Monet's Water Lilies - The Reluctant Psychoanalyst Goes to a Museum





On Saturday, February 4, a travelling exhibit of Monet's paintings of Giverny, France, opened at an Art Museum near me.   It is a small exhibit, four water lilies, two paintings of the Japanese bridge in Monet's garden, three paintings of wisteria, and three landscapes; so only a dozen paintings in all.  And they are, as my son pooh-poohed ahead of time, only paint on canvas.  When we see thousands of images daily, why should we devote time to these particular ones?  Despite his reservations, my wife and I dragged him to the exhibit.

As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I am interested in the arts and curious about how and what artists are communicating to us.  I spend much of my day, as I'm sure you do, trying to communicate with others - usually verbally or in writing.  Much of that time is spent communicating facts: what happened on a particular occasion, or what needs to be done in the future.  But I believe there may also be a deeper level to even the most everyday communication.  There may be a wish to be understood - to be heard - to have someone else know and share in our experience.  If that is the case, I think we rarely acknowledge it.

Monet's primary stated intent was to convey his emotional experience more directly.  And his medium was, indeed, just paint on canvas.  Up close, that paint looks, especially in the water lilies, like crayons childishly applied to paper by a kindergartner.  As we move back from the canvas, a magical transformation occurs.  The seemingly random and even clashing colors dissolve into a shimmering, three dimensional space, and the lilies are floating on water - water that is reflecting the colors of the sky and the trees in the background, and the flat canvas is transformed into a three dimensional window into Monet's France, but also, I think, into his mind.

We are wowed by his technical command: his ability to transform those seemingly random squiggles into something beautiful, but that serves to deepen our experience of awe at the beauty of the painting itself which, in turn, helps us appreciate the awe that I think Monet felt as he was looking at something he found profoundly inspiring: nature itself.  We are invited, for just a few moments, to reflect on something that was central to Monet's experience: Wonder at the aesthetics of the world around us.  That something as simple as water lilies floating on a pond could open up inside of us an experience as profound as his paintings do is truly miraculous.  Further, that he is able to share that miracle - so that we, a hundred years later and on a different continent, can experience something of what he felt - is a miracle, too.

 We are bombarded by thousands of images daily.  They cry for our attention.  We see nature, whether it is the grass growing through the cracks in the sidewalk, or the clouds scudding across the sky, as we hustle back and forth in our very busy lives.  Spending a few minutes with a few squiggles of paint on canvas can help remind us that there is, indeed, beauty all around us and that we are gifted to be able to experience and to communicate it.

I, obviously, was taken with the water lilies.  My son preferred the wisteria - ironically he liked the flat quality of the squiggles and could imagine them as a top down view of islands with sandy beaches in the midst of a sea.   My wife preferred the landscapes - something about the motion of the wind blown trees that Monet was able to capture.   I also like being able to talk about the experiences we were having, in hushed tones, as we walked around the small gallery that contained the paintings.

My son invited me to a different three D experience – Star Wars episode I rereleased with the new technology.  The effects were disappointing to both of us.  We agreed that the trailers, of movies made as 3D movies to begin with, better exploited the medium.  The movie itself, though not as gripping as episode IV or VI, continues to engage, and to offer insight into George Lucas’s vision of the world.  The vision he presents is much more complex than what can be conveyed by Monet’s water lilies.   He also has those thousands of images and surround sound, not to mention a narrative thread or three, to convey them. 

Regardless of the differences, one thing that unites the experiences is the communication of affective states.  Monet communicates a kind of serene calm, a sense of wonder that, in the case of the landscapes, has a frothier edge – it feels a bit like you might get blown away at any moment.  Even the water lilies, along with their wonder, bring a certain smell to mind, one that reeks a bit of damp and decay.  Lucas’s emotions are more powerful, more riveting, and they inspire awe not quietly, but with powerful and immediate attentional demands that leave us satiated and exhausted by the end.  They are also, ironically perhaps, more difficult to discuss.

Going to a museum or watching a film can give the illusion that connecting with another person can take place quickly.  We might spend 5 minutes looking at a painting if we are quite taken by it.  Star Wars, at 2 hours and 11 minutes, seems long for a movie.  An analysis, something that involves meeting for an hour 4 or 5 times a week oftentimes for years seems incredibly long by comparison.  Two things, though, mitigate that length in my mind.  First, emotion is being conveyed throughout the analysis.  Second, neither the painting nor the movie – though they can be seen in relatively little time – are the work of a moment.  Monet had to develop his techniques – indeed plant his garden – and then work on each individual canvas for a considerable period of time.  Lucas worked on writing and then filming each episode, with the help of many, many people over the course of years.  We dip into that experience, perhaps as an analyst dips into the life of her or his analysand, and because of the craft and the ways that it touches who it is that we are, we are able to connect with it relatively quickly.

Analysis can be seen, then, as practicing the craft of communicating what we are feeling.  We practice this with our analyst, but while we are doing that, we are also practicing it with ourselves.  We are learning to hear ourselves, to feel ourselves, to appreciate the incredible graphics that we produce in our dreams on a nightly basis (and frequently discard – completely forgetting them by morning).  As we do this, hopefully we become more confident in our abilities to articulate what we have to say.  We become more practiced in the art, using the medium of conversation and all that goes along with that, of expressing ourselves, as Monet did with his paintbrush.

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