Commodore Perry and his black ships pried open Japan to the West in 1854 and unleashed floodgates of cultural enchantment from East to West. Among those famously swept by Japonisme (fascination with things Japanese) was Claude Monet, who collected more than 200 ukiyo-e (Japanese woodblock prints), an art form considered a pinnacle of Japanese artistry.
But for Monet, the ukiyo-e (which interestingly translates to “pictures of a floating world” in Japanese) was but the beginning of a deeper immersion into the country’s artistic tradition. They led him to another Japanese art form that has probably found more universal appeal since the first wave of japonisme in the 19th century: the Japanese garden.
Free Interpretation. It has been argued that Monet never sought to be authentic when he set out to design his water garden in Giverny, France. First, it would have been rather presumptuous to do so with his lack of first-hand experience of an authentic Japanese garden.
He came to know of some signature Japanese garden plants which eventually found their way to his garden from images in his ukiyo-e collection.
The rest of his Japanese gardening knowledge he got from one of his protégés, the American painter Lilla Cabot Perry (remotely related by marriage to Commodore Perry and had lived in Japan) and from his readings.
Second, as an artist who had gone against convention before as one of the original Impressionists, Monet is just being consistent in invoking artistic license as he suits the aesthetic conventions of the Japanese garden to his own taste.
The curved vermilion bridge is a fixture in boating gardens of the aristocratic Heian period in Japan (late 8th to 12th century).
In Monet’s garden, the bridge traded its traditional bright hue for a shade of green closer to the painter’s palette.
Not for him too is the visual austerity observed with flowers in a Japanese garden. Aside from probably allowing his azaleas, rhododendrons, wisteria and water lilies to bloom all they want, he is said to have also imported peonies, with their show-stopping blossoms, from Japan.
Third, gardening as an artistic expression obviously still took a backseat to his lifelong commitment as a painter. His Japanese-style water garden mainly existed to harbor the artistic muses of his latter years, notably his famous water lilies.
A Deeper Connection. But Monet, almost unwittingly, managed to plumb the depths of the Japanese gardening tradition in more fundamental ways than someone of lesser aesthetic sensibility could have done in similar circumstances.
It has been said that the lack of symmetry in a Japanese garden is probably its key difference with Western-style gardens, particularly of the French and Italian traditions. Amazingly, Monet both had symmetrical and asymmetrical gardens in his Giverny property, as if to make a textbook case for the difference between a Western and an Asian garden.
The Clos Normand (upper drawing), built ten years earlier than the water garden, may not be nearly as regimented as the Versailles — Monet strove to cultivate an intensely alive, iridescent palette of living flowers —- but it does display a lot of linearity and predictability in its layout compared to the organic shapes of his highly asymmetrical water garden (lower drawing).
An authentic Japanese garden is also about the garden’s relationship with the owner or gardener. You may have the cash to buy up all the antique stone lanterns in Japan but a garden designer worth his salt will still refuse to build you a garden if you won’t get your hands dirty in helping maintain the garden.
From the get-go, Monet exemplified a hands-on approach to his garden, designing it himself and buying the plants. Although he probably left the actual digging of the lily pond and planting to hirelings, it couldn’t have been very easy to find help around the vicinity because his peasant neighbors were apprehensive that his exotic Asian plants might poison their water. In creating his pond, Monet used an existing brook in the property that ultimately feeds into the Seine river.
Finally, there’s the Japanese gardener’s attention to details. A well-maintained Japanese black pine takes more or less 16 man-hours each year to attend to. Monet’s gardener who went around on a boat every morning to clean the train soot off his water lilies probably spent more time than that per year. In both situations, there is a strong sense of the garden as a place for exercising man’s aesthetic control over nature.
Additional sources: www.giverny-impression.com; www.giverny.org