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23 Apr 2011

Impressions – This past week, my wife and I watched a three-part BBC series called The Impressionists. The series is five years old now, but I still probably never would have heard of it had my wife not recently become a fan of Richard Armitage, who plays the young Claude Monet in the series (if you’re not familiar with the name, you may become more familiar with it in the future—he will be playing Thorin Oakenshield in the upcoming Hobbit films). I am a big fan of Impressionism and Monet has always been one of my favorite painters, so I was interested to see how he—and the other Impressionist painters—would be portrayed.

“Genius is what allows us to break the bonds that hold us to this earth and ascend to the heavens.”

The series does not deal with all of the painters who bore the Impressionist label, but focuses on Monet (the older Monet serves as the series’ narrator), Édouard Manet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Frédéric Bazille. I suppose I could do a standard review of the series, but it might be more appropriate to simply give you my—if you will pardon the pun—impressions. After all, there is a reason I am writing this at all, and that is because it made me feel something. But first a few comments about what I saw.

Being a series about art, the visuals are obviously going to be very important, and I was amazed to see what the series creators did with color correction and other film techniques. From the very beginning, Paris looks like a painting come to life. If you were to freeze the frame at any moment, you would have something you could hang on the wall. There is a technique that is revisited again and again throughout the series, and to great effect: we will see a scene in real life, and then it will slowly and almost imperceptibly dissolve into the painting that made that scene famous. Not only is this a neat visual trick, but it is also fascinating to see the painters in the environments that inspired them.

It was also interesting to see the painters as real people interacting with each other. I knew all of the names, but they were never more than just names associated with paintings. The series, based on letters, interviews, and other sources, really brings them to life as people with hopes and dreams. I think this is what inspired me most, and what inspired me to write this today.

As we were watching one episode, my wife said, “This makes me want to pick up my sketchbook and go out and draw.” Unlike my wife, I cannot draw or paint. I have little artistic talent. But I do write, or at least I try to. It may sound odd, but whenever I see something done well, no matter what it is, it makes me want to write. When I saw these beautiful paintings that I have long admired come to life on the television screen, I felt the urge to write, to create, to express. Different people express their worlds in different ways. Some people can do this through painting. Some people, like my brother, can do this through music. Writing often seems like a poor substitute, but it is all I have.

Yet as I watched this series, even as I felt inspired I also felt incredibly sad. These men were truly great. Of course, it is easy to say this today, now that history has confirmed their greatness. Back then, things were not as clear. They were continuously rejected and vilified by the art world. There is one particular heartrending sequence in the last episode that features Cézanne and his close friend Emile Zola. Zola is by now a very successful novelist, and at one of his society parties, before publishing a book that will damn Impressionism as a failure, he talks about Cézanne to his friends. He says that Cézanne is such an odd character, which would be fine “if only he had genius.” When those words were uttered I scoffed aloud. We know now that Cézanne was indeed a genius. (As for Zola, well, different people have differing opinions, but I read Therese Raquin in high school and absolutely hated it. Of course, I was in high school, so perhaps it is not fair to base my appraisal of him on that one experience.)

This is what made me sad. As I watched these painters chasing after their ideals and in the process creating works of art that would long be remembered, I realized—I knew—that I did not have that same spark within me. I have always wanted to be different. I have always wanted to stand out from everyone else. Ironically enough, this desire in fact makes me exactly like everyone else. When I was younger I don’t think I realized this. I thought I might be special. The other side of this coin, of course, is that I have always suffered the fear of being “ordinary.” There have been times in my life where I have shunned a path because I thought it too easy, or because it was the path more traveled. Sometimes I lost my way. But I always had the hope that I would somehow achieve something great.

Yet for all of my qualities, for all of my abilities and talents, I know now that I lack genius. This probably does not need explanation, but I do want to distinguish “genius” from “intelligence.” Genius is not a certain level of intelligence—it is not as if you move up some scale of intelligence until you reach the “genius” level. The term is used this way, of course, but I believe it is used because we have no better word in English. The word comes from the Latin and refers to a guardian spirit; in other words, it has its roots in the divine. “Divine” is another term that needs far more unpacking than I can do here, but religious connotations aside, it refers to something that transcends the merely human. So genius is what allows us to break the bonds that hold us to this earth and ascend to the heavens. I have a reasonable amount of talent, and it has served me well so far, but I do not have this divine spirit, this spark.

I did not know quite what to do with this sadness. It was not something that I could simply internalize and then forget. I had to come to terms with it. Truth be told, my world has grown smaller as I have grown older. I do not mean by this that the possibilities for my life have become fewer (although this is also true), but that what was once vague and universal has become more clear and specific. When I was young I wanted to have a lasting effect on the world. But what does that mean? Only a rare few can hope to have a universal impact—there is only one Monet, only one Cézanne, and even only one Zola. Over the years, though, I have realized that having an effect on the world means having an effect on the people around you. “The world” is a big, impersonal thing. But my world is not. I don’t know if I am having the effect I want to have on my world, but I am definitely trying. And maybe that’s enough.

Though there was once a time when I promised myself that I would live without regrets, I know now that to live is to collect a pile of regrets, like faded photographs in a shoebox. When a life begins, the paths it may take are infinite. Culture, social status, ethnicity, and other factors do of course have an influence, but great people have proven time and again that it is possible to rise above any limitation. No matter how successful we are, though, each day we choose to walk down one single path at the expense of all others. And even if we choose the best of all possible paths, who can help wondering what those other paths would have been like? I do not regret the path I have taken, or the things that I have done, but sometimes the lost possibilities make me sad. And there is nothing that can be done about this. This is what it means to live.

I was still trying to process these thoughts when we came to the end of the series. Monet, now 80 and six years before his death, is in his garden at Giverny, giving an interview. As he works on yet another painting, he says something that makes my jaw drop. “Perhaps what I am trying to do is beyond my ability,” he murmurs quietly, his brush pausing for a moment. “Perhaps I will die without knowing.”

I was stunned. I still am not sure what to make of this. I wanted to say, “No, you succeeded!” But instead I just stared. Monet is gone, of course. Did he die without knowing? I suspect that, for all the accolades and praise he won in later life, Monet died still chasing that perfection, not knowing if he had done what he set out to do. And I suppose that is for the best. What would we do if we ever caught what we are chasing? Where would we go from there?

I imagine that my words here probably look like the early paintings of the Impressionists did to the Realism-oriented art world of the time: unfinished, unfocused, underwhelming. Just quick flashes of the brush on canvas—not that I expect my words to age as well, of course. Maybe I am trying to imitate artists I admire. Or maybe I am just pulling the stopper out a bottle that has kept things pent up for so long. Call it writing therapy, if you will. I do have other topics that I hope to tackle in the near future, and with any luck my thoughts on these will be a little more focused.

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