I also call it my calendar museum. You see, among the presents I (am told to) wish for myself at around Christmas, the first and the foremost is always an art calendar – for the following year. You know, one of the larger ones, with a picture for each calendar month. And then it’s always the Impressionists – and then again a mixed bag. I’ve had a Monet calendar only once, I think, and it was like having just one friend to watch and to talk to, for the whole year.
I hang the calendar on the wall at the foot end of my bed. It’s a Danish bed and if I put the slatted frame up a bit at the head end, I can sleep in reclining like the medieval knights who were scared that the Devil might carry them off while they were asleep, mistaking them for dead. The Devil won’t mistake me for dead since I snore, nevertheless. So while I recline in that half lying, half sitting position waiting for sleep the sweet brother of Death to come to me – that’s when I watch the picture of the month. It’s a nice feeling to know that I’ve got a whole month to get to know that picture, intimately, in every detail and every blemish, the strong points as well as the weak points.
And I can’t skip a picture if I don’t like it, since I can’t skip a month. So I have to live for a month with a picture I don’t like – until it begins to grow on me. I’ve hated some pictures so much that I’ll never forget them in my life. And then there are pictures that I have liked but forgotten. Is there a lesson in there for us?
Looking at the picture during the day is a different experience all over again, especially if I don’t have the light on, as in summer. The window is on the other side, so I can watch the sky and the clouds getting darker or lighting up as I try to get an afternoon snooze. I don’t have to twist my neck to watch the sky and the clouds through the window – I watch the sky and the clouds in the picture, two parasolled ladies taking a walk in the fields near Argenteuil, say. The sky and the clouds in the picture begin to look dark and menacing as the sky clouds over in Plittersdorf, where we live. Did the Impressionists paint that way or is it a vicarious effect of light and shade? Who shall know?
I always recommend the Impressionists to our younger colleagues freshly arrived from Asia as the best ‘access’ to European painting. I show them a small, insignificant canvas of young birch trees in leaf (it’s by Monet, I think, but sometimes I think wrong) hanging in one of the museums on Berlin’s Museum Island. My younger colleagues are suitably impressed; they can even see the fresh green leaves sprouting on the branches, they say. Then I make them go up to the canvas until they’re practically rubbing noses with it – and the museum guard comes looking by. My younger colleagues see just bits of colour brushed in casually, somehow, anyhow, at times with the wrong end of the brush. And with what economy! Not of colour but of form and shape. ‘How does he do it?’ They’re talking about Monet and not about me. ‘He paints it directly on your brain’ – I tell my younger colleagues. Monet does half the painting and your brain does the rest.
The only true thing, really true, about an Impressionist painting is the light – I tell my younger colleagues. And light and dark is what even the human foetus can distinguish in the mother’s womb. That’s how they won, that’s how a motley crowd of Frenchmen could take on the Florentine Renaissance and the flying Dutchmen of the 18th c.
‘Don’t go directly to classical European painting, it’s too iconic and frightfully white Caucasian and Christian’ – I tell my younger colleagues. ‘Don’t go anywhere near Braque, Brancusi, Mondrian and the rest of modern art – not until your nerves are stronger. Get to know Europe’s skies and clouds and colours – painted with the simplicity of a house painter applying paint to a peeling door.’
December 2015 broke all records by being the second warmest December, ever. Every flowering tree in Bonn and surroundings thought it was spring and came out in bloom. But I had Camille Pissaro’s Winter Landscape in Louveciennes to stare at (painted 1872, oil on canvas, original in Folkwang museum, Essen, Germany). It’s just a snow-covered slope with some scattered trees and a farmhouse to the left. Until you realise that what is so fascinating about the painting are the shadows of the trees on the deep snow – and even in the hollows – how light changes colour, white into near blue, not quite grey, too bright for that, I suppose.
December 2014 I had spent staring at Claude Monet’s The Magpie (painted 1869, oil on canvas, original in Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The farmhouse in the picture is a long drawn out affair in the background, drowning in light, in the wintry sunshine. In the foreground there is a kind of wickerwork fence carrying a load of snow, throwing a wonderful silhouette of itself in steely grey-blue on the slightly soiled snow. There’s a very rackety and rickety wooden door to the left side of the fence on which a lonely magpie is sitting. Trees in the background all carry wild sprigs of fresh snow, fallen in the night, I presume.
My way of getting to know European painting. Know any better?