By **Suzanne Menghraj**
I have the privilege of biking across the Ponte Vecchio, through the Piazza della Signoria (hats off to the Palazzo Vecchio, the Uffizi), past Giotto’s campanile and Ghiberti’s baptistery doors and the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, home of Brunelleschi’s duomo, and the Palazzo Medici on my way to work. With this privilege, one that is mostly wasted on me, comes great responsibility—the responsibility to be deeply moved if not by the structures themselves then at least by being in their presence. I know from almost running over a good handful of them how very many people come from far away just to stop and look at those bronze doors or maybe take a photograph of a disinterested family member standing in front of them. I am lucky.
But I am not moved. I am exhausted. Especially on my way home from work in the late evening, when the basilica and the campanile are at their most magnificent. The two or three times I’ve stopped to notice it, the campanile cuts an imposing figure; the tower looks as if it might plod on over, pick me up, and throw me toward the northern hills. But such awe is rare for me. Even a sideways glance as I zip past the campanile feels more like an expression of duty than of curiosity. All of these famous structures are so there—so here, so everywhere. Reproductions of them, little souvenirs, sprinkle the town. I can hardly see them at all.
And so it was with Monet. I have never seriously studied the Impressionists, but I know them all right. In the crass language I use to speak to myself, they are the guys whose paintings are all fuzzy. And Monet—well, his work might be the fuzziest. It was his Impression, soleil levantthat prompted a critic writing for the satiric newspaper Le Charivari to coin the term “Impressionist.” Monet’s the granddaddy. And sooo French. Just the emblème incontournable of the international influence of French culture that President Nicolas Sarkozy describes in a note published in the exhibition monograph. “Like white noise,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in the New York Times earlier this month, “he’s everywhere and invisible. The staple of countless dentists’ offices. Old hat for more than a century now.” Word. I am hungry for contemporary, eclectic anything when I’m here in Florence, but send me to Paris and what do I seek out?
No matter how overwhelmed by the tyranny of emblems and dentist office walls, aura—that mystical quality Monet’s paintings both capture and radiate—persists.
There was a strange vibe on the line to see the Monet retrospective on exhibit at the Grand Palais. Everyone in the lineup was willing to wait at least two hours for old hat, so there was this. There was also an old man named Eduardo—a Chilean poet-economist who’d just moved to the city—standing in front of me and since we talked most of the not-quite-two hours and not at all about Monet, there was an unvoiced feeling between us, a feeling I comfortably ascribed to everyone on line, that we knew exactly what we were about to set eyes on: short brush strokes, darkness, light, blur. Monet. Nothing to get too excited about, we’d seen it all before. Eduardo wondered whether he would drink a beer or a double espresso before entering the exhibit. Did he want to be anaesthetized for this pilgrimage or woken up? I wasn’t sure myself. We lost each other after paying for our tickets, but I spotted Eduardo drinking his espresso in the Palais cafeteria and I ordered one too.
I might say that my memory of the first few of about 175 paintings on display is fuzzy. There were some lonely, lovely, and overcast if not especially blurry scenes of Normandy. There was a cliff. A boat. Maybe two or three. A stormy sea. A grey sky. A few thin, dark figures. Étretat, mer agitée? La Plage de Sainte-Adresse, temps gris? Grosse mer à Étretat? I’m not sure. Some of the paintings merge in my memory as indistinguishably as their colors merge on canvas. There were so many people in the exhibition rooms, so much jostling. An uncomfortable experience for someone who doesn’t like to stand in the way. I might as well have been on the Ponte Vecchio. I couldn’t really see a thing until tears blurred my vision. La Pie (The Magpie), which was grouped with the other Norman scenes, depicts a snow-covered landscape in the vicinity of Étretat. There are trees, a house (or two?), a fence, and on the fence a lone magpie. Judging from the fence’s long shadows, it is late afternoon. The snow appears to have stopped a few hours before—it is wet and perhaps beginning to ice a little. The fence’s bluish shadows waver with the reflection of light, direct and ambient, on hardening snow. The scene is so quiet, its effect is so much like that of being alone in the countryside after a blizzard, I was so moved to think of all the times I had been a figure in such a scene, maybe a figure in a window not visible in the painting, so overcome by all the quietness I had ever experienced and would experience again some day, that my eyes watered. The shadow and light I’d previously dismissed took on a mystical, aural quality. From that point on I sought out in Monet’s paintings and often found, despite the crowd and its murmuring, silence.
I spotted Eduardo again at the end of the exhibit, looking as awestruck as I felt. He asked if I would join him for a beer. We found a crowded sidewalk brasserie, one of those establishments that is too centrally located to be the Parisian brasserie of my dreams. We marveled for a little while at Monet. I never would have thought Exactly I know, I know and so the conversation went until Eduardo said it was time for him to write about what he’d seen. I left him to his journal, which he’d picked up at the Palais. There was a Monet on its cover, a detail from Les Coquelicots à Argenteuil or Train dans la campagne, maybe.
In his famously visionary essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin claims that the aura of an original work of art “withers” with reproduction. From his point of view, the masses don’t care about originals’ uniqueness and power. Originals, reproductions—it’s all the same to them, they just want to get near the stuff. Benjamin didn’t anticipate the Internet and he didn’t anticipate how mobile people and art—and thus how accessible originals—would become. One development has enabled reproduction beyond his wildest dreams; the other—mobility—has given millions of people the opportunity to test his claim. If that claim is, as I’ve found, not true of Monet’s work, it might not be true at all. No matter how overwhelmed by the tyranny of emblems and dentist office walls, aura—that mystical quality Monet’s paintings both capture and radiate—persists. Under the right circumstances, it is perceivable to even the most desensitized eye.
Copyright 2010 Suzanne Menghraj
Suzanne Menghraj is a contributing writer for Guernica. She teaches in New York University’s Liberal Studies Program and is currently based at the university’s Florence campus. Her most recent feature, “With Their Heads in Their Hands,” appeared in Guernica in May 2010.