In Monet’s Secret Garden

He’s arguably the best known painter in the world. His scenes of nature and Parisian life grace calendars, purses, notebooks, umbrellas, teapots, and even socks (check the VAG gift shop).

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Of course I’m talking about Claude Monet (1840-1926), the French Impressionist painter who influenced the course of modern art with his unconventional techniques. He painted outside (which wasn’t done at the time), and his quick, loose brushwork aimed to capture an impression of something, not the thing itself (hence the label Impressionist, which was first used by critics in a derogatory sense).

The Vancouver Art Gallery is currently showing 38 of Monet’s works from the Musée Marmottan in Paris. In an interview with the CBC, the exhibition’s curator Marianne Matthieu says:

[Guests] have to visit this exhibition as if they were an invited guest of Monet. All the paintings have been selected personally by Monet [while he was alive] to describe his career, his life.

I visited the VAG last Tuesday evening (when admission is by donation) along with everyone else in Vancouver, so it seemed.

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The exhibit takes you chronologically through Monet’s work, beginning with some scenes with figures in them before the majority focuses all on nature.

I liked knowing Monet picked these works out himself. It made me wonder, Why this one? What did he like about it? What did he achieve with this one?

I enjoyed seeing paintings of his I had never come across in other galleries or books:

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Claude Monet, Le chatêau de Dolceacqua, 1884, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Vétheuil in the Fog, 1879, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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The picture does not do this piece justice.

Monet painted the same scene many times, in different seasons and different times of the day to study the effect of light on a subject. Light was his subject.

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Claude Monet, La Seine à Port-Villez, effet rose, 1894, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The two below were the only figurative works included. You can see the loose Impressionist style best by looking at the undefined faces. And the little boy practically blends in with the flowers.

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Claude Monet, En promenade près d’Argenteuil, 1875, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

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Claude Monet, Sur la plage de Trouville, 1870–71, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

The didactic panel for the image above talks about how sand was lodged in some of Monet’s canvasses because he painted these beach scenes outside. Talk about the nitty gritty.

I had assumed there would be more water lily paintings given the title is Secret Garden and Monet’s gardens in Giverny are synonymous with his grand, rectangular water lily paintings. This was the most “quintessential” one shown at the VAG, with the characteristic pastel blues, pinks, and purples:

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Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1903, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

There were also these two beautiful wisteria panels hung to mimic the oval rooms at Musée de L’Orangerie where Monet’s famous water lilies live.

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But there were other paintings that were darker and challenged what I thought I knew about the painter.

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Monet devoted the last two decades of his life to painting and cultivating his gardens in Giverny, a work of art in themselves. After touring the exhibition, I was surprised Monet chose so many of these works to depict his career  when he has hundreds of others to choose from. But perhaps these works came closest to communicating his artistic vision?

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Claude Monet, Le Pont japonais, 1918-24, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

In 1902, Monet was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes, and his works during his later years became increasingly abstract and darker. Notice also how much of the blank canvas he lets show through. The curator’s remarks accompanying this room below suggest the anguish and grief of WWI seeped into Monet’s canvasses, particularly his weeping willow series.

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Claude Monet, Saule pleureur, 1918-19, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

After all this heaviness and twisty contortions, Monet’s very last work closes the exhibition, returning to the light and soft palette that infused his earlier work (albeit looking unfinished). I thought it was a perfect farewell.

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Claude Monet, Les Roses, 1925-26, oil on canvas, Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris

Seeing these works has only increased my anticipation of setting foot in Monet’s gardens this fall and immersing myself in his inspiration.

I highly recommend you take in this exhibit at the VAG before it closes October 1!

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The Conditional Figure

I had just heard Said the Whale talk about their new album As Long As Your Eyes Are Wide at CBC’s Musical Nooners. Stephen Quinn asked frontman Tyler Bancroft about the inspiration behind this noticeably darker album that deals with the deaths of friends, neighbours, and babies. Tyler said something like, “After turning 30, life gets a lot more difficult. There are many beautiful things too, but it comes with a bunch of rough stuff.”

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As a recent 30-year-old, this concert me in a contemplative mood as I wandered downtown on my way to the HSBC building to see David Robinson‘s sculptures at the Pendulum Gallery.

I had seen Robinson’s work previously—in his Parker Street studio during the Eastside Culture Crawl and at Regent College.

The works command attention in the high-ceilinged, glass-covered atrium, as if the lines and angles of his sculptures play off the architecture.

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There is usually an element of tension in his works, whether it be balancing precariously while blindfolded, falling out of a safety net, or pushing and pulling against larger-than-life forces.

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David Robinson, Chair (2013), mixed media. 67 x 33 x 74 inches.

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David Robinson, Draped Figure (2009), paper, resin, 31 x 44 x 15 inches.

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David Robinson, Dead Reckoning (2017), ed. 5. Sitka spruce, Baltic birch, polymer-gypsum, bronze, 96 x 64 x 11 inches.

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David Robinson, Departure (2015), bronze/Douglas fir, 27 x 33 x 9 inches.

The way curator Chris Keatley wrote about this exhibit, aptly named The Conditional Figure, seemed to piggyback on what Said the Whale had just talked about.

This exhibition presents large-scale sculptural works that consider the figure as a conditional entity, created to exist in a dynamic, rather than a static state. Figures are split and penetrated, surfaces are textured and rough. The idea of the unassailable body, strong, solid and resolute, is brought into question, bringing forward the view of ourselves as systems in flux, constantly changing and evolving in time and space. In some works, the figures themselves retain a solidity of form, and it is their extended bodies – boats, planes, wings, ladders etc. – that suggest the fragile nature of both structures and beliefs in which we wrap ourselves.

How has my view of self changed as I’ve aged? What do other people see and what do I see when I look in the mirror? Has the blindfold come off? Am I as secure as I think I am? Am I paddling alone? Against the current? What load am I pulling?

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David Robinson, Binary Vision (2003), ed. 6, polymer-gypsum, glass steel, 90.5 x 45 x 20.5 inches.

I view David Robinson’s sculptures as poetry in space. They ask the tough questions about existence. The vast white walls serving as the background to many of the works create breathing room to consider these questions in a gentle, unhurried way that almost feels too bare.

This exhibit complemented the permanent public artwork in the atrium by Alan Storey I’ve been meaning to see for a while now. Talk about balance and tension. This 1600 kg aluminum pendulum swings back and forth from the roof about 6 metres out, aligning with its base briefly before departing again.

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If you’re downtown, I highly recommend you see Robinson’s exhibit before it closes today!

Snaps of Summer

A holiday Monday with sunshine like this called me downtown to walk Stanley Park with a friend. The Rose Garden was in bloom so I snapped some pics of that as well.

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Afterwards, I explored Robson Street and enjoyed this patch of public space set up with picnic tables and an outdoor piano at the intersection of Robson and Bute. Great for people watching!

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Here’s a piece of public art at Robson and Jervis called Jasper.

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From the Vancouver Biennale website:

Jasper is a whimsical sculpture by Brooklyn-based artist John Clement. His trademark steel spirals with bold primary colours invite children to touch and play. The turns and loops of Jasper challenge the inherent properties of rigid tubular steel and the result is an implied movement with the sense of twisting right out of the ground.

Whenever I walk by this sculpture it reminds me of balloon animals popular at children’s birthday parties. Or my coil bike lock. No one was playing on it at the time but I like public art you’re invited to touch. If public art is meant to bring art where people are (because not everyone goes to art galleries), I appreciate works that call for different forms of engagement rather than the traditional “looking only”/observer-observed relationship. That being said, some public art provokes more thought than others and while the form is fun, I find the content strongly lacking in this piece. I think good public art brings form and content together in striking ways. What about you?

Hope everyone is enjoying the Canada Day long weekend!

The Irretrievable Moment

One of my favourite parts about my job is getting to interview artists. I recently spoke with Jim Adams in advance of his upcoming exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. He characterized his art as the following:

I’m always looking for the irretrievable moment where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.

This is evident in his paintings. A Japanese bride is on her way to get married less than a minute after the first atomic bomb is dropped. A contrail is faintly visible in the sky overhead. Other paintings envision a peaceful evening sunset before a meteor streaks across the sky. Locals enjoy their drinks in a White Rock Starbucks as the blue and red lights of a patrol car are reflected in the window, and you know something’s about to change. You can see images here.

After Adams mentioned this phrase to me that’s also the title of his art show, I’ve been noticing numerous irretrievable moments crop up in my reading.

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As you will probably not remember at this time last year, I was reading Crime and Punishment for GRNM (Giant Russian Novel Month). This year, a friend and I are tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We are not going to be finished in a month.

I am about a third of the way through. Even though the plot is faint and meandering and the characters are numerous and changing, many of the characters (particularly Pierre) seem to embody what Jim Adams was talking about. It’s as if they are able to get out of their bodies and look at their lives from a distance, knowing they will go on to make this decision, and that decision will snowball into this other thing, and they don’t like it but they seem powerless to stop it. And so they don’t. In the meantime, I’m reading and shouting at them, “But it’s not too late! If you don’t love her, don’t marry her!” Or, “Get out of there now, you don’t have to lose all this money that you don’t have!”

Take Pierre on noticing Hélène for the first time and wondering if he should take her as his wife:

He recalled her former words and looks, and the words and looks of those who had seen them together. He recalled the words and looks of Anna Pavlovna when she spoke to him about his house, recalled hundreds of similar hints from Prince Vassily and others, and terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word, to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Or when he duels with Dolokhov after suspecting him of having a dalliance with his wife, though neither party wants to go through with it:

It was becoming frightening. It was obvious that the affair [referring to the duel], having begun so lightly, could no longer be prevented by anything, that it was going on by itself, independently of men’s will, and would be accomplished.

There is definitely a fatalistic streak in Pierre’s thinking. I also notice it in Rostov and Prince Andrei but, interestingly, not so much in the female characters. While I understand this feeling of “how way leads on to way” to borrow from Robert Frost, I think we tend to stick that irretrievable label onto our own lives more quickly than onto others’ lives. We are so entangled in our own that we sometimes can’t see there actually are other paths, other “roads not taken.” Sometimes I get the sense with these Russian characters that there’s even a Romanticism to fatalism, as if accepting the inevitable is heroic and must be so. But it’s so obvious as a reader that it’s not necessarily so.

I’m coming to a part in the novel now where the main characters are waking up from the false slumber of the inevitable, realizing that things can and should be otherwise, and perhaps it’s not too late . . .

Drawn in by Degas

My favourite outing the few times I’m in Houston is visiting their Museum of Fine Arts. I happened to be there recently when Degas: A New Vision was on display and got to see this retrospective exhibit of this famous French Impressionist’s work—the largest in the US in nearly 30 years!

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The exhibit begins with an insightful chronology of Edgar Degas’s life. I cherished this quote from his family because it shows such familial concern yet tenderness for their hardworking artist—something that all families of artists have felt at one time or another. I wish I could have told them from where I stand in history that it’ll be alright.

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Degas painted everybody everywhere—from prostitutes sitting in cafés to bourgeois women at concerts; from male patrons loitering backstage at ballets to businessmen making deals on the streets; from the ordinary event of women washing their hair to the spectacle of Parisian society watching a horse race. All these types of paintings were on display at MFAH but I’ll show you a few of my favourites that were particularly exciting to see in person.

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Edgar Degas, Rehearsal Hall at the Opéra, rue Le Peletier (1872).

I appreciate that Degas didn’t just paint final performances. He showed the work of preparing for a show—the stretches, repetition, boredom, sweat, and fatigue. He did countless drawings of ballerinas’ movements before he painted them (many of which were also on exhibit), and I like how the description on one of the panels said Degas became such a master of technique that he could tell when a ballerina had done a move incorrectly.

It’s also fascinating to see how he edited his preliminary drawings when he added them to his paintings. Notice in At the Louvre (1879) how the two women change position and the umbrella changes hands. Interesting fact: the woman leaning on her umbrella was fellow Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.

This ballet rehearsal was probably my favourite to see transformed from a textbook page to the colours and brush strokes on the gallery wall:

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Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal (1874).

The composition is so striking. Degas crams all the figures into the upper left and bottom right corners, leaving your eye to wander up the middle where the central ballerina leans forward on one leg. Her outstretched arm connects the gap between her and famous Parisian dance master Jules Perrot. Degas literally renders a slice of contemporary life here through the truncated legs on and around the staircase and the two cropped groups of ballet students—one set working, the other waiting.

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Edgar Degas, Theatre Box (1880).

Degas has the reputation of being an acute observer of contemporary life. You can see that in the painting above where he isolates a female theatre-goer in an ornate box. The artificial light of the stage reflects back on her face, making her look ghostly. Going to the theatre is a social event (especially for this time period in Paris), so why is she alone? Degas captures the alienation typical of modernity. I think this painting is another way of showing that feeling of being alone on a crowded street.

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Edgar Degas, In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875-76).

The last work I’ll mention is In A Café (The Absinthe Drinker). Talk about alienation! This painting so moved me when I first studied it in undergrad that years later I wrote a short story about a blind date inspired by it. I like how Robert L. Herbert describes what’s going on in Impressionism: Art, Leisure, and Parisian Society:

Shoulders slumped, eyes cast down, feet splayed out, her costume frowzy, she is the café habituée rooted to her seat, without aspirations. She will derive little comfort from the man next to her, the kind of elbow-leaner who will remain there for hours, eventually shuffling off to an uncertain destination. This is one of Degas’s most devastating images of public life.

There are many devastating things about this painting—how the floating tables trap the man and woman behind their drinks; how the two figures sit beside each other without engaging; how Degas seats us at the table diagonal to these forlorn figures, watching all this as if we too are supposed to be as detached as the painter but we cannot help but be drawn in.

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La La Land of Sun and Shadows

I used to not enjoy watching movies that were musicals—the unreality of everyone in town bursting out of doors, grabbing props, knowing all the words and having the same choreographed movements to a song. I felt this way in Mamma Mia. Also, the plots of these musicals seem to be paper thin, inferior to the song and dance numbers. Maybe my tastes have changed, or I’ve gotten better at suspension of disbelief, or this movie integrated plot and song better because I really enjoyed Damien Chazelle’s La La Land starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. It was one of the most whimsical and magical movies I’ve seen. (warning: spoilers ahead)

From the opening scene of traffic gridlock on an LA freeway where drivers come out of their cars singing the same cheerful song (“Another Day of Sun”) and dancing on their hoods and trunks, it sets the tone that yes, this is going to be a musical, there is going to be singing, and there are going to be scenes that would never happen in real life. I went along with it. Thankfully the plot still held up without the songs, of which there actually weren’t that many.

This movie is significantly set in LA where young dreamers go to chase their dream. This might show my ignorance but until looking up “la la land” in the Oxford American Dictionary, I didn’t realize its origin is actually a reduplication of LA and refers to “Los Angeles or Hollywood, especially with regard to the lifestyle and attitudes of those living there or associated with it, i.e. a fanciful state or dreamworld.” True enough.

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Gosling plays Sebastien or Seb, a 30-something jazz pianist afraid that classical jazz is going to die and dreams of opening his own jazz club where he can play all the free jazz he wants to and not get fired over deviating from a stilted Christmas set list that happens when we meet him at the beginning of the film.

Stone plays Mia, a barista who goes from audition to audition, trying to catch her big break and become an actress. She is not having much luck though. She reluctantly goes along to parties with her roommates in the hopes of meeting someone who can help her out, since it’s implied that it’s all who you know.

In this La La Land where characters are living in their fantasy more than their reality, Mia and Sebastien keep running into each other, including at one of these parties, and you know how it goes from there. I went into this movie excited to see the extremely talented and likeable pairing of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone after their evident chemistry in Crazy, Stupid Love , and they were fantastic. It didn’t matter that their singing wasn’t flawless, though it was definitely adequate. It had a rawness to it that made it more genuine and endearing.

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Their love story plays out against the backdrop of them pursuing their work dreams and all the ups and downs along the way. One of these “downs” is Sebastien joining a pop-jazz group called The Messengers so he can have a steady gig even though Mia thinks he’s selling out to do so. Tired of vacuous auditions, Mia writes and performs her own play to a very small audience that her own boyfriend failed to make it to due to a commitment with his band. Many other reviewers have picked up on this as well but it struck me immediately after watching the movie that we see all these scenes of Sebastien playing the kind of jazz that makes him come alive, but we never see Mia acting in her play that makes her come alive. Although he reads her script and tells her it’s amazing, Sebastien never once sees Mia act. As this Vox article states, the movie does care more for Sebastien’s character. Ultimately, Mia does get an audition which she nails in what is the most heart-wrenching and gutsiest song  (“Here’s to the hearts that ache, / Here’s to the mess we make”), but it lands her a role in Paris and their long-distance relationship doesn’t work out or was never attempted. Before she leaves, they say to each other, “I’ll always keep loving you.”

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The movie ends five years later where Mia is an A-list actress, happily coming home to a daughter and a husband who is not Sebastien. Her and her husband go out to dinner and step into a jazz club called Seb’s where they see the man himself and he sees her. When he sits down to the keys, he plays his and Mia’s theme song, a melancholic waltz more than jazz. Mia’s mind goes down memory lane in one of the loveliest montages of the film where she imagines every scene—how things were supposed to be, who they were supposed to be with. It’s very bittersweet. Mia and Seb look at each other from across the room before she leaves, and there is a small smile on both their faces, proud of what the other has become, but also pained that they did it apart and that road is closed off to them now.

I read that this ending is divisive and some people really don’t like it. I do, though I will admit that the trailer and sunny opening sequence don’t set you up for this “shadow side.” It defied the predictable ending I was expecting from a movie classified as a musical romantic comedy, and it also seemed a more realistic commentary on La La Land: maybe you can’t have it all.