Real or Unreal?

Su and I enjoyed tremendously our three-week sojourn in France. We are lucky to have this extraordinary opportunity to visit a number of places to which even many people in France may not go. On the last day, our host made us dinner which was also attended by a neighbor who did not speak English. She asked us what we would miss most when we got back – the wine, the cheese, the food, or any particular aspect of the place. I replied almost instantly that I would miss France when I left France.

Apart from the cleaner air and serenity at Fontenaille, which is an unusual luxury even for the average French, we have been impressed with the little things in their daily life. For example, they won’t charge for metered-parking between 12 noon and 2pm because these are lunch hours which are sacrosanct to the French. Indeed, most shops are closed at lunch hours. Similarly, they don’t charge on Sundays either. I have already mentioned the excellent audio guides at museums and I would mention the ingenious design of toilet facilities at rest areas along highways: a lot of automation is employed, and they are provided free of charge in general. Within cities though, one must not forget to carry small changes, 20 or 50-cent coins if one does not want to be deprived of one’s basic rights. Nevertheless, the French accept men answering the call of Nature anywhere along highways or at hidden street corners.

I would not be doing them justice if I do not mention their dedication to arts and culture; and I believe our friend loves France primarily because of this. And one does not need to be in Paris to have a taste of French paintings and art. We are delighted, for example, to have visited in Rouen an exhibition of paintings by leading impressionists including Claude Monet, Alfred Sisly and Eugene Boudin, amongst others. All three had named the Dutch marine landscape painter Johan Jongkind as their mentor, even though Jongkind did not participate in the first exhibition of the Impressionist Group in 1874. Of the three, Monet was the youngest at the time and in the end lived the longest. He lived up to 1926 at the ripe old age of 86, puffing away his cigarettes and pipe; Boudin died in 1898 at a respectable age of 74; and Sisly who was British, died in 1899 at 59 to throat cancer – he was a self declared smoker and had left some interesting quotes on smoking and ashtrays. Of smoking, for example, he said that “smoking is the perfect way to commit suicide without actually dying. I smoke because it’s bad, it’s really simple.” Of ashtrays, he had said, “I think an ashtray is the most fantastically real thing.” Sisly also had this to say about city life and country life, which drives home now that I am in London after Normandy, “Most people live in the city and go to the country at the weekend, and that’s posh and aristocratic, but actually to live in the country and come to London when you can’t take it any more is different.”

Jongkind passed away in1891, at 72. Not bad either. It seems that painters, or people who love life, live longer than others, unless they are heavy smokers or British.

Monet actually met Boudin and Sisly in Honfleur – which we also visited and did some tourist things – and they became friends. Of Jongkind, Monet referred to him as “a quiet man with such a talent that is beyond words” and he credited his mentor for the definitive education to his eyes. Well, his eyes or eyesight must have evolved or deteriorated over the years, particularly in his later years when he moved to Giverny where he lived for 43 years splashing layers and layers of paint on canvasses at his Water Garden and Water Lily Studio year round, spring, summer, winter or fall. Many of these large paintings actually brought him huge fame and international dollars amidst sometimes rather harsh and pointed criticisms. The obvious question is: does one see with the eyes ony?

It was after our visit to the exhibitions we decided to make two special trips, first to Etretat where the white cliffs and other landscapes and waterscapes had purportedly inspired many impressionist painters, notably Monet who painted extensively while there, and then to Giverny on a very hot day, where it was said that the mirrored waters had given Monet much reflections, introspectively and physically. At Giverny, there were so many flowers, mostly in full blossoms, of bright purple, red, yellow, white and other exotic colours. We spent time, a lot of time, taking pictures until the fingers were numbed. Then there were the reflections at the lily ponds, the reflections of the trees and willow, and the Japanese green bridges. In the final exhibit at Rouen, we heard the translated words of Monet about the ponds being a mysterious hole, in which there was no horizon and no reflection, alongside with a picture he himself took of the water lily, with him casting his shadow on the waters in the foreground, in like fashion of Narcissus in the fable casting his shadow on the waters.

The exhibition in Rouen makes reference to pictures taken by photographers and discusses how the two art forms – painting and photography – impact on each other over time. It also discusses how different impressionist painters had described the sky and the horizon on their canvasses. Su and I found ourselves trying to take pictures in deference to the fashion Monet had put paint on his canvasses; and as we drove across vast stretches of countryside in a seemingly unending horizon between flat landscapes in predominantly green and yellow, dotted with other bright colours, we pictured ourselves driving through Monet’s landscape paintings. Alas, the line between impressionists and realists can be so indistinguishably thin and blur. After all, nothing may be real or permanent.

Let me quickly go to something we did that was more real than real: at Mont Saint-Michel, after checking in at our hotel, we cycled our way for about 3km from the hotel to a nearest point near the entrance to the Abbey; and this we did along a dirt tract in extremely cold and windy conditions even though the sun was shining at times. We then chained the bicycles with a lock and approached the Abbey, fighting our way uphill amongst tourists, students and hikers. We walked up the church and took the tour. It was real hard work. In order to have a perspective of the Abbey at night, we had an expensive dinner and waited until it was lit up before cycling back. Both of us had not ridden a bicycle for many years; and that was real, for we both felt good and tired afterwards, real or unreal. I wonder what conditions Monet was in when he did the three paintings on Mont Saint-Michel.

I hope to talk to you again soon.

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