Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The unique nature of greatness

We visited Vernon a few days back. It's quite a nice French town, with some good half-timber houses, a Gothic church, and the Seine flowing past, but nothing special.

The museum isn't anything special either. An exhibition of paintings on the theme of the Seine had a couple of nice Bonnards, but pretty little else; a lot of daubs, a good view of 20th century schools of painting (impressionist, Cubist) and lots of picturesque views that would do for a painting, but really not an inspiring collection.

Then I walked into a room and saw a painting positive glowing. A circular canvas covered in light green water and white waterlilies. The painting seemed to be lit from behind, actually emitting light. The water was moving with that slow, sinister rippling of deep, deep water.

Nothing picturesque about this painting. No self-conscious composition, with the lilies framed by an artfully disposed tree branch or the mossy edge of a pool. Just pure essence of water and waterlilies.

It was a Monet, of course.

Another painting beckoned to me. A headland, fuzzy brown, and a sunset of shimmering pinks and oranges, that seemed to be shining as if the real sun were hidden behind the canvas. The glitter and pulse of the sunlit sea.

I've seen paintings like this - in fact there was one next to it - that dissolve into slabs of palette-knifed colour when you get up close, ruining the effect. But however close I came to this painting, the shimmering was still there; I couldn't see the paint just as paint alone, so strong was the illusion.

Another Monet. Of course.

Now I do play that little game of going into a room in an art gallery and looking round to see what grabs me - and then seeing whether I've found a really good painting or just a flakily noisy one. About eighty percent of the time 'what grabs me' is a genuine masterpiece.

But in Vernon I wasn't playing the game. And those two Monets reached out and stole the show.

That's what great art does.

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