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Impressionist's Tour

The Grand Canal, Venice
1908, Oil on canvas.
What is an impression anyway? When we're born we are an empty canvas, a blank reel of tape waiting to receive some mysterious mixture of atoms, photons and vibrations which ultimately become tucked away in our memory...as the smell of cinnamon? the glow of a sunset? or the sounds that spilled out when you opened a lacquered box on your parents' desk?

As we grow up and keep hold of these impressions and many more besides, why is it we become more accustomed to them, and the world becomes less magical? Could that be the reason why we travel -- to search for new impressions?

An then there's this thing we call art -- which can convey a special kind of impression. Claude Monet, one of the pioneers of a group of artists who became known as impressionists, spent virtually his whole life searching for a way to distill into a painting, the magic inherent in a moment of seeing. Join us for an impressionist's tour with Jim Metzner.

Impressionist's Tour
By Jim Metzner

Listen with RealAudio: Impressionist's Tour

Metzner: I'm at the waterfront of the Grand Canal near the church of San Georgio Majori in Venice; the very spot where Monet painted one of his incandescent views of this city. And although the ghost of what he saw still lingers here in resonance with his painting, there is always another impression hovering, waiting to be seen -- or heard.

It's noon, and you can hear church bells ringing on both sides of the canal, and a boat -- a water taxi -- passing in between.

And in your mind's ear, follow that furthest ball, and fly across the water to the Piazza da San Marco for another impression, one that Monet heard, but didn't paint.

San Marco is an enormous plaza, ringed with outdoor cafes, many of which have their own little orchestras or jazz combos. There's a photograph of Monet as an older man, with his second wife, Alice, feeding pigeons here. One of them is perched on his head. And indeed if you purchase a dollar's-worth bag of corn and hold it in your hand, you will in an instant, be literally covered with pigeons. It's an odd sensation.

Houses of Parliament, Sunset
1904. Oil on canvas.
Monet's paintings remind us that we are surrounded by a world of color and beauty, but we are also surrounded by a world of vibrations.

Picture a narrow street in Venice: some boys are playing soccer; nearby, a cat sits watching on a windowsill.

Paul Tucker is a professor of Art History at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and the author of several books on Monet's life and work.

Tucker: "The world of vibration, visual phenomena and aesthetic contemplation are intimately related. Paintings project themselves off the wall through color, sound through waves of emotion. Monet wants us to be immersed in this world."

"Monet built his own world...a place where wonder exists...where he could translate his ideas into paint..."

Metzner: Monet's world was centered around his estate in Giverny France, about forty miles from Paris. It was here that he returned after his vacation in Italy. Monet designed and built a series of gardens and ponds at Giverny, that were in themselves works of art. And they became inspirations for whole series of his paintings. The Japanese bridge, the lily pads that floated on the pond waters, were motifs that Monet returned to again and again: rediscovering their luminosity, reinventing his craft. Today, Giverny has become a prime destination for tourists from all over the world. And as they leave Monet's house and gardens, they must pass through a tunnel to reach the lily ponds, leaving their own imprint on the soundscape.

The Water-Lily Pond
1900. Oil on canvas.
The house, the gardens and ponds, which at one time had fallen into despair have been magnificently restored. The visual sources of inspiration are still here to be seen, but the sound images of this landscape for the forseeable future, will be mixed with voices of visitors and nearby traffic.

If you go to the L'Orangerie Museum in Paris, to be in a room surrounded by Monet's water lily paintings, you'll notice that the room is shaped like a parabola, and if you stand at either of the room's focal points -- the gathering place for all the sound -- you will be immersed in both the visual panorama and also ripples and waves of sound coming at you from every direction. It's an impression to savor.

Tucker: "The lily pads are like sounds...poetry of translation... valuing the momentary: the (impressions that become) imbedded in our memory."

Metzner: Before we die, we have this impulse to leave something of ourselves behind, as if to say that we were here in part, not only to receive these impressions, but to make something of them, art perhaps. Or, maybe that's the wrong way round. Maybe the impressions were supposed to make something of us.

Not so far from the L'Orangerie, the bells of Notre Dame are ringing, and every one who hears them knows what they are. But still, contained with this moment, this sound is something no thought, no word, can lay a finger on. So you record the bell, you paint a picture, but you can never really capture that essential, elusive magic. I wonder if that's what compelled Monet to paint the same motifs again and again. Perhaps there was something inside him that was still in question, still unfinished, like an empty canvas. From Paris, I'm Jim Metzner, for the Savvy Traveler.

* * * *

In September, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston will host "Monet in the 20th Century," a major exhibition of the artist's later work. Paul Tucker is the exhibition's guest curator. Check out the MFA Web site for all the details.

Planning your own Monet tour?

Well, here are some "Monet" places to stay:

In London: at Savoy, which is hotel where he stayed in London. There's a room there where Monet stayed and painted, with a fabulous view of the Thames River. You can ask for it and stay in that room.

In Venice: Monet stayed at the Hotel Regina and Europa. You can stay there, too. It's right on the Grand Canal.


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