Claude Monet, the founder of French Impressionist painting, spent hours upon hours of contemplation in his Japanese water garden, observing the impermanence of nature, and carefully examining his hybridized water lilies — the closest one could get to a Japanese lotus in nineteenth-century France. With all of this in mind, the curator of a new exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), “Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, van Gogh, and More,” has come to regard the allegedly atheist Monet as Zen Buddhist — albeit informally, but certainly in spirit.
“Mystical Landscapes” traces the intersections of mysticism, nature, and art in famous works from many beloved artists, and intuits the spiritual tradition the work of each was likely informed by. In the case of Monet, whose work has long been looked at from a strictly secular perspective, research into his Eastern influences and a fresh look at the symbolism within his most famed landscapes led the exhibition’s curator, Katharine Lochnan, to believe his life’s work was strongly informed by Buddhist practice.
In 2010, Lochnan, the AGO’s senior curator, was preparing for retirement and had begun working towards a degree in theology. Simultaneously taking a landscape painting class, she found herself consciously trying to inject a theological, mystical element into her own work, wondering if mysticism could plausibly reside in landscape painting.
While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Lochnan woke up to a new meaning within the works of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Monet. With the lens of theology added to her art-historian background, she could see mystical origins in the famous landscapes before her. Her plans to retire were pushed aside by a whole five years as she worked alongside six other art historians, and ten theologians to make “Mystical Landscapes” a reality.
Looking at the work of Monet, Lochnan began wondering if his famed grainstacks, cathedrals, poplars, and water lilies had a spiritual subtext to them. While Monet was baptized Catholic and lived in a Catholic country, he became anticlerical in his adulthood, says Lochnan, and is widely seen as atheist by art historians.
Monet spent hours seated in Zen-like meditation in his water garden, which was bursting with hybridized water lilies — created to mimic the pink hues of the Japanese lotus, a well-known symbol in Buddhism. To Monet, the water lilies were indeed symbolic of peace.
But Lochnan learned that Monet spent hours seated in Zen-like meditation in his water garden, which was bursting with hybridized water lilies — created to mimic the pink hues of the Japanese lotus, a well-known symbol in Buddhism. To Monet, the water lilies were indeed symbolic of peace. Through the First World War, Monet sequestered himself in his garden in Giverny, France, refusing to leave as the German army advanced in his direction. He painted the water lilies then, as his son served on the front lines, and later gave a series of eight water lily canvases to the French state at the end of the war following the signing of the armistice as a monument to peace.
The link between Monet’s famed water lilies and Buddhist thought was noted, too, by his own friend, art historian and author of Trois variations sur Claude Monet (Three Variations on Claude Monet), Louis Gillet, who wrote of them as:
The sole European work which is truly related to Chinese thought, to the vague hymns of the Far East on the waters and the mists and the passing of things, on detachment, on nirvana. On the religion of the Lotus.
In Ross King’s recently published biography of Monet, Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies, he reveals that Monet’s “obsession with water lilies” began when the painter glimpsed Latour-Marliac’s pink hybrids of the flower at the 1889 Exposition Universelle. By that time, writes King, “the plant and its flowers went beyond horticulture and botany, inhabiting the realms of art, myth, literature and religion.”
Lochnan believes Monet’s interest in Buddhism began with his love of Japanese woodblock prints. He likely heard about Buddhism through his friend and Japanese art dealer, Tadmasa Hayashi, through whom he acquired quite a collection of woodblock prints from Japanese artists, including the well-known Hokusai. He looked to these woodblock prints for inspiration for the structure and composition of his own artwork. The conical forms in Monet’s grain stacks series may have been inspired by Hokusai’s views of Mount Fuji, says Lochnan.
Monet was not shy about his love of Japanese art and culture. As he told the art critic Roger Marx:
I identify with the Japanese old masters: I have always taken pleasure in the refinement of their taste and I endorse their aesthetic of suggestion that evokes presence by means of a shadow, and the whole by means of the part.
His dear friend, the Prime Minister of France, Georges Clémenceau, was also a member of a group of intellectuals in Paris who were drawn to Buddhism. Lochnan believes the two spoke of Buddhist thought often. It was Clémenceau who observed Monet seated in contemplation of his water garden, which Monet expressed to Marx “awakens in you a sense of infinity.” The garden housed a Japanese bridge, untraditionally painted green, along with stalks of bamboo, and Japanese cherry and apple trees planted by Monet.
“Monet himself said that he would become one with the subject, and that it was like entering into a state of hypnosis,” says Lochnan, referring to Monet’s own words on how he painted his Nymphéas (Water Lilies) series:
I painted them the way monks illuminated their manuscripts in times gone by; they needed nothing but the confluence of solitude and silence, nothing but the fervent and exclusive concentration which comes close to a hypnotic state.
Looking at these paintings with a mystical eye, says Lochnan, we’re able to see they are filled with metaphors — from the most personal (“This is my water garden”) to the most universal (“This is about the journey from ignorance to enlightenment.”)
Monet was similarly fascinated with questions of impermanence, and of the basis of reality, famously painting the same scene over and over again to observe each subtle change in light in his “series paintings.” He began contemplating various motifs within the vicinity of his home in Giverny in the late 1880’s, painting twenty-five versions of grain stacks and over thirty paintings of the Rouen Cathedral.
Monet’s series work documents these motifs through their infinite changes — from the tiniest changes in light to more dramatic seasonal transformations. Many art historians have seen the meaning of his series works as a simple interest in the changes of light, but Lochnan believes it goes much deeper than that. “I think certainly he was interested in changing light and color, but impermanence and the nature of reality were undoubtedly questions that fascinated him,” she says.
The French journalist and friend of Monet, Gustave Geffroy, writes of Monet’s fascinations with light and nature in his biography of Monet:
He discovered and demonstrated that everything is everywhere, and that after having wandered the world worshiping the light that enlightened him, he knew that this light was reflected with all its splendor and mysteries in the magic hollow surrounded by foliage of Saides and bamboos, flowers of irises and rosebushes, through the mirror of the water from which spring the strange flowers which seem more silent and more hermetic than all the other flowers.
It’s hard to deny that Monet certainly held an interest in impermanence, and his clear practice of contemplation of the subtle changes in nature and the impermanence of reality certainly aligns with Buddhist thought.
In creating “Mystical Landscapes,” Lochnan often wondered if she was going out on a limb, particularly with asserting Monet’s interest in Buddhism. But her research findings emboldened her, and through reading comments from his contemporaries, and the works of other art historians, she found she was not alone in coming to her conclusions.
“You just can’t get away from it, that Buddhism was a factor in Monet’s thought and practice,” says Lochnan.
In the exhibition’s catalogue, again the friend of Monet, Gustave Geffroy, is quoted outlining the importance of Monet’s work with these words:
This is the supreme significance of Monet’s art: his adoration of the universe, ending in pantheistic and Buddhist contemplation … pursuing his dream of form and color almost to the annihilation of his individuality in the eternal nirvana of things at once changing and immutable.
“Mystical Landscapes” will travel to its second and final destination at the Musée d’Orsay in France, following its final day at the AGO on February 12, bringing the mystical elements of the impressive collection of well-known art to a French audience, including Monet’s Buddhist undertones.