The Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) brings many excellent shows to Boston, but last year it truly outdid itself. The retrospective of Claude Monet’s late work last winter was not merely an artistic tour de force, it was a significant spiritual event, indeed, for me the proof that Western art is capable of responding to the spiritual force and inspiration of Sri Aurobindo’s consciousness.
The show covered the years 1900 to 1926 and gathered together paintings from around the world, some of which have not been rejoined since they left Monet’s studio almost a century ago. It was a well-organized review that allowed one to gain an intimate insight into the evolution of Monet’s artistic thinking. One passed through a series of rooms, each of which featured multiple renditions of one or two motifs that the painter originally worked on simultaneously. In this fashion, one was able to see him experiment and interpret a theme not only across several contemporary canvasses, but also to follow the growth in his style across time. Thus one proceeded from naturalistic views of his gardens and Japanese bridge at Giverny in 1900, to luminous apparitions of the Themes seen through London’s mysterious fog c. 1904, to the emergence of his fascination with ponds and water lilies from 1906-1908. This last period marked a dramatic move towards abstraction and simplification of the elements of composition, and several of the best pieces glowed with an aqueous, ethereal light that came from some overhead plane, possibly the illumined mind or even an intuitive mental inspiration lifting up the aesthetic vital.
After these introductory salons, one moved with Monet to Venice, c. 1910-1912, where he returned to an earlier, more concrete style as he attempted to capture the city’s architectural splendor and unique quality of light. However, upon his return to Paris, his beloved wife fell ill and died little over a year later. Barely recovered from this loss, his son suffered a stroke and eventually passed away as well. Monet did not return to painting until 1914, when he retouched two views of a Venetian palace. The deep mauve and violet hues of these canvases were pregnant with a burden of grief, and the curators artfully punctuated this dark passage in the painter’s life by stationing these two pieces at the end of a narrow, dimly lit corridor. Thus one had literally to pass through a dark tunnel in order to emerge again into the light.
Yet what awaited one on the other side of this troubled passage was a spectacular rebirth. As one came out again into large, well-lit salons, Monet’s canvasses suddenly grew three or fourfold in size, stretching to 2 x 3 meters squared, and everything was re-imaged afresh. He painted huge tree trunks, water lilies the size of melons, and these in free, childlike scumbles with intense hues of blue, green, and purple. Art historians have noted a sense of gratitude and joy in these pieces, as well as read echoes of the chaos of World War I in their jumbled brush strokes, and these qualities of consciousness are indeed there. However, there is also something fresh and dramatic from the standpoint of Integral Yoga, which is the first outflowering of a clearly psychic inspiration. It is subtle, but as I revisited this room on several occasions, repeatedly I felt an inner opening to a very transparent, pure, and quiet flame of aureate light. These paintings marked Monet’s spiritual renaissance and set the stage for the sublime visions he was to complete a decade later.
The following two halls lacked the same clarity and depth of inspiration. They represented, rather, a multitudinous exploration and working out of technical innovations as the artist grappled with multiple inner and outer impacts on his life. Here one saw monumental visions of gnarled trees intended to symbolize the endurance of post-war France, and watched with angst and astonishment as Monet contended with bilateral cataract operations. After the surgery, his images became diffuse and shot-through with almost garish hues, and his palette shifted to electric mint and emerald greens, fiery reds, oranges, ochres, and even mud browns. He heaped on the paint in sculptural daubs, rendering his signature bridge at Giverny almost as a model in colored clay. In terms of technique, this period, which lasted until the early 1920s, certainly evidenced that difficult fusion of spontaneity and discipline which only the greatest painters achieve after a lifetime of work — as, for instance, one sees in Cézanne’s Mt. Sainte Victoires and Matisse’s cutouts. Still, from the perspective of yoga it must be said that during this period Monet’s inspiration was often agitated and unsettled.
What ensued, however, was a leap in consciousness so dramatic that, to the best of my knowledge, it has no precedent in the history of painting. From about 1922 until his death in early December, 1926, Monet labored lovingly to realize an aspiration which he had been gestating for over a decade: to create a physical space that would be covered from floor to ceiling with images of light, water, and flowers. He wanted the viewer to be surrounded on all sides by paintings, and his intention was that these should be vehicles for the viewer to enter into a deep contemplation of the union between art, nature, and feeling. This was to be his final gift to the world, his own type of yantra born of a lifetime of self-cultivation.
As I walked into the first reconstruction ever attempted of Monet’s sacred space, immediately my consciousness rose upward above the head and expanded horizontally into a vast, resonating space. Around me, on all sides, stretched four immense paintings, each the size of an entire wall, perhaps 6 by 3 meters squared or even more. Each piece was a unique evocation of the same theme, namely, a diffuse expanse of water in which subtly modulated reflections and movements of light enshrined a dream of floating lilies. And these flowers were absolutely astonishing, quintessential, what Sri Aurobindo might have called perfect perfection. Large and lone in a depth of silent light, or clustering in drifting formations of cloudlike nebulae, to behold them was to witness the birth of delicate avatars in paint; they seemed to arise miraculously from a drifting sea of numinous potential and fulfill their mission in the mysteried fusion of the seer and the seen. To contemplate these blossoms was to fathom the imponderable, to vibrate on the border between the formed and the formless, to soar into that magic space between the finite and the infinite which is the fount of all wonder.
The more I studied these sublime paintings, the more I discovered there was to study; it was as if each new perception was a revelation and yet only an invitation to an even deeper exploration. From the standpoint of color and brushwork, these chef d’oeuvres are symphonic. Monet casts an entire canvas in a particular palette, say, the ruddy oranges and russet browns of a sunset on the water, or the soft pastels of morning or deepening purple shadows of late afternoon — and then within that vision he elaborates endless modulations. Seen from up close, one becomes absorbed in the trance of his loose, rhythmic squiggles and the musical progressions of color harmonies. Seen from afar, one savors the unique aura and spell of each painting, is lost in the play of light on the water, swayed by the ethereal floating movements of the lilies, extended into the unbounded enormity and simultaneity of the artist’s all-encompassing vista. It was an enigma to me how Monet was able to hold these two vastly different perspectives—the near and the far– in his consciousness simultaneously and integrate them into a single, unified whole. I was also fascinated by the complexity and fluidity of his creative process, for as I inspected the canvasses carefully, I was surprised to find that he had fortified certain areas to almost a centimeter thick in the process of multiple and patient revisions, while he left others as thin as a single layer of paint applied in a sudden and final inspiration. How he knew when he had arrived at just the right tone, shade, and stroke in each place was inexplicable, but the final product bore full testimony to the fact that he did indeed know.
From the moment I met Monet’s magnificent living meditations, I knew that here, at last, was an art of consciousness itself. The effect these paintings had on me was extraordinary: within minutes of entering his sanctuary, my entire subtle body began to vibrate with a truly yogic awareness. All fatigue and vexation with the museum’s noisy crowds melted away, and spontaneously my thoughts turned to Sri Aurobindo. I remember vividly on my first visit to the exhibit feeling His presence in that glorious last room, and I could not help but note in passing that Monet finished these supreme works shortly after the Overmental descent in November of 1926. It occurred to me that he might have responded subliminally to the pressure of this descent, however, I also told myself not to indulge in insubstantial speculation.
As if in answer to these inner musings, the next morning during meditation, Sri Aurobindo presence came to me in the form of his yantra, which sprang to life in my inner eye. He descended from above, opening and activating infinity in every plane and part of my being as He slowly plunged into the depths below my feet. This movement repeated itself continuously in meditation for the next few weeks, and during this time I was fortunate enough to return twice to the exhibit. Each time the crush of my hectic work schedule threatened to force me to forfeit my ticket, yet always at the last minute an unexpected opening came and circumstances rearranged themselves so as to allow me to go. I had the intuition that it was Sri Aurobindo’s will that I go meditate on Monet’s paintings, and as I returned to the museum my perceptions grew only more acute. By the end I was certain that the inspiration behind Monet’s late water lilies is fully overmental, and, moreover, it became quite clear to me that Sri Aurobindo is present in those paintings. The atmosphere is unmistakable — stepping into Monet’s sacred space felt like stepping into the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. How this came to be, I could not explain as Monet had no outer connection with the Ashram, but the experience was so constant and reliable that I could not deny it.
With much hesitation, I finally decided to share my impressions with a fellow sadhak. I thought he would say that I was imagining things, but to my great surprise he quickly replied that Champaklal once had an experience involving Sri Aurobindo while visiting Monet’s gardens at Giverny in 1985. He directed me to the appropriate passage from Champaklal’s memoirs, which I read with utter astonishment. Here is an excerpt from Champaklal’s vision: ….Then this royal Being commanded me, “Wait here only. Do not move even an inch from here. I shall be back shortly.” On his return, he took me to a place and explained, “This is my residence. Here too, do not ask questions. Discern on your own whatever you can. I shall display to you my paintings here. Before that let me tell you something. But then, no queries from you. After I have disclosed to you everything, I shall take you to Sri Aurobindo.”
“For a long time I lay in a condition of so-called deep sleep. But it was not ‘sleep’ as on earth. You will understand only when you yourself experience it. I had no mind to come out of this ‘sleep’. But Sri Aurobindo aroused me in his own way, and advised, ‘Now you have to do two things. First, on earth there are many children who are my own but only some of them are in search of my light. Out of them very few know what my light is. For these children you do not have to do anything. As for those who are seeking a new light, staying here only, you have to guide them in the same manner as I helped you to paint. I myself am doing this work. When you go on earth, you will see it in several places’.” Then this fascinating form addressed me, “Come I shall now show you my paintings. Try to fathom them as much as you can according to your capacity. But do not ask even one question.” On seeing some paintings, I was simply overwhelmed with joy, and woke up. I was being told, “Sitting on the lawn is not allowed.” It was clear to me that I was not supposed to see more — that is why this came just as an excuse.
Later I came to know that the imposing figure which I had seen was that of the well-known French painter Claude Monet1….
Needless to say, for me Champaklalji’s vision at Giverny was the definitive confirmation of my own experiences with Monet’s paintings. I went away from three visits to the Monet exhibit feeling both uplifted and hopeful about the future of Western art, as well as humbled by the mystery and majesty of Sri Aurobindo’s action. How little we know about what Sri Aurobindo does behind the veil.
1. “A Vision of the Famous French Artist,” in Visions of Champaklal, edited by Roshan and Apurva, copyright Divyanand Kripanidhi, 1990, 8 Sardarbag Society, Bardoli, printed by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram Press, Pondicherry, pp. 144-45.