Rouen Cathedral, Claude Monet

Going off of Kai’s post on the way music and environment are so often linked, my mind went straight to art. I spent a good bit of time in art history classes quite a while ago, but the message of these pieces and their production is an interesting way to look at the issues of directorial or authorial context, and the interplay with the modern social context of the resulting artifacts.

The example I am running with in this particular situation is a series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral that Claude Monet (yes, that guy who is only known, by most accounts, for his ability to paint waterlilies) painted over the course of two years. There are two interesting perspectives that may be interesting to consider, based on our readings and discussion over the past two weeks: the perspective of authorial intent and the actual context of the creation of the artifact, and the perspective of the modern viewer of this series, which is often displayed with only a few of the original thirty paintings in this series.

Author and Context

From an art-historical perspective, this series was painted at the height of the impressionist movement, and was meant to study the changing affect of light and natural conditions on a single subject. While I only include one specific piece here, there are over thirty in this series, which show various vantage points of looking at this cathedral, and the seasonal or contextual differences (along with the continually changing perspective of the artist) that make each painting unique. From the artist’s perspective, understanding of the subject matter is assumed, as the focus is on change over time, both in the perception of the artist and documenting the actual conditions surrounding the cathedral over time. In this sense, there is a specific drive toward Nelson & Stolterman’s idea of the “ultimate particular.” I would propose, though, that in a craft- or art-driven tradition, the “ultimate particular” is almost inescapable, as perceptions of the artist of craftsperson changes over time, and as situational variables change. In this piece, the forces of the impressionist movement, the evolving knowledge of the artist in rendering the scene and applying colors that accurately depicted his perception of the scene, and the change in the actual scene over time all worked to make each piece ultimately unique.

Contemporary Context

Most art historians are satisfied to stop with the former explanation of the work, understanding it as a progression of understanding a particular architectural landmark over time, struggling with the application of color and space to capture an impression of light. But I think a contemporary read of these artifacts, now over 100 years old, is also valuable. Many of the original series have been split into different collections around the world, and the variation that is so obvious when they are placed side-to-side (as on the Wikipedia article documenting this collection), are anything but obvious when you see one or a handful of them in a gallery. And this is where a contemporary read of these pieces can tend to distort or misunderstand the original artist’s intent, while also deifying these paintings in a completely new context. The art historian in me would probably decry someone attempting to appreciate these paintings as a simple one-off of an old cathedral. But within the larger social context, I think that “one-off” viewpoint may be as interesting and enlightening as might a side-by-side comparison. Different from a critical standpoint, to be sure, but still quite interesting.