Monument, Moment, and Memory: Monet's Cathedral in Fin de Siècle France

Monument, Moment, and Memory: Monet's Cathedral in Fin de Siècle France

Monument, Moment, and Memory: Monet's Cathedral in Fin de Siècle France

Monument, Moment, and Memory: Monet's Cathedral in Fin de Siècle France

Synopsis

By the end of the nineteenth century, a mode of painting captured instantaneity had come to be seen as an appropriate and characteristically Impressionist means of depictin its subject, when that subject was understood to be our variable perception in nature. In May of 1895, however, capriciously it seemed to some, to the facade of a Gothic cathedral. Struck by the curious choice a medieval monument as subject matter, critics, used to about instantaneity, continued to lay emphasis on a theme of temporality, and this was addressed in two but related ways. First, there was the matter of perception - the temporality that is involved in engaging visually with near impenetrable surfaces of individual canvases...

Excerpt

A vast symphony in stone … the colossal product of the combination of all the force of the age; in which the fancy
of the workman, chastened by the genius of the artist, is seen starting forth in a hundred forms upon every stone; in
short, a sort of human Creation, mighty and fertile as the Divine Creation, from which it seems to have borrowed
the twofold character of variety and eternity
.

—Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (1831)

Following the tremendous critical success of MONET’S grainstacks and poplars exhibitions of the early 1890s, a mode of painting that captured transience had come to be seen as an appropriate, and characteristically Impressionist, means of depicting its subject, when that subject was understood to be our variable perception in nature. the language of critical description— spontanéité, instantanéité, l’éphemère—confirmed that appropriateness. a critical understanding of “instantaneity” meant recognition of the ability of a particular depicting procedure to register and mime the mobility and instability of our perceptions of the visible world, of nature. Critics had learned to incorporate in that term a sense of the illusion of temporal brevity in nature seen within a painting procedure that suggests perceptual immediacy—a Baudelairean privileging of the transitory, the ephemeral, the provisional. in May 1895, however, Monet placed the notion of the painting of transience in the radically different and difficult context of the immutable façade of a Gothic cathedral. This provoked strong opinion. It was calculated to do so. the critical discourse and its complex negotiations—aesthetic, philosophical, and literary—with the images that elicited it, is the subject of this book.

Struck by the unusual choice of an invariant—nonnatural—architectural structure as subject matter, critics, by now used to talking about “instantaneity,” continued to focus on the issue of temporality in their commentary, and that theme was addressed in two distinct but significantly related ways. First, there was the matter of perception—the temporality that is involved in engaging visually with the layered surfaces of individual canvases, the optical density of loaded impasto calling to mind through the procedures of painting the dense and layered complexity of our “momentary” perception. Then, there was the temporality involved in the real historical character of the motif itself, a sense of the persistence of memory embedded in the medieval edifice and the significations of heritage and nation in its representation. the first topic is addressed in the first half of this study, the other in the second. For the critics of Monet’s Rouen Cathedrals project in 1895, then, temporality was bound up with both depiction and its subject, with—in Hugo’s words—“variety” and “eternity.” For the painter, time in perception finds its fitting subject in the ancient monument.

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