II. The Message of Art for Our Lives
“Disorder and fixity are present in Monet,” said Mr. Siegel, “present in all his painting.” And Monet’s desire to see these opposites as one stood for tremendous respect for the structure of reality. We can see this as he began to concentrate on single subjects, such as haystacks, poplars, the Rouen Cathedral—doing many paintings of them at all times of day and in all seasons. In each of these the motif is a fixed object—but Monet shows it’s not just fixed: the forms of the haystacks glow in the summer and winter light.
Disorder and fixity are big opposites in every person’s life, and they were in a terrific mix-up the life of Alicia Beaumont, a young landscape designer having Aesthetic Realism consultations. She prided herself on being a free spirit—cool and unmoved—but she also was very troubled by this. She told us she sometimes felt numb, saying:
I don’t show enough feeling. I thought the approval of my parents didn’t matter to me. I would just do what I wanted to do and I didn’t care what they thought. And I remember one time going on a trip and I didn’t think about them and thought I could never see them again and it wouldn’t really matter. But I felt ashamed.
Consultants: Did you think you could divest yourself of people and go on with your own life unencumbered?
AB: Yes, that’s what I thought.
Consultants: And you were going to show they didn’t matter to you?
AB: Yes, that’s what I did.
It is this attitude that stopped her from liking herself and having the emotions she yearned for. To encourage her to see people more accurately, we gave her assignments, such as writing a soliloquy of her father at the age of 18; describing what her parents might have felt about each other when they first met. She wrote about her father, who was a boy in France during World War II and whose family was against the Nazis. And she began to see how much she had missed about people—including things in them she honestly could respect. As Ms. Beaumont saw more meaning in people and in the world around her, she felt freer, more herself. She told us, “I made a wonderful discovery. I’m beginning to see what I thought wasn’t me—a certain kind of emotion, enthusiasm—is me! I’m starting to feel alive!”
Like a Monet cathedral, she was changing from stoniness to shimmer. “Monet,” Mr. Siegel said,
would tend to have the fixity of a cathedral change into tremblingness, shimmeringness….He was looking to have the stately tremble in luminousness. He was looking to have edges less tidy. This is a noble desire;…to have [reality] tremble even as it persists. The Impressionists were awfully ethical.
Here, in some of the great sentences of art criticism, Eli Siegel showed the profundity of the Impressionists when he said, “The Impressionists were awfully ethical.” I believe they were ethical because their purpose was to be fair to the nature of reality, to see its surprising possibilities, not to sum it up. Said Monet: “I have done nothing but look at what the universe has shown me, so as to bear witness to it with my brush.”
Rouen Cathedral dances in sunlight and mist. Monet worked for over two years on his series of paintings of the cathedral, producing over 30 pictures. In this radiant painting, “Rouen Cathedral: The Portal (Sunlight),” 1894, in the Metropolitan Museum, the massive façade fills the picture, yet almost seems to be dissolving before our eyes as it dazzles with light.
The gray stone of the building has become a meshwork of whites, pinks, lavenders, mauves, blues and yellows with bluish-purple shadows. Even as we sense the intricacy of the Gothic architecture, nowhere is there a defining line. The arches and columns are all indicated by delicate blue, lavender, yellow and pink stippled shadows.
The way Monet painted this cathedral is amazing. There are layers and layers of paint strokes, “encrustations” as he called them, creating a thick, rough surface which gives the painting substance, yet it is the very thing that makes this pinkish structure so luminous and delicate.
This was Monet the artist. Yet these very opposites—the tidy and disorderly—puzzled and pained him in his life. “I was naturally undisciplined,” he said. “Even in my childhood, I could never be gotten to obey rules….” Yet he later said of his strict military service, “It did me a great deal of good in every way. It made me less harem-scarum,” meaning something like “all over the place.” Monet was troubled by the way he could shuttle back and forth between being rigid and being “undisciplined.” He set up rigorous work rules for himself, and was terrifically strict with his family, demanding that they keep to his schedule. He once wrote to his second wife, Alice, “This morning, I felt all out of sorts, my things were all over the place in utter disorder.”
In a class Eli Siegel spoke to me about these opposites in a way I think Monet would have loved. He said: “There are two opposites picturesquely described as swirl and tidiness. Do you believe so far you’ve trusted yourself more with swirl than tidiness?” “Yes,” I said. “The big problem of everyone,” Mr. Siegel continued, “is being tidy and wandering. Every painting, every dance, every photograph, every film has this deep question of self, ‘Should the self stay put or be everywhere?’”
Art, I learned, is both. But the way I used being tidy and wandering was not beautiful. I had traveled a lot, here and abroad, moving from one place to another. And as a free-lance picture researcher I liked the feeling there were no regular office hours for me! My roommates at the time called me the “phantom” because nobody ever knew where I was. I came to see that the way I wandered, and wouldn’t be pinned down was really contempt. It was the reason I was so unsure of myself, and was against what I hoped for, both as a self and as an artist.
Aesthetic Realism enabled me to change—to see that I wanted to have large, accurate feelings about people and not just make them vague or given them neat edges and then dismiss them. For instance, I had seen my father, Leo Rackow, as existing to make a fuss over me. Meanwhile, he had traveled to Africa and Europe as a young man, had been a pioneer, with others, in modern graphic design, and had intense feelings about World War II and used his art to further the war effort. As I came to see he had unbounded relations, a whole new world opened up for me. I became more unbounded myself, and also much more exact.
I also changed how I saw love. I had never thought a man could really add to me—make my outline shimmer or my depths glow. A man existed, I felt, to adore me while I remained coolly intact and hidden. Today in my marriage to Ken Kimmelman, filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant, I am more myself. Ken has usefully, often humorously and kindly, shattered those falsely neat edges of mine and enabled me to feel more happily solid.
In this painting, “Reflections of Clouds on the Water Lily Pond,” 1920,
which I’ve loved from the time I first saw it when my parents took me to the Museum of Modern Art, Monet answers resplendently the question: “Should the self stay put or be everywhere?” It does both!
In this magnificent triptych Monet has captured the fleeting effects of sunlight on clouds reflected on the shimmering surface of the water dotted with water lilies—which are both fixed and free. The motion of the pink brushstrokes creates clusters of swirling clouds reflected in the depths of the luminous blue-green water.
Yet in the midst of all this motion, looking closely we see swirl and tidiness as one thing.
Monet builds layer upon layer of definite strokes of paint.
So the motion that results arises from a base that is substantial and fixed.
Monet shows “the self wants to be everywhere”—that is, related to more and more things—as a means of being truly, solidly itself. And this is what the study of Aesthetic Realism can make grandly possible in every person’s life.