The sun is shining again on Monet’s greatest work. All is well with the world, reflects Waldemar Januszczak
I could have cried when I read that. For me, visiting the Orangerie was one of the chief pleasures of Paris, which is not, in general, an easy city in which to enjoy art. There’s plenty of it, of course, but looking at it involves going to war. The Louvre is a trial at the best of times, but now Da Vinci Code-mania has packed it with demented seekers after the truth, steamrolling their way to the Mona Lisa, it really is a terrifying place to visit. I’ve never liked the Musée d’Orsay either. As a converted railway station, its spaces are made for catching trains, not looking at pictures.
But the Orangerie, housed in a former greenhouse at the bottom of the Tuileries Gardens, has always stood out for its sensible scale and smaller crowds, the optimism of its interiors, the excellence of its collection and, in particular, for the Nymphéas, the suite of eight huge paintings of water lilies, produced specifically for this location by Monet in the final years of his life. In terms of impact and influence, the Nymphéas is quite simply one of the most important artworks ever produced. But their setting had grown scruffy and gloomy with age, and serious mistakes had been made in their presentation, banishing them to a basement and cutting them off from the light. Would the rebuilding sort it out? The French word for water lilies, nymphéas, is particularly evocative, don’t you think? It feels so frilly and ethereal. And the root of the word — the idea of a nymph — describes their elusive and magical presence so well. Are they real or not? Where exactly are they? How can I get to them? Above all, this lovely word, nymphéas, ensures that we think of water lilies in the feminine and therefore see Monet’s great and famous relationship with them cast properly as a love affair, between a very old man and the flitty, pretty, flirtatious and coquettish objects of his desire. The whispered suggestion that these girlish presences are underage — nymphettes — strikes me as absolutely right, too. Monet’s Water Lilies is good. Monet’s Nymphéas is perfect.
Monet painted hundreds of pictures of water lilies. The first ones were done in 1899, and from then until his death, in 1926, they constituted just about his only subject. “Suddenly, I had the revelation of how magical my pond is. I took up my palette. Since that time I have scarcely had any other model.” But all the other water lilies constitute a kind of marathon training run, a limbering up for the huge suite that hangs in two interconnected oval rooms in the Orangerie in Paris. This is his summation of the theme: his symphony.
Monet originally offered to paint some nymphéas for the French state in 1918, specifically to commemorate la victoire in the great war. It was his way of doing his bit. But it took a decade of faffing about by everyone involved before the pictures were finally unveiled to the public in 1927, a year after Monet’s death. Their collective name was his. The more usual French word for water lily is nénuphar, but Monet insisted on a rarer and more obscure designation. So the Nymphéas it was, a title spelt out now in imposing letters on the outside of the remodelled experience.
It would be inaccurate to call the space you walk into a gallery. It’s more a state of mind. A world-view. A walk through someone else’s brain. A peep through a stranger’s eyes. The two oval rooms in which the eight paintings are installed have a churchy curve to their walls that hints at a religious function. You enter through a domed arch and immediately find yourself in the middle of what seems to be an endless pond, stretching away from you in every direction. And instead of standing on the bank, looking in, you are on an island in the middle, looking out.
It’s quite a dank pond, as it happens, overgrown and greenish, with clusters of floating pink nymphéas hovering delicately here and there. There are some willows on the bank. And the light is either going down or coming up. You can’t be sure. Whatever the time of day actually is, it definitely has a relationship with the night and, as you gaze into these dark and endless waters, your thoughts get tugged, inevitably, towards their dream state. It’s all very vague. But also very tangible. If this were real weather, you’d probably be drawing a shawl about your shoulders and noting the cold.
The chief problem with the old arrangement was the lighting. There wasn’t any. To accommodate a superb collection of modern art left to the Orangerie in the 1950s — Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso — a new floor was constructed above the Nymphéas, cutting them off from the daylight they crave and lowering their ceiling to a claustrophobic level. Going to see the water lilies in the old Orangerie involved an Orphic descent into a basement, which was obviously wrong.
What they’ve done now is to dig down even deeper, beneath the Nymphéas, and to move the entire top gallery to a new set of spaces carved out of the clays of Paris. So whereas the Nymphéas used to be the last thing you reached, they are now the first. And instead of the Nymphéas being an addendum to the collection, the collection is now an addendum to the Nymphéas. There’s a strong sense here of public taste shaping this new arrangement. Among the finest of the Orangerie’s other treasures is an exciting mass of paintings by the troubled Chaim Soutine, which are very dark and angsty. They used to be at the front of the gallery. Now they are at the back. Soutine, you feel, has been demoted and shoved out of sight.
But these are minor cultural sins when compared with the superb liberation that has been achieved with the Nymphéas. The removal of the top floor has meant real light can once again flood into the lily ponds from above. An oval of white gauze under the roof sieves the sunlight and filters out its hotnesses, creating, on the afternoon I went, a naturally buoyant illumination that allows the Nymphéas to spring to life, their colours intensified, their atmosphere liberated. It’ s as if the unfortunate things have been let out of prison.
Where were installations invented? Here. Where did abstract expressionism learn about endlessness? Here. Where did less start meaning so much more? Here. Where did Monet mutate from slight impressionist to great tragedian? Here.