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The night I met Monet

Updated: 2 days ago

Earlier this year I stumbled across an article promoting the forthcoming impressionist exhibition at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. Of course, I already knew of the 150th anniversary show celebrating the inaugural exhibition of 1874, but what made my eyes widen, was the remarkable news of a parallel ‘show’ employing virtual reality headsets.


Impressionism - Paris 1874

The promotional text posited the extraordinary idea that visitors could walk through a 3-dimensional world and visit the original 1874 exhibition held at Nadar’s studio in the Boulevard des Capucines.


I’m sure that my heart must have quickened.


A night with the Impressionists 1874

For the longest time, I have felt what is tantamount to a form of grief, like a bereavement for lost family and friends. It’s an unquenchable emotional thirst that leaves me with a profound sense of craving. If past-life ever proves to be a genuine ‘lived experience’, then I can be certain that one of mine was during the mid-19th century in France. I’m sure that the ‘science’ part of my brain is now laughing hysterically at my artist’s part, and I know that it’s little more than a romanticised fantasy, but hey… the world needs its dreamers too.


(PS, many years ago I did undergo past-life regression, and yes I ended up on a dark, gas lit, rainy street in 19th century Paris, but that’s a story for another time).


The truth is, however, that to my eternal frustration I cannot meet and converse with the original French impressionist painters. Like everyone else, I must experience their lives through the brilliance of their paintings and the written words they left behind.


So perhaps you can appreciate my excitement at the prospect of ‘meeting’ them in a virtual world.

Like most people, I had heard of virtual reality, or VR as it’s become known, I’d seen the headsets, read the reviews, heard about the software, but I’d never enjoyed the direct experience. Afterall, how authentic can the illusion of an artificial, three-dimensional world feel anyway? Despite my surging excitement, I had somewhat low expectations.


So, on July the 4th, just one week ago, I found myself standing in an orderly queue inside the main hall of the magnificent Musée d'Orsay.


After a brief wait, we were shuffled quietly into a foyer, where we were presented with a small rectangular barcoded sticker. Apparently this would enable my wife and I to see each other inside the VR world.


The walls ahead of us were covered in strange, seemingly randomly placed, geometric, monochromatic shapes, and for all the world it looked like a language designed for visiting aliens. Very large visiting aliens.


VR

We watched as the couple in front of us were fitted out with their VR headsets. They quickly descended into fits of giggles, and as they reached out to touch and prod each other, jumped in surprise whilst continuing to laugh like children. Through the familiar interface of our human eyes, we could only speculate on what they could see, and what it was that they found so amusing.

We shuffled forward.


Now surrounded by these strange alien hieroglyphics, we were each fitted with a pair of black VR headsets. With adjustments made, a woman’s voice inside the headset instructed us to follow an illuminated path toward a pillar of light. I remember thinking to myself “Well this certainly doesn’t feel like 19th century Paris!”


VR

After a brief orientation and simple set of instructions, including what we should do in the event of an emergency, the pillar of light promptly disappeared and was replaced by swirling stars that floated around us like silver fireflies. These too then faded.


Then it began...


Oh my; now we were transported.


We found ourselves standing on one of Haussmann’s new and immaculate boulevards of 19th century Paris. It was a gloriously sunny day in April with a dome of cobalt blue sky above us. Groups of acrobatic swifts cried out as they soared overhead, skimming between the towering architectural magnificence of this remodelled city. Horse-drawn carriages sauntered past and the bourgeoisie walked by in muted conversation.


Paris 1874

I’m not sure if my mouth was open in awe, or if I was grinning like a Cheshire cat. Probably both.

Now, I’m not saying this looked completely convincing in terms of realism, for there was a slightly animated feel to the landscape and to the people, but once immersed in this virtual world, such critical considerations rapidly vanished, and it became reality. It was absolute. We were in Paris in 1874. No question.


It was here that we were greeted by Rose, an elegantly dressed young woman in a blue gown, who presented herself as our guide.


As we followed Rose through the streets, she shared something of her own personal story as a model and aspiring artist which culminated in her excitement about a new group of painters exhibiting at number 35 on the Boulevard des Capucines.


Of course, it was no coincidence that we just happened to be standing across the street from this very address. It was an imposing three storey building in bright red and gold, with an illuminated sign that rather ostentatiously heralded the studio of Parisian society photographer Felix Nadar. Apparently Nadar was quite the eccentric, and his bright red signage, undoubtedly a reflection of his personality, was the first to be illuminated in Paris.


Paris 1874 Nadar

We crossed the street and entered the building. Once inside, Rose ushered us into an old-fashioned elevator with a manually closing shuttered door. As we ascended Rose continued to share her enthusiasm for the group of renegade painters that we were about to meet.


About now, I had completely forgotten that all the visual and audible information my brain was processing was the result of technological wizardry, complex software programming, and presumably an army of talented digital artists.


I’d stopped questioning.


As the elevator doors opened, I think my mind performed the equivalent of an ice-skater’s ‘biellmann spin’. There before me stood Renoir and Degas in conversation, and perhaps more astonishingly, the entire 1874 exhibition, with Nadar’s scarlet walls adorned with many of the impressionist masterpieces we are now so familiar with.


As we entered the room, Rose introduced us to each of the painters. I couldn’t help but walk across the room and sneak a peek through the vast window that overlooked the boulevard below. Yes it really was there.


By turning your body 360 degrees, or merely looking up down, left or right head, it rendered the exact experience of being physically present in the room. I recall becoming a touch emotional at this point. Here I was, standing amongst the ghosts of my long-deceased peers.


Paris 1874

As we walked through different rooms, each one beautified with more ‘light filled’ impressionist paintings, we ‘met’ Camille Pissarro, Claude Monet, Paul Cezanne and Berthe Morisot, with each in turn discussing one of their particular paintings.


The programmers had cleverly employed a virtual transportation technique akin to a rising portal through the blackness of space, and whilst it felt a bit ‘Star Trek’, it did provide sufficient separation from the main building to enable a more intimate exploration and explanation of specific paintings.


Berhte Morisot The Cradle Lee Tiller
Pissarro  Hoar Frost Lee Tiller











Amongst others, we were treated to Berthe Morisot’s beautiful and intimate painting of her sister Edma in ‘The Cradle’ created in 1872, and Camille Pissarro’s extraordinary and now iconic painting ‘Hoar Frost’ created in 1873.


Other excursions included a trip into the studio of Frederic Bazille where all of the painters had congregated for a congenial discussion on their art. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were able to tease each other with as much cordiality in real life. We artists are a sensitive bunch. Here we met the writer and passionate defender of impressionism, Emile Zola, the imposing and strident personality of Edouard Manet and of course Bazille himself. Someone was seated and playing at the piano, but so overwhelmed were my senses that I cannot recall who it was. Perhaps Gustave Caillebotte?


Paris 1874

We were also miraculously teleported to a small room and balcony overlooking the harbour of Le Harve. It was dawn, and a red orb was rising through the shimmering veil of sea mist. As we stepped outside onto the balcony we were treated to the view of Monet standing at his easel, his back toward us as he painted.

Paris 1874

We could see over his shoulder the sketchy beginnings of his then controversial painting ‘Impression - Sunrise’; it was this painting that would give birth to their collective name, and to the movement of an artistic style that is as relevant today as it was then.


Monet Impression Sunrise Lee Tiller


Actually, I would suggest it’s even more essential 150 years later when viewed in the context of ‘contemporary art’. In my opinion, Impressionism is one of the few painted art forms that does not suffer from an expiry date. Its continued fervent popularity as evidenced in the sell-out shows across the globe, would certainly endorse this view.


So, whilst this excursion to Le Harve was very special, for me the highlight was to find ourselves standing on the platform of the Gare St Lazare. It was here that Monet painted some of his most outstanding works. At 64 years of age, I can just about remember the steam trains of my childhood. The soot, smoke and steam that Monet so beautifully captured in ephemeral hues of dusky blues and violets were suddenly swirling all around us, and the station became alive with the movement of trains. It really was a breathtaking experience, but in a good way and not as a result of toxic air pollution!


Gard St Lazare Monet Lee Tiller

If you’ve read my previous article you know that this airborne pollution is precisely what allowed Monet to create some of his most exceptionally colourful and dramatic atmospheric effects.

It was almost certainly by train, and probably from Gare St Lazare itself, that the impressionist painters were able to leave the city and visit the surrounding countryside. The arrival of the railways radically changed society, and perhaps none more so than the painters of the 19th century.


One popular destination at the time was a place simply known as Le Grenouille (the Frog), a man-made island in the Seine, where a bar, leisure boats and swimming could be enjoyed by the day visitors. Here Monet and Renoir painted ‘en plein aire’, likely standing side by side, as they rendered the views of recreational Parisian revellers enjoying the water, conversation and more energetic side of ‘gay Paris’. The belle epoque was in full swing.


Our virtual world allowed us to stand beside these two great painters while they chatted and painted. We watched as they endeavoured to capture the fleeting effects of flickering sunlight sparking across the water.


Paris 1874

It was here that we were ‘invited’ to walk across a wooden plank which itself spanned a small river tributary. Let me tell you, the illusion of height, water and an unstable wooden plank is absolute. Instinctively I put my arms out for balance. I must have looked ridiculous if viewed from outside the VR world.



Eventually we returned to the Boulevard des Capucines, and as the sun began to sink beyond the urban horizon, our enthralling sojourn into this virtual world was evidently coming to a close, however, there was one last surprise waiting in store.


As Rose bade us farewell, there was the spectacle of a fireworks display above the roof tops of 19th Century Paris. It was as real as any I’d witnessed, with rockets exploding in ribbons of radiating colour, and bangs, pops and whistles filling our headsets, underpinning our VR experience.

There was more that we experienced on our journey into 1874, but to be honest, it was so overwhelming that I struggle to remember every nuance of experience. It was rich.


It was heartening and emotional to be immersed temporarily in this alternative world. A world that we undoubtedly sanitise and eulogise, perhaps in some part to comfort us in these less than certain times. I think it’s a trait of human psychology to wax lyrically about the past and to cherry pick specific moments. We can certainly gloss over the hardships of others.


So yes, history is easy to romanticise about, even fantasise too, and certainly, we were not exposed to the ebb and flow of pain, struggle, uncertainty and hardship that was threaded throughout the lives of these visionary painters, but that wasn’t the point of this exhibition.


Paris 1874

A ‘Night with the Impressionists’ really was a magical mystery tour, and if you ever have the opportunity to experience it, I unreservedly recommend it. Just remember to leave your logical and critical brain at the door and simply experience the experience. I can assure you that it’s 45 minutes of your life you will always remember.

Lee and Paula Tiller Paris 2024

Whenever you can, fill your life with art and the richness of experience, for it is a life rich in experience, not things, that brings enduring happiness. Make it so.


Now, back to my easel, my new Sennelier oils beckon!


Until next time, best wishes Lee

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