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A terrible beauty is born

“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”

Rachel Carson – Environmentalist - 1962

Early during the start of World War 1 in 1914, the future Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau visited Monet and convinced him to commence work on a series of large paintings that would eventually become a formal state commission. Monet found comfort in this work, yet felt profound sadness and guilt too. He wrote “It’s the best way to avoid thinking of these sad times. All the same, I feel ashamed to think about my little researches into form and colour while so many people are suffering and dying for us.”

By Armistice Day in 1918, Monet had completed the first of these water-lily canvases, a plant now so eponymously associated with him. He wanted to present these paintings to the French people as a memorial to their great suffering and loss, and as an enduring symbol of hope and lasting peace. Monet said “It's not much, but it's the only way I can take part in the victory”. Monet’s Grandes Décoration in the Orangerie is, and always was, an anti-war, pro-peace art installation.

Reviewing his artistic legacy now, we can observe that he captured the infancy of climate change, especially the series of paintings from the banks of the River Thames. Monet’s artistic brilliance had enabled him to capture pollution in shimmering, mesmerising colours, and to borrow from Irish poet W.B Yeats, “a terrible beauty was born”.

So when in disbelief, I read that the Stop Oil Coalition had brazenly hurled mashed potato at one of Monet’s Haystack paintings, I had to explore their motivations further. It seemed as illogical as it was puerile. As an artist I share Monet’s love for nature, and I believe it is the only immutable truth from which we can learn and evolve as artists.

As early as 1870, Monet had inadvertently captured the early effects of climate change, or as it was referred to then, as ‘atmosphere’. “Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city. It is fog that gives it its magnificent amplitude…” commented Monet, and “The influence of the atmosphere on the things and the light scattered throughout.” I suggest for the nouns ‘fog and atmosphere’ simply read pollution. It is a terrible beauty indeed.

So, surely tactics like tossing food onto much a revered piece of art is counterproductive? Maybe it does get attention, but it’s tantamount to preaching from the pulpit to the congregation. Exactly who is listening? I believe that art itself can provide the clarion call needed to stimulate change. It was this perspective that gave birth to the concept of ‘Monet and the little girl’.

It is my sincere contention that art, in all its manifestations, can be more engaging, memorable and thought provoking. Art has an exuberance and power that whilst silent can be chromatically vociferous and can appeal directly to the collective psyche of the public.

I fear that radical action and mischievous pranks like throwing mashed potato at art can only serve to alienate and close people’s minds. We cannot afford to risk slamming the door shut to reason and empathy.

In ‘Monet and the Little Girl’ I wanted to represent the vulnerability and naivety of the world’s children through the motif of a single girl. In the painting she is innocently writing a simple yet earnest note to Monet, whilst at the same time she is metaphorically defacing a section of one of his cloudscapes. There is no malice, only fear.

I deliberately painted the child in a more contemporary style to suggest separation from the past modernity of Monet and that of the 21st century. Replicating his painting, I learned more about his techniques than I could ever assimilate from books, courses or museums. Monet and the Little Girl has been a heartfelt revelation.

So I implore artists from all walks and disciplines of life, to pick up their brushes and canvases, cameras and clays, and broadcast the critical need for change. Even the most grotesque aspects of nature can be rendered beautifully and evocatively; just think about the terrible beauty of Monet’s sulphurous atmosphere of the London fog.

We don’t need the violent trauma of man’s war on man to inspire us, we are already at war with nature and therefore with ourselves. We can reveal nature’s inherent beauty and remind people of their place in nature, because we are nature. It’s as simple as that.

If humans win this war on nature, humans will perish and cease to exist, including all of tomorrows children. I think if Monet knew of the destruction that mankind continues to wilfully wreak on his beloved nature; he would turn in his grave.

“Humanity is waging war on nature. This is suicidal.”

António Guterres – UN Secretary General – 2020

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