Giverny, France | A garden of earthly delights

8:48 pm

First published in Livemint & Wall Street Journal India, May 11, 2013
I first fell in love with Claude Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris. I had seen copies of the paintings before but seeing them as they had been created, in large oval rooms, cast a strange sort of enchantment, one that left me with the feeling of finishing an open-ended book I had been reading for days.

On the first viewing, in the manner of some other impressionist art work, the paintings had reminded me of the lightness of spring. But as I looked at them from different angles and from different points in the room, they had put me in a meditative state, giving rise to many questions.

Were the lilies floating on the water or were they reflections? Were they real or were they imagined? Where had Claude Monet found these flowers and what power had they possessed for the artist to spend over thirty years of his life painting them?

The answers, of course, at least to some of those questions, lay in Giverny, a place that Monet discovered from the window of a train and lived in for forty-three years, until his death in 1926. It was here that he bought a house and created a magnificent garden that inspired him to produce over three hundred paintings.

In a letter to the French critic, Gustave Gefroy, Monet wrote, “I have again taken up something impossible – water with grass rippling at the bottom. It’s fine to look at, but it’s madness to want to paint it. Oh well, I’m always getting into such things.”

Driven by curiosity, my family and I decide to go to Giverny. When we arrived, we were greeted with an overwhelming burst of colour. It was a hot summer’s day, all the flowers in the garden - poppies, hibiscus, hydrangea, roses, lilies - were in full bloom and people were in their sunniest clothes, making it hard to tell the dashing green of a little girl’s dress from the painted bamboo of the Japanese bridge on the water lily pond. Monet’s house itself was a cheerful place with a pink façade, adding to this vibrant dose of colours with a yellow dining room and a blue kitchen.

We found that there were copies of work by famous Japanese ukiyo-e artists like Utagawa Hiroshige displayed all around the house. We discovered later that Monet started collecting Japanese prints in the 1860’s and had over 230 ukiyo-e paintings.
 Ukiyo-e translates as pictures of the floating world. Monet’s garden is said to have been inspired by these floating pictures. Researchers claim that the famous landmark in the garden, Le Pont Japonais or the Japanese bridge seems to have sprung out of Hiroshige’s print Inside Kameido Tenjin Shrine.

Every year, over half a million visitors come to appreciate the garden and there was no doubt as to why the place was so popular. My Father and I even joked about how every photo we took, however badly focused or technically faulty, would be perfect, for the objects themselves seemed so perfect.  It wasn’t just the flowers but also the small thrill of finding a yellow butterfly trying to hide amongst bright red poppies, or catching a glimpse of large fish swimming in the pond. Children sat around with sketchbooks, trying to express the garden in their own way. Life, it seemed, was thriving everywhere in this perfect cross section of designed nature.

But after a leisurely walk around the garden, walking along river Seine’s tributary Epte, it was hard not to see the whole place as a gigantic painting, one that Monet himself referred to has his ‘greatest masterpiece’. Much like the fleeting beauty of an ukiyo-e, the garden seemed to have a foundation that was built around providing pleasure and nothing else. For what was the garden but Monet’s canvas? He had crafted every part of the space almost as though he could foresee what he wanted to paint and perhaps as a result of this, the space seemed controlled and manicured.

But then I remembered that for all the time he spent in this dreamscape, Monet had painted the same scenes from his garden again and again.  I found myself thinking about what the garden looked like in autumn when fallen leaves would dominate the space and all the plants would start dying, in winter, when the flowers would have died out completely, in spring when life would start its course once again.

One could perceive Monet’s later paintings as an embodiment of his garden, for as the garden changed, catching the light at angles, evolving with seasons, Monet’s paintings had to change too. And so they did. They changed with the setting of the sun, with the withering of the flowers, with the passing of each minute.

Monet once remarked, "And I tell myself that whoever says he has finished a painting is terribly arrogant. Finished means complete, perfect, and I am working hard without moving ahead, searching, feeling my way without achieving much..."

I went back to the bridge to look at the water lilies again. As I stared at them, they began to blur out of focus, just as they had in the museum in Paris, till the image I was left with, filled me with a beauty that was entirely intangible.

Towards the end of his life, Monet was affected by cataracts in both his eyes. He continued to paint from his garden in Giverny, his water lilies becoming redder and more shapeless as his disease progressed, but deterring him in no way in his obsessive chase for that complete and perfect painting.

People have spoken of leaving Giverny with a renewed love for nature. I can’t say I derived that out of my visit. But I left, I think, with a slightly better understanding of who I deem to be one of the greatest artists of our age. I nurtured a hope that maybe Claude Monet had indeed discovered the truth of his life’s work and at worst, merely not realized it. But more than anything else, I left with a strong feeling of wanting to return again, at another time, in another season, just to see how my beloved water lilies would have changed.

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