I took a trip up to the “Van Gogh Up Close” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few weekends ago. Saw great Van Goghs and some very lovely other work as well – one wonderful Monet of the side of a river in winter, with ice breaking up.
I disagree with critics who say that Monet’s work isn’t emotional. I think they mistake emotion for the state of mind of the artist. Van Gogh’s paintings seem to contain more of his mind and his invention than Monet’s, I would say that. But Monet, without being a “realist” painter, is closer in a way to his subject, I think. I appreciate that, because I swoon for subject matter too. That winter painting of his made me want to sink to my knees – in awe of his ability to bring out the beauty of that scene, to bring it to life on canvas. Van Gogh’s ramped-up, almost cartoon-y, sumptuous, rollicking versions of nature are thrilling – they’re very tactile, and full of joy.
(The velvety blues in the tree trunks, the intense yellows raining down from the sky, the vivid green of the shutters: lamentably lost in translation.) While Monet’s are like love songs. And they bring a moment so close to you – within a hair’s breadth. Something about his responsiveness to the landscape, to nature, to beauty – something about the love he seems to be expressing – is intensely moving. It’s other-focused, in a way – it’s like viewing devotion itself. While Van Gogh is like viewing the mind of the painter – which is also, again, wonderful, beautiful.
|Vincent Van Gogh, The Road Menders, 1889. The Cleveland Museum of Art|
Though I don’t think it’s that simple, or even that I’m right. Thinking back, I feel like the paintings in the Van Gogh exhibit that I most responded to were very much full of love. Maybe it’s that his intensity can be distracting? Maybe. Monet’s portraits of nature are more quiet. But Van Gogh’s color is phenomenal. I don’t always appreciate his brushstrokes -- they can feel arbitrary, rather than responsive – but often I really do, for their dynamism. I'm drawn to his work for its vibrancy and abandon, and to Monet’s for its balance of emotion and sensitivity to subject/place.
An irony, maybe, is that I like best some of Monet’s late works that are like Van Gogh’s in spirit – more loose, more visceral, more slapdash. And extremely colorful, with big bold marks.
|Claude Monet, Waterlilies, Reflections of Weeping Willows, 1919. Benesse Corporation, Okayama, Japan.|
Yet Monet always, even then, has that amazing sensitivity, that balance of exuberance and grace.