I visit Musée de L’Orangerie in Paris, those big pools of oval rooms dedicated to Monet’s waterlilies. The vast canvases curve in concave away from the viewer, so it’s like falling into the pond to be in the room with them. Four in each of two rooms; two pools, eight aspects of waterlilies at dawn, night, daylight, the floating images the effervescence the almost religious quality of it all. I came here with Damon when he was six, my second visit; he drew nothing but waterlilies for days, weeks. So coming here again is also falling back into that time because, though twenty years have passed, here it is the same, the exact same waterlilies waiting to be viewed, admired, offering that same second of transcendence they’ve always had. The carpet’s the same, the bench seats in the center of the room the same. I’ve been in this room at three or four stages of my life and I’m always different but it’s always the same and it always offers me something new.
This time I learn that Monet designed the ponds and the gardens for the waterlilies, for the paintings. So I go to Giverny, to see the original. The day I choose is a day many hundreds – thousands, probably – of others have also chosen; late spring. A good time for flowers and the countryside around Paris. I walk from the train within a stream of people. I queue for a ticket. I process through the formal gardens around the house and press impatiently on, to the waterlilies. They have lasted, as have the paintings, long past the life of their creator. There’s a strange brand of immortal mortality, flowering here as if they’re the exact same ones in the paintings, regardless of the deaths of those other ones. Although in this version there are a lot of rules: no food, no stopping for too long, stay strictly on the paths, and there are guards walking around to make sure we obey.
I cross a bridge that’s famous for its painted version. It’s real under my feet, I put my hands on the railings, I gaze into a painting that’s alive. I’m within it. It’s very strange, almost unsettling, but also quite magical. I’m in a river of people and it’s hard to stop anywhere, to leave the current but I find a bench with a space and sit down, to gaze and ponder more deeply. There’s a mother and a small girl, about seven years old, already on the bench, they speak to each other in French. The girl is drawing waterlilies on a pad of paper. She lays the colored pencils in a row on the seat between me and her and picks them up one by one. I am entranced by the echoes of Damon drawing waterlilies and now this girl and how many others, through the years? – when a patrolling guard stops by our bench and reminds us in French not to sit too long, I think that’s what he says, but then he also says, to the little girl, that she shouldn’t really be doing that because her colored pencils might mark the bench.
I can hardly believe that’s what he’s said, but sure enough, the mother starts gathering the pencils up and the little girl argues with her a bit – like me, she can’t understand the sense of this directive – in this place of color and life – in this place that was built to showcase color and life – in this place that was built to showcase color and life so that an artist might – not just see it, glory in it, but create – in this place that has no frames, like the artwork eventually has to, even if they’re vast, immense, take up whole rooms, are pools in themselves – in this place with the 360° living art, vibrant and shimmering, sharing its precious moments with us, who merely pass through, in so many ways, here in this place only for a few hours, on this earth only a few decades – here in this place a little girl is supposed to not-draw-with-colored-pencils, not try to recreate this brilliance on the page, not try to interpret what she sees and how she feels about it – because one of her pencils might mark the outdoor green-painted bench?
What if she’s another Monet? What if her heart and eyes are filled with color and life and she has a passion to put a glimpse of it on a page? What if this is the way she relates to this scene, through drawing? What if she learns not to draw when other people are around, what if she learns that the world disapproves of creativity, of self-expression, of art generally, of the color escaping onto the benches… what if she learns to keep it all inside?
I have such a strong reaction to this – stronger, probably, than the little girl, her mother or the guard – and my French isn’t up to expressing it: what is this place for? Why is it even here and why are we here? Isn’t this little girl, drawing waterlilies while gazing at waterlilies the exact reason? What are we here for, to spend our lives doing? Coloring so carefully we don’t mark the bench, or preferably, not coloring at all? But the world is rich, spilling over in color and sometimes we know that and other times it’s art that takes us there. Art hanging in an expensive, purpose-built gallery, or art created in landscape, or art on the page using colored pencils. Don’t get color on the bench! – how much color, exactly, could a slip of a pencil – a pencil! – we’re not talking oil paints here, but a colored pencil! – get on a painted, wooden bench? Perhaps he was just in a bad mood? Doesn’t like children? Wasn’t allowed, himself, as a child, to do such a free thing as sit on a bench and draw pictures?
I move on and I am asking myself now, gazing at individual waterlilies, gazing at the ponds, the surrounding garden, which I find more beautiful, more meaningful – these gardens or those paintings? The paintings capture layers of ideas, concepts about beauty and nature, as well as the actual sight, interpreted by Monet, one man, a painter, long dead. Les Nymphéas : Reflets verts, Les Nymphéas : Les Deux Saules, Les Nymphéas : Le Matin aux saules. The garden – is its own thing. All those moods – painted – are within it. The actual les nymphéas are here. All those uncaptured not-paintings – Waterlilies at Midnight, Waterlilies at the Winter Solstice, Waterlilies through Tears, Waterlilies while Making Love, Waterlilies Seen by a Seven Year Old – they are here, as well. There’s a clipped and manicured aspect – the performance of the whole thing – which probably wasn’t here in Monet’s time. And all these people – he didn’t have several thousand visitors a day, tromping through his views and threatening to leave colored pencil marks on his benches.
The paintings take my heart because they show me the possibility of this. But this – the garden, living – is itself. The paintings seek to capture a moment – though they’re composites of many moments, they’re not photographs – and this is the moment, living. A moment. A moment that I happen to inhabit and even though I’m sharing it with hundreds of others, I’m not, really. It’s my moment. That little girl had her own moment. I turn to philosophical musings and she turns to colored pencils, but both inspired by this raw living garden. As Monet’s paintings were. Although the paintings – or the idea of the paintings – inspired the gardens, brought the garden into existence. They feed each other, but one – however nuanced, however masterful, transcendent, ever-revealing-of-new-depths – is essentially finished. One is unfolding, still, and that’s my preference.
The garden, with its death and endless change, the garden with its paths and rules, guards and little girls, the garden which I inhabit in this moment, gazing at shades of pink as they blush up a single petal – the garden. I choose that. Watching this insect ripple the water, hearing waves of conversation pass me by on the path – French, English, Japanese, Spanish – rising and falling in words and waves, this tide of people seeking – something. Beauty, art, love. The garden. Art and nature meeting in both places, the art informing the garden, both in its original composition and now, through the eyes of the gardeners, visitors, the French tourist board no doubt, and the garden informing the art – Monet’s magnificence and who knows how many thousands of others, including one little French girl, on the day that I happened to visit. Art and nature making love, on the page, on the canvas and out here, intersecting with the wild; the passionate embrace.
In Paris still I go to L’ Atelier des Lumières again for their immersive art experience; an hour wandering through a huge, disused industrial foundry, emptied out with a projected 360° artscape comprised of Gustav Klimt’s work. The paintings move across the walls, enlarge, drift apart and reform, dissolving one into another, parts of them spanning across the floor while on different walls other parts of them move, hold still a moment, arrive brushstroke by brushstroke or shred apart and rain earthwards, five, six, fifteen different things to look at and all of them in change. I dissolve in it, it’s like love making, it’s ecstatic, fierce and wonderous and revelatory, the light is everywhere, my skin receives Klimt’s patterns, colors, I am only and exactly that, a living canvas for projected light; how I carry it, display it – that is up to me. I lie on the floor, I walk through forests of art and shadow. I am swallowed up in darkness when the light leaves – I watch the scribbles of an artist’s brush string across a man’s white shirt. The paintings form and unform, we are in and of the gallery, the edges are all dissolved.
I am the meadow of flowers I sit amongst. I am the diamond-patterned floor, the light reflects off me, I am the forest the trunks of silver-white trees slide over human bodies. I am seated on an arc of blue so heart-breaking – changing to yellow-green-purple – my paper is purple with light splattered it is red, dappled, it is streaking grey, light. I am in an ocean there are tides of small boats sailing in the sea, it ripples under, over, through me it dances over walls and through the space I have purple I have gold and black and cross-hatched light, always the light, the light the dappling, curling unfurling purple and golds of light – there is a blotch of red across my page. Now a ripple of yellow, touch of blue – it is in serpents writing across – I am in a striped world, I am a stripe, I am bands of stripe. I am a blue forest with green. I am an ant in it, swallowed by color, the green comes for me, the red paints over –
I am devoured, consumed, tasted – bitten into by color, again and again. I am saturated, full of color, so full I drip and spill it out again, it tips over my skin and clothes I am running with color, with light, it is all light and I have been eaten by it. I watch a city build from nothing onto the black, we are in the grid of it, the wash, the underpinnings – there’s a sudden warmth of orange and yellow – I am in it – now I have words flowing over my skin. We are dappled – one hand is red/rose the other yellow with a stripe of blue – the faces are gardens of color we are revealed, purple striations carpets that sweep across the floor, swallowing all they find.
Klimt’s golden Tree of Life beginning, I am watching the beginning. Spirals uncurling from spirals, slow and ecstatic, relentless never ending each piece appearing in place and the unfurling of life becoming, art becoming life and the birds and the colors and the pieces, each one and it’s happening on every wall, in every direction, it’s inescapable I’m swallowed by it, I’ve become it, I’m a curl, a spiral, a speck of gold – I am in the garden, Arcadia I think the word and see it, all around, the floor is dark until leaves of light scatter off the walls and drift over me/the floor and now it’s falling – the gold is dissolving into specks, to sparks, to atoms and it falls, drifting downwards and across, through the floor, we are falling – we are torn apart by the endless unfurling, by spirals turning back into gold, back to dust, the sparks of the universe, becoming and unbecoming, to the depths of the world, to distance and separation and all is loss and beauty, inseparable and the spirals of the tree gold and spiraling is breath-taking, sere and majestic, it is majesty – grace – breath.
I had a lover, a gift from Paris I thought him. So much of Paris in this Netzach story, the city of light. I nearly didn’t meet him, because I was about to leave, I didn’t think anything could come of it. But he was insistent and messaged me for days in quirky, invitational, open hearted ways and I succumbed to curiosity. I met him in a small garden patch next to the station, it’s the end of the line and a hot day. He loped up looking so French, dark hair, slightly long, dark eyes and a sallow complexion, and all focus, calm, and welcome. We walked off the edge of Paris into the forest and spent the afternoon walking and kissing and talking. His English is good though sometimes he grapples for more complex words and we debate, between us, the nuances of an English or French word.
It’s getting cooler and he invites me back to his place, he says he can cook something, we can have a glass of wine. And the other invitation is there, running underneath like a gold and green thread but I feel that if all I wanted was wine and dinner, maybe a few more kisses it would be absolutely fine. We go to a Carrefour, a minimart, and he lets me choose the chocolate. I choose my very favourite Lindt Citron Vert and he gets another, because you can never have too much chocolate. I feel the kindness of the world, embraced by this so simple thing of shopping with a sweetheart. It makes me want to weep, but really I’m shining.
At his apartment we talk more seriously, over delicious wine. He says he doesn’t believe in cheap wine. We talk about desire and sex and relationships and everything he says I like. We go to bed, his messy, unmade bed and we make love for hours and hours in a free-falling sort of way that ebbs and flows and never really ends. I adore it. I lose myself in it, I find myself, I am totally myself. Free and laughing and weeping and kissing and unfolding on this bed in Paris and his eyes always searching mine, his mouth finding mine, finding my skin, my delight, expansion dare edge embrace, his arms around me his hands on me, in me all over my skin and there are waves of intensity and lulls of deep rest but still in the flood of it and one time, late it’s very late by now, long after midnight, he gets up to turn off the lights and music and he’s gone long enough that I’m nine-tenths asleep by the time he returns and he enters the bed with such focus and intent, opening my body towards him again and I half-say, oh I thought we were sleeping, are we still making love and he laughs and says yes, we’re still making love, and I’m so deep in that I’ve lost any measure of reserve I might have had –
We finally sleep a few hours. I sleep in his arms in his bed in his apartment in his city and I’ve no edges, I’ve gone over the edges of the page and I’m leaving color everywhere and when it’s sort of morning we’re making love again really this is him, his focused intent and I’ve cried a dozen times from the beauty of it, the freedom delight the finding myself here the overwhelming gift of it and it takes up so much room I can’t even fit in grief or regret at the fact that I’m leaving, it’s all joy. Oh, the reminder that this type of sex, of love exists – the type that doesn’t stay within the lines. That it’s possible – that others, apart from myself worship sex in this way, court it to open the gates and fall through and through and through, spinning about each other in vast space – sex as the most embodied, the most free, universal, unlayered and becoming –
Ecstasy of stars and birth and death layered there between us. Sex as the story that rewrites the stars, alchemical, the space that creates space, the art that creates art, the worship of the divine through another human. The garden we build, creating a space for life to flourish. The art of love that spills off the edges of the bed, over the edges of the page, the immersion of it, the breath and body of it, the unbounding quality, the generosity of it, the thousand kisses of it, all the possibilities that dance here the sheer unending dare of the physicality of it; take me places I’ve never been and let me become all things and your hands on my skin and your kisses unrelenting, bliss, we are an artwork off the page, we are the reason the page exists, we are the city of love, we are colors, flowers, forest, every atom vibrating, becoming.