Monet and Ghita: In Memory of Michael Stowers

Today would be Michael Stowers’ fifty-second Birthday! To celebrate his memory I’m posting his Note on Monet and Roxana Ghita’s photography. He wrote it two years ago but I discovered it only today!

Bridges of Light and of Time
Michael T Stowers
August 28, 2012

In 1917, an aging and soon to be deceased Claude Monet was photographed by Etienne Clémentel standing before a background of his treasured Japanese Bridge at Givernyi. The Bridge would not pass into popular imagination for another fifty years, but to Monet it had already acquired an almost sacerdotal importance. Though this photograph of the white-bearded artistic innovator is iconic, what is less commonly known is that it is one of a pair of almost-identical photographs, differing only in the spatial position from which they were taken, each being taken from a point roughly three inches, horizontally, from the other.

Of course, any such pairing of photographs, when viewed using appropriate equipment, encodes one view of a three-dimensional scene. Monet then, in allowing himself to be photographed in such a novel manner during the twilight of his painterly career, when his own focus had shifted, from his early preoccupation with the capturing in paint of the light which constitutes the immediacy of perception, of removing the filtering processes which with rare exceptions artists had previously and perhaps perforce been used to employing, of trying to make of painting what would later be attempted by photography, toward an increasing obsession with the slow manipulation and control of his subject matter, by then constrained, as he himself was, to the confines of his beloved gardens.

Monet’s later work is best known to us now through his series of paintings of the lily pond at Giverny, and its distinctive Japanese Bridge. At the time, though, these paintings were less favorably regarded by critics, that is, if they were regarded at all. It is clear, from the old man’s choice of these same views for his new “portrait-in-light-and-space,” that he saw the gardens as expressions of himself in and of themselves, and he painted them as such. The stereograph is a re-placement of the artist in the forefront of the avant-garde, in the place he had once been used to occupying, captured in a few instants of light, and captured in such a way as to re-astound the viewer with the novel quality of the process of capturing.

Turning now to another Japanese Bridge, to other renditions of the immediate using the medium of light and to another lily pond, light might be shed on the light that was shed for both Monet and the builder of the other Bridge, the Romanian photographer, poet and film-maker Roxana Ghita, and on the processes which both artists use, in their distinctive ways, to “make life of the eternally-passing moment.” Specifically, on their use of color, composition, abstraction, depth, scale and, particularly, time: terms which will acquire unorthodox yet more precise meanings as their nature is explored.

More than a century and a half separate the two artists, yet even a cursory examination of their work reveals that they are, in a meta-temporal way, near contemporaries who, though unknown one to the other, share an aesthetic and an aim which are almost identical. The media they use are worlds, and years, apart, yet what they achieve with these radically different methods are almost superpositions of one’s way of looking upon the other’s, the other’s ways of knowing upon the one’s. Both seek to elucidate the same subjectivities, both – in a very real yet also absurd sense – use the same brush and the same palette, the same lens and the same recording medium: the lens of their eye, the brush of their seeing, the palette of light itself, the film of the retina. For both, the subjective and the objective coalesce, for both comprise the moment, the evanescence which constitutes the percept, the ineffability of the experience of the particular moment of time.

And both, consciously, deliberately bring to bear, upon their representations, ways of seeing common for centuries in the Sino-Japanese artistic tradition, yet which even now are relatively new in the European West; so too both utilize a combination of the old and the new to reveal representational and meta-representational truths which might still challenge the Western eye, jaded as it is with perspective, tradition, and the expectation of a conformity to a Graeco-Roman notion of ‘classicism’ which, compared with its East Asian counterpart, is itself – though seemingly ancient – very much the newcomer.

Taking Ghita’s series “The Golden Beyond” and Monet’s Triptych of the Lily Pond at Givernyii as starting points, let us examine these works comparatively, contextually and counter-textually. For this comparison, the metaphor of the ‘bridge’ serves well as both linkage and decoupling, as a figurative means to bring together and to emphasize separateness, in much the same way as the presence of a material bridge serves both to link two spaces separated by an impasse and also to emphasize the very difficulty of crossing which necessitates bridging.

Ghita’s “Golden Beyond” series comprises seven photographs, four of which are interpretations of the Chinese Garden in the “Gardens of the World,” Berlin. (The remaining three, figuring Magnolia blooms against a background of the same golden hues as those which figure in the pond photographs, are outside the scope of the present paper, though much suggested herein applies also, though in subtly different ways, to these). These photographs are not given names, only numbers, and for the purpose of this analysis the principal subject shall be the photograph ‘One.’iii

The concentration on ‘One’ is not arbitrary, rather it is due to the conviction that this photograph is, in many senses, a ‘summation’ of the others or, put another way, that the other images operate through the isolation or extraction of aspects to be found in ‘One.’ The ‘numbered anonymity’ of these images is serendipitously useful in any comparison with Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ paintings, as few of the latter are identifiable by name, only by number (in this case the number comprises the date of completion). In the case of Monet, this number grows far larger than four: the total number of Lily Pond paintings is unknown, but it lies in the region of two hundred and fifty, made over a period of forty years. The Triptych dates from 1920, post-dating the Clémentel stereograph by three years, although this is a completion date and it is likely that the artist had worked and reworked the piece over a period of several years and had been, most probably, working on it at the time Clémentel made his image of the artist.

It is, perhaps, of interest to note that Monet’s triptych was largely painted during and immediately after the First World War, in the nation arguably most traumatized by that conflict, while Ghita’s ‘One’ was produced twenty years after the end of the ‘Cold War,’ by an artist who had spent her formative years in the shadow of that more recent, ideological, conflict, and in a country which was a member of the Warsaw Pact and one which had been ruled by one of the most notoriously totalitarian (and hypocritically self-obsessed) dictators of that bloc. To what extent these factors did or did not impact the work of these artists is, as is always the case, a matter for debate and speculation, although it is hard to believe that the seemingly pointless slaughter taking place in the land of the old man had had no effect on his work, or that the abuse and violence of Ceausescu – toward the end, directed most conspicuously against the young – had had no effect on the work that Ghita was later to produce.

When one first views Ghita’s ‘One’ the immediate impression is one of ‘elemental shift.’ This is closely en-raveled with a sense of temporal shift, with the two spatial axes of the two-dimensional image implying a third axis, a spindle of time, running perpendicularly to the two-dimensional image’s surface. The water appears as though it were liquid metal, not mercurial silver but more fluid bronze or gold, as though the tints of the surface of the Sun had been dissolved in some magical amalgam of weighted light in which fish, fired as though with flame, had been able to make a home and through which they had found a way of swimming.

It is on the surface of this liquid light, in the top-left corner, that the lily leaves float, also sheened with metallic luster, as though they had been cast of some strangely-reflective metal, perhaps Iridium, from the molds of the original leaves’ evanescent lives as they burned to carbon on contact with the liquefied Sun. Adding to this impression of the leaves being, themselves, impressions of what was once but is no more, is the suggestion of ash scattered upon the floating rafts; a fine black dust, reminiscent of leaf-ash with its flakes and stick-like shapes, or of some dreadful ash fresh-fallen from the skies above Hiroshima or condensed from the chimneys of Belsen, or from any arbitrary genocidal pyre. Such a cinereous deposit is not to be discerned on the liquid surface itself, as though that which might have fallen there had been utterly consumed, an absence suggestive of past presence which is threaded through the image, totally in keeping with its Chinese aesthetic and its perpendicular temporality. The water itself, arguably, along with time, the ‘subject’ of the work, is almost mirror-smooth, as though stillness had been captured by the camera shutter rather than it being artefactual of frozen movement. The only perceptible traces of motion in the water are an overlapping series of ripples toward the top right of the work, balancing, echoing, the ovals of the lily pads. It is here that the picture, the artist, works its most marvelous magic, for it is as though a few of the curvilinear leaves had not escaped incineration but had been consumed in the burning moment and, miraculously, in the process of passing had spawned the small shoal of coal-hot fish which, for all we can tell, might swim for but a moment before being themselves dissolved or sublimed. The illusion that these fish have neither depth nor any effect of breaking the meniscus of the water adds to this thaumaturgical quality, for even after looking for hours it still seems that these piscine flickerings hang both under and above the surface. One even appears to be taking flight over the backs of the others, as if caught in the moment of escaping the pull of the liquefied luminosity, to swim to safety into the ‘ur-Licht,’ from which the liquid and the sunlight have both condensed.

It is true that the submerged world is not entirely featureless: a pattern of vague shapes can just be discerned, a palimpsest of shadow, of variance in luminance, a holographic image, memories perhaps, of the imbrication of scales expected on the skins of the fire-fish yet absent when looked for there. And it is also true that the meniscus of the pond, though it seems as strong as steel, is indented in eight places, two rectilinear sets of four, the throw of two dice, hazarded, the footprints of two insects calmly standing on the stretched surface, immune to the fire. Are they about to mate? Are they preparing for flight? Are they to be food for the fire-fish? Or are they the spinners of the whole, the lace-winged weavers from whose flight all, even the light, is fashioned? (And if they are such preternatural beings, are they there to repair or to unweave?) All these seem possible in the strange, charmed, violently still world of ‘One.’

Turn now to the Monet Triptych, keeping the fires of ‘One’ in the eyes’ memory. The first thing you notice is not detail, not content, not even impression or imagination. The first thing to register is scale, not the scale of fish or leaf-vein, but sheer size. The painting is big! It is impossible to take this image in as one painting, one representation, or one moment. (For those who have not seen the painting in its present location, in the Museum Of Modern Art in New York, its dimensions are approximately six feet high by forty two feet wide.) This is not a painting, it is a scroll, and it is as a scroll that it should be read, though it is unclear whether Monet consciously intended such a reading as reflective of his, by then deep-rooted, concern with Chinese aesthetics, and hence unclear whether he intended his ‘scroll’ to be ‘unrolled’ in any particular direction.

Still, it is impossible to apprehend this painting in any other manner, unless one happens to be gifted with extraordinary long-sightedness and an extremely unusual visual cortex. It is, for anyone not so gifted, a fact of the process of seeing that one is forced to attend to only a small section of this huge work at any one time and, as with the Greek friezes and later narrative tapestries which are the most obviously comparable works in the Western canon, and as with the Chinese scroll-paintings with which this work shares more in common than with Western counterparts, this necessity leads to a different understanding of the artist’s representation of the temporal; a representation which is quite different to Ghita’s temporality as exemplified in ‘One.’ In Monet’s Triptych, time is lateral, while it can be cogently and consistently argued that Ghita’s representation of the ‘axis of time’ consists in a movement from ‘sub-surface’ through ‘meniscus’ to ‘air.’ This is an important difference in the approach of these two artists and should not be neglected, and it is a difference which is central to any fruitful interpretation of or comparison between the two works.

It is, of course, possible to view the Triptych in a more conventional, Western, manner, as the painting has what appears to be a ‘vanishing-point’ to which the depictions of the lily pads can be construed as conforming toward. To read the picture entirely in this way, though, entails a subsuming of the peripheral segments to the central panel, as the fovea cannot point in any but one direction at any one time. This may have been how Monet himself envisaged the painting as being viewed: at the time he was working on this painting his own eyesight was deteriorating rapidly, and this deterioration is capable of explaining certain curious properties of the work’s strange chiaroscuro and the seemingly greater detailing in the outer panels than the center panel, especially when taken with a substantial pinch of Purkinje salt.

Perhaps a reading making use of both the Western and Chinese paradigms is the best one, though the emphasis of this paper shall prioritize the scroll-like reading over the perspectival interpretation, as such a ‘visual triage’ better serves the purpose of a comparative study of this massive work with that of Ghita, as well as seeming more true to the spirit of the work. (It is important to note here that neither of these art-objects are the product of a vision steeped in a Chinese way of seeing as would be found in the output of a Chinese or Japanese artist, but that both stem from the minds of individuals immersed in – or inured to? – a ‘European’ tradition, albeit minds that, in their different ways, have been exposed to and fascinated by the East Asian traditions. The degree of this fascination and exposure is arguably greater in the case of Ghita, though this may – or may not – be balanced by the widely different ages of the two artists at the time the works in question were produced.)

Returning to a reading of Monet’s ‘scroll’ as such, whichever point one begins with, the passage is one from dark water upon which floats – again devoid of shadow – the elliptical foliage of the submerged plants, then moves right, (or left,) through a transitional process in which the differences in hue lessen and the surface of the image becomes more uniform, and into the central region, characterized as it is in the Ghita work, by light and lightness of hue and of subject, then through the same sequence reversed, until one returns to the suggestion of some submerged and shadowed nexus. The chief variation to this symmetry is that the darkness at the left of the triptych is that of water, that of the right is that of distant, perhaps forested, land, and that in the right-hand panel the lily-pads are more conspicuous by absence than by presence.

In the Monet, as in the Ghita, there is a feeling of flight, of lifting-off into the light, though the feel of this flight is different – in Monet it is more a ‘narrative of flight’ than a ‘sense of flying.’ If one reads the Monet left-to-right, the oval leaves start out level with the water surface, which at this point seems not to contain any trace of reflection or of shadow, only the darkness of depth. As the gaze moves to the right, this non-reflective water begins to lighten dramatically and, with this lightening, patches of nephelomorphic brilliance begin to appear – presumably the reflections of clouds puffing in an early-afternoon sky, though a less overtly representational interpretation is preferable – until the cloudburst white becomes the dominant ‘color.’ Just before this luminous moment, it seems as though two clusters of lilies, flotillas of foliage, begin – quite literally – taking flight, metamorphosing into a skein of green wings leaping from the water, as Ghita’s fish leap, into, again, that ‘ur-Licht’ from which all other light condenses. This is the only moment when the leaves are darker than that surface – or whatever it is – on which, or from which, they float, though even here, as with the strange uplifting of Ghita’s fish, they seem to cast no shadow. Or is it that this inchoate light is incapable of being obscured, of being impeded?

Moving further rightward into the final panel some manner of ‘horizon’ begins to be apparent, spiking into view darkly, almost ominously, together with an attendant reflection. Only here, after this intrusion, is a horizon-like line discernible, retrospectively, in the center panel. (Perhaps this would indicate that a right-to-left viewing was intended.) Hitherto, the clouds have no vertical symmetry, no clear reflection delineating where the two fluids, water and air, separate.

And hitherto, Monet’s water has had no meniscus, except that which we make for ourselves out of expectation. Ghita also speaks, pictorially, of fluid melting into fluid, but in her gilded world, the moment, the tense surface of the moment, is discernible, though hard to delineate and more ambiguous because of that. In Ghita’s masterpiece of time and light the moment is bent, distorted, yet real enough to support those two frail, thin-legged personages who walk or stand thereon. In Monet’s monumental, though lesser, masterpiece, the fluidities are fractured, split one from the other, by the intrusion of the solid: this may be his only mistake, yet it is no less a mistake for being a unique one.

And amidst all these comparisons, hiding among all the similarities or lurking beneath the differences, what of the bridge? It is there, present in both images, as it is present in Clémentel’s reconstructed tri-dimensionality, spanning the sky behind the old man; as it is present between each of these wonderful interpretations of the physical interacting with the numinous, the luminous, and the mind of the artist, spanning the discontinuities between their minds and eyes and our eyes and our minds.

It cannot be seen though, with enough trying, it can be felt, just as these great artificers felt it, not with the eyes but with feet and with the small bones of the inner ear. For it is upon the bridge, in a sense heavy with salience, that each was, is, and ever will be standing.


i: Claude Monet stereograph by Etienne Clémentel, 1920. Courtesy musée d’Orsay, France.


ii: Claude Monet, Triptych, “The Lily Pond at Giverny,” Oil-on-Canvas, 1920. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.


iii: Roxana Ghita, “The Golden Beyond, One.” Digital Photographic Image, 2012. Courtesy Roxana Ghita (copyright reserved).


Marks of Experience

Really interesting series of photos over at the Slate photo blog by Claire Felicie portraying Dutch Marines before, during, and after a tour in Afghanistan. Studying these faces, I tried to articulate for myself the differences among the before, during, and after (but especially the before and after). There’s a certain placidity in the before faces, even in the first one with the furrowed brow, a certain relaxed slackness around the mouth, even in those with pursed or slightly smiling lips, that disappears in the subsequent shots. Editing? Lighting? The framing and titling? I’m sure these all play a role in our perceptions — we’re primed to look for differences, to share in the photographer’s witnessing of changes wrought by war. However inaccessible the internal changes may be, though, the physical changes seem unmistakable.

The photos invite our scrutiny, demand it, even. But the faces, at once open and closed, only give us so much. In the midst of my looking, poring over the gazes, the wrinkles on the foreheads and around the eyes, the set of the jaws, the turns of the mouth, I started feeling a bit unsettled by my own interest in confirming the marks of war on them. I started to worry that perhaps these images, despite what Felicie may have wanted to do, end up romanticizing the experience of combat in the way Chris Hedges argues in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, assuring us that the necessary human sacrifices have been made so that we can keep believing in nobility and goodness.