By Heather Rolph
It could almost be a zombie movie, a silent horror film of poorly animated bodies moving in a choreographed shuffle, their murmured audio instructions a hum in the air, nothing but the click of shoes and an occasional whispered “excuse me” to hint at life. Outside there were windows but past the coat check it is a warren of interconnecting chambers, the walls deep purple, green, orange, blue, the rooms themed: snow, fog, haystacks, water lilies.
It’s a sold-out sensation, a crowded knot of people doing their best to pretend they’re alone while the audio boxes hum their analysis and the docents count down the quarter-hours until closing. This is “The Truth of Nature,” the show the Denver Art Museum has extended its hours to accommodate. It is 124 of Claude Monet’s original works, the only stop in the United States. It is a privilege and an opportunity and though the quiet and the crowds are stifling, for a few weeks more it is the place to be.
But can we really say we care about the man? All these people – the girl with the electric blue hair and the white-haired couple speaking a language that could be French, the young biracial couple looking more at each other than the paintings, the woman kneeling on a walker alone and the woman in heels and a knee-length coat who balances her audio device between her ear and her shoulder, making multitasking glamorous as she pulls out her phone with long pink fingernails to photograph her suited husband – all these people are here for Monet, yes, but not for the person. For his paintings.
It doesn’t matter that his mother died when he was seven, that his father condemned him to military service in Algeria when he refused to give up painting, that his obsession with colors was so great that he once confessed to a friend, “I one day found myself looking at my beloved wife’s dead face and just systematically noting the colours according to an automatic reflex!”
It matters, maybe, that the term “Impressionism” is derived from the title of one of his paintings. It matters more that that painting is here on exhibit tonight, behind nothing but a gray line on the floor, an ornately gold-framed blur of orange and blue that looks nothing at all like the port it depicts, except that at the same time it is also truer than the place ever could be: an orange-blue-purple mist of smudged ships and silhouetted people, a portrait of a place that could be a dream, or a hope. Art historians say it alludes to the industry and commerce of a post-war France, but with intentions obscured by the centuries it is only a dreamscape we’re all searching for, that perfect moment at sunrise when light gilds the horizon and the coming day could be anything.
Many of his paintings are like that: spun through with light that makes everything look like the world as it should be – a glistening fairyland of snow and ice that is welcoming instead of chilling, a London fog that is peaceful or dramatic but never stifling, never choking. They are glimpses of a world we might only seldom see, a heaven that exists for an instant when the light is exactly right, or perhaps doesn’t exist at all.
“I’ve caught this magical landscape and it’s the enchantment of it I’m so keen to render,” Monet once said, and maybe that is why they’re all here, past nine on a Tuesday night in the dead of winter, the couples and the loners and the families. Maybe they’re all searching for the world as it only rarely is, a world Monet dedicated his life to capturing: a shaft of sunlight on a snow-covered road, a morning glow on haystacks, the play of colors in a field in the wind – even if right now it’s trapped within museum walls.