A dizzying work of art

In London, Monet dared to float between reality and illusion

November 27, 2005|By MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY | MARY CAROLE MCCAULEY,SUN ARTS WRITER

Monet's atmospheric canvas, Houses of Parliament, Effect of Fog is about much more than a gothic building dissolving into a ghostly landscape. It's about an artist brave enough to walk the narrow and treacherous ledge between reality and illusion.

I first saw the painting, which is now on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art, during a Monet exhibit presented 10 years ago at the Art Institute of Chicago. The museum had arranged a 7:30 a.m. showing for a group of arts journalists before the galleries opened for the day.

Because I had previously lingered over the earlier parts of the exhibition, I quickly moved to the final galleries, leaving my colleagues behind.

I was entirely alone with the paintings. Not even a guard was present.

It was so quiet that I fancied I could see the artworks breathe, barely moving away from the wall with each exhalation, and then retreating inward.

And there it was: The 1903 canvas named Houses of Parliament, Effect of Fog. A blurry sky blending imperceptibly into blurry water. Spires looming in the distance, their edges crinkled as if nibbled by insects. Two sideways crosses: perhaps fishing boats, and their reflections? And all washed in a lilac glimmering with gold.

The clearest, most unambiguous part of the painting is the triumphant signature in the lower right-hand corner: Claude Monet.

I am not a morning person, and that day, I was in a daze. I tried to identify the exact place where water met sky, but the longer I stared at the painting, the more muddled I became. After several minutes, it can be difficult to distinguish the object from its reflection. It's easy for a viewer to become disoriented, to feel in danger of toppling headfirst into the canvas.

And that's precisely what makes this painting so great. Camille Mauclair, the French art critic who specialized in the Impressionists, saw in Monet's paintings an amalgam of reality and a dream world in which, he noted "delirium seems to triumph by far."

It takes great bravery willingly to confuse reality and illusion, because there's always the risk that the painter will stop being able to distinguish the two. It takes an artist both consummately confident and supremely sane to flout the abyss as Monet does, to perform a jubilant dance on the precipice's crumbling rim.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

"Houses of Parliament, Effect of Fog" is at the BMA, 10 Art Museum Dr., through Dec. 31. Open: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Admission: $10 for the general public; $8 for seniors; $6 for students; free for children under 18. Phone: 410-396-7100

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