As I stood outside the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), on a spectacularly cloudless sunny day, preparing myself for my assignment, I began to think about my surroundings a bit. Here I was, queued up, in the middle of Manhattan, perhaps the world’s greatest city, surrounded by people from around the world, all of us waiting to enter the glass and granite modernity of this intimidating open space. I realized that I was about to enter what is considered the greatest repository of modern art in the entire world. I could feel my heartbeat quicken as I inched forward in line for my ticket, anticipating what I would see, how it would affect me, and how I would be changed in some way, as we all are, by seeing to what heights the soul of man can rise.
As I entered the building and was captured by the walls of glass, modern, clean white lines of the galleries, the large public works of art throughout the building, with works hung on staircase landings (of all places!) and from the ceilings, meant to show how accessible and functional the modern works could be. I was drawn into one exhibit, on the second floor, though, that featured an exhibition of the French impressionist artist Claude Monet, entitled “Monet’s Water Lilies.” I was drawn into a room where three 20-foot paintings, the masterpieces of his study of Water Lilies, were hung in harmonious and dramatic style. The works were placed next to and across from each other, with their gigantic canvases echoing what Monet saw over many days and months in his garden in Giverny. At first glance, the works were a muted collection of simple, but the more I studied the works, the more I was overwhelmed at their aspects of color, the juxtaposition of the works, and the overwhelming sense of permanence I felt when sitting among these works. I was drawn into their immense size, a wealth of subtle colors and scale of proportions that reflected the various moods created by light, water, sky, and nature, as they all worked together to create a sense of serenity and eternal feeling. It slowed me down to a point where I had to sit and observe and allow myself to see the detail throughout each painting.
The simplicity yet complexity of the works drew me to them and left a permanence in my mind’s eye. The fact that they were located in a room that seemed built especially for these large works, allowed them to be seen as a reflection of each other, in a way that enhanced the experience for me. As I observed, I noticed more and more layers of paint on the works, which showed a tremendous amount of effort that went into the work. Done in impressionist pastels, with a study of a pond dotted with reflections of water lilies, poppies, sky, grasses, and trees, reminded me that the more we look at even the most simplistic things, the more complex they are. The simplicity is reminiscent of the style of Japanese art with a harmonious relationship between man and nature, with each complementing each other. In this case, there were no men or human structures in the paintings, as we were meant to be the human element of the works, and almost become part of the painting, as we are filled with a sense of serenity, color, nature, and calmness. The muted lighting, subtle colors, reflections of the sky-and of ourselves- allows the viewer to become part of that Giverny landscape– part of Monet’s eternal world.
The pure simplicity of the works, but the hidden complexity of the brush strokes, depth, and layer of colors, echoes the haiku of the Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho. As with Monet, his haiku are simple on the surface, but the artist draws the observer in with hidden complexities and depth of meaning and complexity of nature and human existence. As Monet uses the stroke of a brush to reveal his emotional depth and feeling, Bashu uses the written word to paint his canvas of emotion and searching of the human soul. Simplicity means complexity in both artists’ works. In one of his haiku, Basho writes about the commonality we all share and how nature refreshes and renews us:
I like to wash,
the dust of this world
In the droplets of dew.
The simplicity and complexity of human existence are echoed in these seemingly simple words, as he uses nature to convey the depth of his feelings and our commonality of life and death, even over 400 years ago. In the end, he, as did Monet, sees nature as a way to cleanse the soul of age, time, regrets, and whatever else we take with us through this life journey.
As I sat there that beautiful sunny day, bathed in wonderful shards of light, shadow, glass and a sense of a modern appreciation of art at the MoMA, I could not help be taken back to a more simple–yet similarly complex–life, bathed and refreshed in nature, washed and renewed, in a way, by its beauty and subtle complexities. Both Monet and Basho understood that although time would soon end their lives in this world, the ephemeral timelessness and permanence of nature and its simplistic beauties can at long last transform their own lives, as they communed with the world beyond their conscious. I felt privileged to partake in this communal understanding of the role nature can play in our lives, these many years later, as it did them.
Monet, Claude. Water Lilies. Museum of Modern Art. New York. 2011
Matsuo, Bashō, Jane Reichhold, and Shirō Tsujimura. Basho: the Complete Haiku. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008.