Thursday, January 8, 2009

Impressionism and Perception

While I was watching a film about the Impressionist painters, I recalled the exact moment when I came to appreciate them most. Monet was being interviewed by a reporter about his life and his work when suddenly he came into the room to talk with the reporter, and he was carrying a bouquet of flowers. He stuck them in the younger man's face. "What do you see?" he asked. "Purple and yellow and pink flowers," he replied. Monet told him to close his eyes and open them and immediately asked the question again. The third time he did this, suddenly the reporter responded "swirls and balls of purple, yellow and pink, indistinct shapes, vibrant colors." In that moment Monet knew that the reporter was capable of seeing like he saw. When reporters wrote about one of the art exhibits that Monet, Renoir and their friends put on, the concept of Impressionism gained its name.

I had seen a number of their paintings in museums and loved the colors and the movement of the light, and the way they brought their subjects to life without being too precise.

One day I was hiking in the mountains in California with some friends from the Sierra Club. The forest was dappled with light because there were lots of big trees where we were, and a stream ran near the trail. It was overcast, and we would prefer to finish the hike before the rain. Everything was green, brown, gray, delightful and peaceful, patches of moss like velvet cloaks on the trees. Then suddenly, we rounded a bend, there was an opening in the clouds, and spread before us was a shimmering array of wildflowers, spread out over the valley in vibrant shades of red, purple, orange, yellow, violet, white, pink so overwhelming that my eyes could not focus, and all I could perceive was this cascade of color.

After a while, my eyes adjusted and I could see individual shapes and the mystery was fading rapidly. But in that instant of recognition, I knew and I could feel what the Impressionist painters were seeing, and I could feel the beauty and joy wash over the whole world at that moment when my vision suddenly opened up and shifted, and after that moment, I always had an extra ability to see. We have more than one way to see the world. Most of us are not used to changing at will so that other levels of reality are revealed. Impressionism is a magical way to open up our other ways of seeing.

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