The Manneporte (Étretat)
Claude Monet (French, Paris 1840–1926 Giverny)
My daughter took me to the Met yesterday. After four years of high school art classes she was an engaging tour guide, leading us through an inspiring day. Mid-morning we found ourselves in front of Monet’s Etretat.
Meg stared at the brushstrokes, in awe of the genius each mark represented, maybe the way I marvel at the loops and curls of the various signatures on the Bill of Rights, a copy of which is hung in my hallway.
On Monet’s famous work, two small smudges—no more than a fraction of an inch each— caught my eye. I stepped back. They took form. By the time I was halfway across the room they became a man and a woman. The man stood behind her, a fancy woman with full clothing and regal repose. I imagined the conversation they were having, and the silences that followed. I felt their need for the melancholy of the sea crashing into the cliffs of Normandy.
I moved closer again and shook my head. “Swear, they look like two smudges. But I’m pretty sure they were intentional.”
Forward and back, Monet walked, my daughter explained. Creating, then pulling away to check; experimenting with color and light and composition, then putting a sharp eye to the result.
Which reminded me of something my son said about football. He told me he practiced fundamentals during the week, breaking them down, teaching his body to do things it didn’t naturally do. He was a linebacker. He read the play, then burst into forward action—not allowing his body’s natural desire to take that one step backward before moving forward. That “false step” was wasted time. Even though his body wanted him to take it, he practiced in order to resist the tendency.
But by game day it was all about playing ‘ball. Just letting it happen, letting instincts take over. Then, after the game, came the film. Then, after the film, it was back to fundamentals.
Fundamentals, a creative response, then a check on the results.
Learn about composition, color, shading, and all those other things I can’t put words to, interpret them, then walk back and see what we’ve created. Unrelenting focus on craft, the confidence to creatively interpret, followed by a critical response.
As a writer, I’ve created countless smudges, some more intentional than others. Have my smudges resulted from tireless attention to craft? Are my smudges working in the overall composition of my piece? Have they supported my central theme, or simply been “false steps?” Have I taken a critical and cold eye to them?
Have I used every component of this artistic process?