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Current time:0:00Total duration:3:54

Video transcript

(light jazz piano music) - [Voiceover] We're at the Musee d'Orsay and we're looking at four of over 30 canvases that Monet made of Rouen Cathedral, which is a little more than an hour's drive north of Paris. - [Voiceover] Over two late winters and early springs 1892 and 1893, he went to the space across from the cathedral and he did the cathedral in different effects of light. So what he did was he had several canvases going at once, each for a different moment of the day and a different effect of light. - [Voiceover] Well, that makes sense. If Monet is trying to define this ephemeral quality of light, then as the sun moves, he would need to change canvases. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] He can't paint that fast. - [Voiceover] No. - [Voiceover] And then he would come back to it day after day, but in also different weather effects, and having his temporary studio across the street allowed him to paint in the rain, early in the morning, etc. There's a lot of paint on these canvases, and so this is not something that was done quickly. - [Voiceover] Monet was always interested in capturing the fleeting effects of something that he saw, but here it's become the exact subject of the painting. The irony is that as he's capturing something that's fleeting, he takes longer and longer to paint it, and to finish it, not outside, but to finish it in the studio. - [Voiceover] There's another irony here which is that if the subject is really about light and the way light constructs form, and I think that really is the subject, he's picked a pretty potent thing to render that. - [Voiceover] Yes. - [Voiceover] That is to say, a medieval cathedral which with all of its religious connotations, its historical connotations, and is solid in the extreme, and yet in the rendering by Monet these are not such solid forms. - [Voiceover] No, they really appear very light, almost filigree forms. They lack a sense of heavy three-dimensionality. The subject of a Gothic cathedral is divine light itself. - [Voiceover] So why would he be interested, in a just formal sense, in a Gothic cathedral? And I always thought it had to do with the enormous complexity of the surface. - [Voiceover] There's no doubt it's the complexity of light and shadow on the facade of a cathedral like Rouen Cathedral that was appealing to him. But I don't think it's simply because the Gothic church has a fabulous facade, I mean, he's choosing something very identified with France, the Gothic style. There feels to me like there's something nationalistic here, there feels to me like there's something poignant here. - [Voiceover] This is in a sense taking that grand history, taking all of the power that these function as symbolically, and in a sense understanding them through the lens of the late nineteenth century. - [Voiceover] They are meant to be seen together, and he exhibited them together. They're very beautiful and one really does get the sense of optical effects of different times of day, the morning mist, the sun coming out, the heat of the afternoon sun. - [Voiceover] What happens to my eyes as I move across the canvas, is different parts of the cathedral protrude and recede in different ways and different light, and in a sense the physical stone itself becomes really this mutable experience in that the building is shaped and reshaped by the way the light hits it. - [Voiceover] Right. - [Voiceover] And that the very architecture is transformed, and in a sense it is a triumph of the optical over the physical. - [Voiceover] Which is something very different than the Gothic architects would have thought about the church, because what could be seen was really a symbol for what couldn't be seen, and in a way, what Monet seems to be telling us here in the end of the nineteenth century is what we see is what there is. - [Voiceover] That there is truth to our experiential. (jazz piano riffs)