Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Water Lilies

I spent a good long time looking at Water Lilies (c. 1920) by Claude Monet this weekend at the MoMA. I've seen reproductions of this and other similarly themed works by the painter, but don't recall ever looking at it in person. I usually think of Monet as more of a late 19th-century impressionist than one of those whose work more clearly points toward the coming wave of modernism, but this triptych — which takes up an entire wall in the gallery, and used to hang out in the atrium during a previous rotation in the new building — really made me rethink that idea.

Yes, it's representational to some degree; you can point out the lilies, etc. But the way it plays with your expectations about what it's depicting — surface or underwater? sky or reflection of sky? lily or light on the water? — seems a good deal deeper and more challenging than some of his earlier and more placid works. There's a great quote at the end of the audio guide for this painting; unfortunately, it wasn't so great that I remember it, word for word, but it's about the first impression a viewer had upon seeing the work — how it evoked for him the primordial soup of ancient days, of what it might've been like to witness one scene in the creation of the world.
Unveiling Monet/Water Lilies [MoMA]

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