Sunday, December 7, 2014

on Monet's Houses of Parliament

This week I have been working at an auction house where billionaires go to outbid each other in order to add pieces of history to their collections. As you would imagine, there is the occasional conversation among staff about what one would buy if one happened to be so filthy rich. I like to think I wouldn’t be so selfish as to hoard masterpieces for mind-numbing sums of money but, then again, if I had worked to earn millions I might feel differently.

Imagining myself as a person with altogether too much money, I know exactly what my prized jewel would be. A Monet. Specifically, there's a painting of the Houses of Parliament at Sunset in the National Gallery that I have long been attached to.

The Houses of Parliament at Sunset by Claude Monet, 1902
at the National Gallery, London

On Wednesday morning, as the vehicle of my daily commute crested Westminster Bridge in the drizzle, it was as if Claude was crammed next to me in the humid haze of the tightly packed bus. (Qu'est-ce que vous voyez là-bas?) The view out of the window became very familiar. I patted around for my phone so I could take a picture. I had two shots. I think the second one did it some justice. 

The Houses of Parliament at Rush Hour

Monet did a sizeable series of paintings of Westminster Palace; at sunrise, sunset, in different lights as he was wont to do with a subject.

Sample of "Monet Houses of Parliament" on an image search engine

Monet did a spectacular job of describing to us what he saw but at least a part of his message was that the light always changes and you will never see the same thing twice. Definition is hard to come by and perhaps definition is ultimately undesirable.

There is a poem by Lisel Mueller called ‘Monet Refuses the Operation’ where Mueller imagines Monet as an old man addressing the doctor who would like to operate to restore his sight:

“What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent..."

I don't feel the need to own a Monet. I am free to google or to go to fine public galleries and stare for hours on end at his work. Or better yet, I can look through the sweaty condensation of a London bus window and see something transcendent when I expected to be bored.

Now I imagine owning a Monet is like owning a stuffed tiger. It's all well and good but it's dead now, and is no substitute for the living, breathing beast. 

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