and taking on all that entails. Indeed, merging into and almost becoming a different artist every day, especially when each one of them seemingly endured so much suffering, has been intense. Yet, back at the start when I first set out of this very spontaneous journey, it never crossed my mind that spending a month with a bunch of highly charged artists, mostly Expressionists, might get a bit draining and that I might actually need a break…a change of pace.
That is why we’ve detoured to Monet’s exquisite garden at Giverney today. We’re going to float along in the muted sunshine and soak up all the peace and tranquillity of his beautiful water lilies. After all, as my old friend Keats expressed in Ode to Melancholy:
But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud;
Then glut thy sorrow on a morning rose,
Or on the rainbow of the salt sand-wave,
Or on the wealth of globed peonies;
-John Keats, excerpt Ode to Melancholy.
You could say this whole process of writing to dead artists, has been intense to say the least. Indeed, getting inside someone else’s skin, isn’t something for the half-hearted. Those who sheepishly only dip the tip of their toe in the water. Rather, it calls for nothing less than full immersion, where nothing else can get in or out, and you’re absorbing your “hero” body and soul by osmosis. This process is nothing short of intense, as you all but alter your physical makeup to become them.
Yet, you also need to get out. Return to your regular self.
In the process of writing these letters to 26 different artists through the month of April, I’m switching skins and mindsets every day, and somehow also absorbing a mountain of biographical detail to boot. Yet, somehow I’m pulling it off.
At the same time, I’m intensely conscious that I’m playing with fire. That I can’t put myself through this psychological mincer every day, and know I’ll still be together at the end of the month. That I won’t have defragmented to the point of no return. Or, floated off into the clouds like a red helium balloon with nothing tying it down to the ground.
As creative as this might appear, it’s not healthy.
My feet need to be firmly planted on the ground, whenever my mind goes wandering. More than that, my feet need to be planted in rich, fertile soil not only to nourish my creativity, but also my physical well-being. That as much as I might think I live in my head, this control centre is attached to, and nourished by, the body down below.
So, as much as I’ve wanted to stay immersed in this incredibly stimulating creative vortex, towards the end of last week I started thinking I needed some kind of Intermission in between all the intensity of Munch’s The Scream, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Picasso’s Blue Period and also what lies ahead. Somewhere along the way there, my thoughts naturally wandered off to Monet’s Garden and I suddenly saw his paintings in a fresh light. That they weren’t so insipid after all, and were actually peaceful and relaxing…a place of healing. I don’t know what triggered my wanderings through Monet’s Garden.
However, on Thursday morning these meanderings suddenly crystallized, when I “stumbled across” Vivian Russell gorgeous coffee table book: Monet’s Garden: Through The Seasons At Giverny in the second hand book trolley at the hospital. Of course, it was meant to be. That, before I went any further, I needed to visit Monet’s Garden and rest.
Perhaps, I should’ve considered the need for shades of light and dark during this series at the outset. However, this entire journey’s been completely unplanned and spontaneous. Aside from that list of names, I haven’t had any kind of itinerary. Rather, I’m constantly adjusting my compass as fresh details come to light which could well unravel my mental portrait of the artist completely, and I’m forced to start over. Paint over the canvas. Punch in the clay.
That’s what happens when you truly become immersed in a character. You become acutely aware of their every little nuance, twist and turn. Well, at least as much as the Internet will tell me, which isn’t a complete picture, even with the artists who’ve turned themselves inside out in multiple interviews. There’s always the Seventh Veil. That no go zone.
Before I go to Monet’s Garden, however, I guess I’d better spill out why I didn’t write to him earlier, and why I chose to write to Edvard Munch instead. I have loved and lived The Scream all my life, even before I even knew it was there. It represents that anguished cry of the soul and the isolated individual who, misunderstood and abandoned by the world, is calling out to the wind. I venture to assume that everyone has experienced that anguish at some point in their life, even if it isn’t every day or very often. The Scream puts a real face to those feelings, and even offers a release….an exit from my house of horrors.
On the other hand, Monet’s water lilies were very tranquil, pretty and atmospheric, but where’s the angst? While I wouldn’t describe Monet’s works as Chocolate box art, perhaps they’ve just become too familiar, and I couldn’t appreciate their divine qualities until now.
Indeed, if you put The Scream and the Water Lillies side by side, you’d easily draw the conclusion that Monet had an easy life while Munch experienced such deep suffering and anguish that his grief had no end.
I, of all people, should’ve known better. That despite all the sufferings of my medical problems, I’m mostly smiling and trying to carpe diem seize the day with both hands squeezing the juice out of life. I’m not moping around complaining. Moreover, you have to know me pretty well or, be professionally trained to see how I am affected. Meanwhile, to most of the world, not insubstantial obstacles get filed under the carpet as seeming “invisibilities”. I’m fine. In fact, even I admit that I usually look like I’m doing better than most.
Monet endured great suffering and bouts of severe depression which went with it. In 1857, Monet suffered greatly when his mother died when he was seventeen. His father being a wealthy businessman, Monet took more after his mother who was a trained singer and might well have defended her son’s desire to become a professional artist. Losing this person who potentially understood him on the cusp of becoming a man, could well have compounded his loss. Shortly after her death, Monet went to live with his aunt, who understood him better than his father I guess. Around 1866, Monet met his future wife, Camille Doncieux, who also modelled for him. The couple experienced great hardship around the birth of their first son, Jean, in 1867. Monet was in dire financial straits, and his father was unwilling to help them. Monet became so despondent over the situation that, in 1868, he attempted suicide by trying to drown himself in the Seine River. Monet’s personal life was marked by hardship around this time. Around 1878, Camille became ill during her second pregnancy (their second son, Michel, was born in 1878), and she continued to deteriorate. Monet painted a portrait of her on her death bed. Before her passing, the Monets went to live with Ernest and Alice Hoschede and their six children. Camille died 5 September 1879. After Camille’s death, Monet painted a grim set of paintings known as the Ice Drift series. He grew closer to Alice, and the two eventually became romantically involved. Ernest spent much of his time in Paris, and he and Alice never divorced. Monet and Alice moved with their respective children in 1883 to Giverny. After Ernest’s death, Monet and Alice married in 1892. In 1911, Alice died, plunging Monet into a deep depression. Monet became depressed after the death of his beloved Alice. In 1912, he developed cataracts in his right eye and was terrified of going blind. This wasn’t an entirely crazy thought, because no doubt he knew French “Impressionist” Edgar Degas who was completely blind by this stage. Monet was out of step with the avant-garde. The Impressionists were in some ways being supplanted by the Cubist movement, led by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Then, to compound his sorrows, in February 1914, his son Jean died at the age of forty-six.
He wrote to one friend that “Age and chagrin have worn me out. My life has been nothing but a failure, and all that’s left for me to do is to destroy my paintings before I disappear.” Despite his feelings of despair, he continued working on his paintings until his final days.
So, when it comes to Monet’s water lillies, their stillness masks Monet’s battle with depression which manifested on and off throughout his life. Yet, perhaps you could say that through gardening, he didn’t let it possess him completely. That he was fighting back and the storm was retreating beneath the pond.
Indeed, I’m starting to think a bit of gardening might do me a bit of good.
What do you think? Have gardening helped you overcome difficult moods or depression and anxiety?
Unfortunately, as time’s gone by, I’ve evolved into more of a plant killer than a gardener, and if you recall the plot of Finding Nemo, I’m like that little girl who kills all her fish. Indeed, all the plants at our local nursery, are probably shaking in their pots hoping I’ll choose someone else.
I’m going to pop back shortly to write more about Monet’s huge Water Lilly commission by the French Government.