Claude Monet is best remembered for his landscapes. But the French impressionist loved cities, too

‘The Thames below Westminster (La Tamise et le Parlement)’, Claude Monet, about 1871. Image © The National Gallery, London.

Say the name Claude Monet and anyone with a vague clue about art thinks of country landscapes and gardens. It wasn’t just water lily ponds that tickled the fancy of this founder of French impressionist painting, though: Monet was also moved to paint cities too, as is highlighted in the National Gallery’s glorious new exhibition Monet & Architecture

“One of the points of this exhibition was to take a very famous artist, who people think they know, but to take a look at his work in a different way,” says Professor Richard Thomson, of the Edinburgh College of Art, who curated the show. Indeed, while there are some paintings that tread familiar territory – flowers, gardens, idyllic bodies of water – there are plenty that subvert your expectations – smoky train stations, heavy labour in filthy docks, crowd-filled promenades and big city monuments.  

Fittingly, perhaps, one driver of Monet’s painting spree of grubby cities was the slightly grubby issue of money. There was an exposition universelle in Paris in 1867, the second of its kind in France, a kind of world fair of industry and art. Recognising that thousands of people would be flocking to the French capital, savvy Monet figured, if he painted some pictures of Paris, he could probably flog a few. From there he moved on to painting other cities and towns: London, Venice, Rouen, Le Havre, Trouville.

Of course, the views a city offered would have attracted him for artistic reasons. Buildings provide a regular shape or clear colour to contrast with the irregularity of nature; or they can act as a screen on which light plays in an interesting way that he’d want to capture.

But the paintings also illustrate an interest in the concept of modernity and how cities represent that, according to Thomson. The urban motifs that captured Monet’s eye as representing modern life evolved over time.

‘On the Boardwalk at Trouville’, Claude Monet, 1870. Image: public domain.

At first it was all about depicting movement, to highlight the fast pace of modern city life. Monet did this by using perspective: take for instance his painting ‘On the boardwalk at Trouville’, which as the title suggests shows the fashionable seaside resort. The boardwalk divides the middle of the painting, creating “a steep perspective which encourages the eye to rush into the picture and it gives a sense of momentum and with it the pace of modern life,” as Thomson puts it. Painting people mid-stride, as he does in ‘The Quai de Louvre’, which then evolves into a mere brush stroke to represent a person – or “cat lickings”, as one contemporary critic put it – adds to this atmosphere of bustle.

Striking architecture such as Gare St-Lazare in Paris also became a subject of Monet’s exploration of the meaning of modernity. Railways emblemised the idea, as they were both a new invention and one which encouraged movement.

“He almost used the railway station as a perverse kind of landscape,” says Thomson. Where the sky should be is a glass ceiling, and the plumes of smoke are in the middle of the painting where clouds in a traditional landscape would be on the top. What better way to emphasise that modernity turns tradition on its head? 

‘The Saint-Lazare Railway Station (La Gare Saint-Lazare)’, Claude Monet, 1877. Image © The National Gallery, London.

The motif that went on to obsess Monet though as the epitome of modernity was fog caused by pollution in London. He loved it, he loved the colours and the shifting shapes it created (a Green Party member, he would not have been). The paintings of Embankment or Big Ben or London’s various bridges painted between 1899-1901 play second fiddle really to the colourful fog obscuring their shape. French critics, unsurprisingly, loved all this because it showed how dirty London was.


Naturally though, tastes change and modernity stopped interesting Monet. This is visible in his pictures of Venice, the last city he painted before devoting his old age to immortalising his garden. There are practically no people in them (unlikely, given Venice was already a tourist hotspot), and the buildings seem to float melancholically above the water with no clear definition about where the buildings end and the reflections begin. These paintings display more of an obsession with different forms of light, and of how combining that with his brushwork technique could envelop the identity of the buildings and create a sense of mystery.

The true mystery though is how this more urban side to Monet’s works have remained under the radar, eclipsed by landscapes. They are beautiful even if you would not traditionally consider their subject beautiful. Perhaps as our population and cities grow, so too will an appreciation for these lesser known Monet paintings.

Monet & Architecture is on at London’s National Gallery until 29 July. 

 
 
 
 

What can other cities learn about water shortages from Cape Town’s narrow escape from ‘Day Zero’?

Cape town. Image: Pixabay/creative commons.

Cape Town was set to run dry on 12 April, leaving its 3.7m residents without tap water.

“Day Zero” was narrowly averted through drastic cuts in municipal water consumption and last-minute transfers from the agricultural sector. But the process was painful and inequitable, spurring much controversy.

The city managed to stave off “Day Zero,” but does that mean Cape Town’s water system is resilient?

We think not.

This may well foreshadow trouble beyond Cape Town. Cities across the Northern Hemisphere, including in Canada, are well into another summer season that has already brought record-setting heat, drought and flooding from increased run-off.

Water crises are not just about scarcity

Water scarcity crises are most often a result of mismanagement rather than of absolute declines in physical water supplies.

In Cape Town, lower than average rainfall tipped the scales towards a “crisis,” but the situation was worsened by slow and inadequate governance responses. Setting aside debates around whose responsibility it was to act and when, the bigger issue, in our view, was the persistence of outdated ways of thinking about “uncertainty” in the water system.

As the drought worsened in 2016, the City of Cape Town’s water managers remained confident in the system’s ability to withstand the drought. High-level engineers and managers viewed Cape Town’s water system as uniquely positioned to handle severe drought in part because of the vaunted success of their ongoing Water Demand Management strategies.

They weren’t entirely mistaken — demand management has cut overall daily consumption by 50 per cent since 2016. So what went wrong?


Limits to demand management

First, Cape Town’s approach to water management was not well-equipped to deal with growing uncertainty in rainfall patterns — a key challenge facing cities worldwide. Researchers at the University of Cape Town argued recently that the conventional models long used to forecast supply and demand underestimated the probability of failure in the water system.

Second, Cape Town’s water system neared disaster in part because demand management seemed to have reached its limits. Starting late last year, the city imposed a limit on water consumption of 87 litres per person per day. That ceiling thereafter shrunk to 50 litres per person per day.

Despite these efforts, Cape Town consistently failed to cut demand below the 500m-litre-per-day citywide target needed to ensure that the system would function into the next rainy season.

The mayor accused the city’s residents of wasting water, but her reprimanding rhetoric should not be seen as a sign that the citizens were non-compliant. The continuously shrinking water targets were an untenable long-term management strategy.

Buffers are key to water resilience

In the end, “Day Zero” was avoided primarily by relying on unexpected buffers, including temporary agricultural transfers and the private installation of small-scale, residential grey-water systems and boreholes in the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods. The former increased water supply and the latter lowered demand from the municipal system. These buffers are unlikely to be available next year, however, as the water allocations for the agricultural sector will not be renewed and there is uncertainty in the long-term sustainability of groundwater withdrawals.

For more than a decade, Cape Town has levelled demand, reduced leaks and implemented pressure management and water restrictions. This made Cape Town’s water system highly efficient and therefore less resilient because there were fewer reserves to draw from in times of unusual scarcity.

The UN Water 2015 report found that most cities are not very resilient to water risks. As water managers continue to wait for climate change models to become more certain or more specific, they defer action, paralysing decision-makers.

If we really want our cities to be water-resilient, we must collectively change long-held ideas about water supply and demand. This will require technological and institutional innovation, as well as behavioural change, to create new and more flexible buffers — for example, through water recycling, green infrastructure and other novel measures.

Although Cape Town avoided disaster this year, that does not make it water-resilient. Despite the arrival of the rainy season, Cape Town is still likely to face Day Zero at some point in the future.

The ConversationThere’s a good chance that the city is not alone.

Lucy Rodina, PhD Candidate, University of British Columbia and Kieran M. FindlaterUniversity of British Columbia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.