Monet’s paintings seem to always be the most memorable to me. One of my earliest and clearest memories from childhood is visiting the Legion of Honor. I would stand eyes-wide-open and just admire Monet’s whimsical Water Lilies. Enchanted by the soft pastels that contrast the bright, bold colors, his painting seemed magical. Of course, this was back when I believed in magical things like fairies and gnomes. I could stare at a pond or field for hours in hopes of catching a glimpse of one or seeing traces of their secret magic. I looked at Monet’s work similarly to the way I looked for magical things in nature.
As I got older, I still felt an instant sensation of happiness and relief when I saw Monet’s Water Lilies, but I never realized how special that experience was. The last time I saw his work at the de Young’s exhibition “Monet: The Late Years,” I realized the extent of his work’s effect on me. Monet not only shows his audience beautiful interpretations of ponds and gardens, but he also reminds us to open our eyes and experience nature. To me, magical moments come from unique experiences, usually caused by the natural world where time and space align with human focus. When we truly experience nature, we might even experience magic!
Today, society faces so many distractions, many of which come from the digital revolution. With the ability to digitally reproduce experiences, time and space become less relevant. We can see whatever we want, whenever we want from our phone or from the comfort of our own home; however, when viewing digitally reproduced experiences, we are seeing the exact same thing as whoever else is viewing it. We all scroll, like, and click with the same exact motion. Audiences are larger and because of that, unique experiences can become fewer.
During the time that Monet painted his beautiful lily pads and garden landscapes, human experience was going through a similar phenomenon as today. However, instead of the digital world being the culprit that diluted human experiences, it was the result of mechanical reproduction. At the turn of the century, film and photography were becoming more common, causing a shift in the viewers’ perception. Instead of experiencing things with the naked eye, the viewer experienced through the lens of a camera. The unique phenomenon of distance and time no longer existed for the viewer.
Walter Benjamin, a German philosopher from Monet’s time who wrote extensively on the impacts of mechanical reproduction, describes these types of magical moments as the aura. He says, “If, while resting on a summer afternoon, you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, of that branch.” The kind of experience he describes is the same that Monet aimed to capture in his work.
Monet not only painted the pond’s physical beauty, but he painted his experience with the pond. He illuminated special moments that he perceived during the hours that he sat before it. He was able to see with concentration and without distraction the way light bounced and sparkled off the water, the reflection of the sky, the lilies’ changing color palette and how these beautiful moments in space and time evolved in unique alignment with one another.
After seeing this exhibition, I went outside, took some time to look at the lily pad pond in the garden area of the de Young. I stashed away my phone and simply observed. Thanks to Monet, I again saw magic that day.