The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
Beauty in the Smog
Last week, I went to an impressive exhibition of paintings by impressionist Claude Monet. The show at the Denver Art Museum, called "The Truth of Nature," has more than 120 paintings, spanning his entire career.
The most memorable section of the exhibit for me is probably not what the curator expected. And it isn't good news that I've seen views this week which strongly echoed what Monet portrayed in 1900.
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Monet was a prolific artist, perhaps best known today for his many paintings of water lilies in his garden at Giverny, or of haystacks in the French countryside. As I learned in more than two fascinating hours wandering through the galleries, Monet also traveled widely -- to rocky sea coasts, the lush Mediterranean, and icy Norway.
The carefully designed exhibit explores "Monet's continuous interest in capturing the quickly changing atmospheres, the reflective qualities of water and the effects of light." It also documents "the artist's increasing abandonment of any human presence in the landscapes he created, a testimony to his commitment to isolate himself in nature."
So it is surprising -- in the midst of so much beauty, and the emphasis on an abstracted natural world -- that I was struck by several paintings of highly polluted London.
One, of Waterloo Bridge over the Thames, is hazy, with a series of tall smokestacks in the background, each with plumes of dark fumes. Another pair of paintings gave glimpses of Charing Cross Bridge, just barely visible through London's smog. In fact, when I saw one of those from across the room, it looked like the entire canvas was a uniform grey with no details at all. It was only up-close that I could pick out the shape of the bridge, a small boat in the foreground, and a hint of undefinable buildings in the background.
For an artist who loved scenes without any people at all, these London paintings of pollution-swathed urban settings seemed completely out of place. They also were memorable for me because they spoke of the early industrialization that so thoroughly fouled the air and water, and the lineage of Creation-destroying impacts that continue in contemporary crises of climate, extinction, and pervasive pollution. His other works in the show were lovely and dramatic, and I could set aside my normal anxieties. The London paintings dragged me right back into the worries of today.
Where I saw ugly and distressing pollution in those paintings, though, Monet was captivated by subtle beauties of light. "Other painters paint a bridge, a house, a boat," he said. "I want to paint the air that surrounds the bridge, the house, the boat -- the beauty of the light in which they exist."
As he explored the "mysterious mantle" of that sulphurous smog, Monet apparently has given us "the earliest coloured record of the notorious 'pea souper' smog that wrapped the British capital at the turn of the 20th century." A fairly recent study analysed the position of the Sun in nine of Monet's London paintings, and discerned that all of them were painted "in the afternoon, between 14 February and 24 March 1900." The haze engulfing the city was not created from his imagination. One of the researchers said, "We are confident that these paintings show an accurate visual record of the urban atmosphere of Victorian London."
The smog-in-art study notes that "London's 'great fogs' reached a peak in the late 1880s, then gradually declined." Another researcher commented, "The Victorian fogs tended to be associated with industry, employment and wealth to the minds of Londoners at that time. Air quality and health-related issues tended to be neglected."
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Just a few days after my immersion in the meticulous artistry of Claude Monet, I saw a scene that brought his London paintings back to my mind and my heart.
I was on my way to the office Tuesday morning, and I glanced to the west for the normally stunning view of Colorado's mountains rising from the plains. What I saw that day, though, was a thick layer of pollution settled over the city of Denver, completely obscuring the foothills, and tinting the snow-capped high peaks orange-brown.
That ugly layer of fossil-fuel residue blanketed my city on the same day that 11,000 scientists issued a fresh warning of the global climate emergency. Their statement declares, "The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle" -- naming multiple aspects of those human activities.
Perhaps Claude Monet could find beautiful permutations of light and color in Denver's brown cloud. And perhaps it would be healing to my spirit if I could be more intentional in discerning beauty, even in the midst of pollution and loss. But in my afternoon at the art museum, and a few days later when the Rocky Mountains were lost in haze, I felt grief and anger. It is hard for me to see beauty in the residue of our fossil-fueled mess.
"The Victorian fogs tended to be associated with industry, employment and wealth to the minds of Londoners at that time. Air quality and health-related issues tended to be neglected." Today, in Colorado, bitter conflicts over energy policies show that many people and many governments still see fossil fuels -- extracted and burned -- in terms of jobs and prosperity, more than as serious dangers to health and climate justice.
Monet's paintings, in all of their great diversity of subjects and style, came from an artist who was enthralled with the natural world. He saw light and color as pure beauty, and his amazing vision is passed along to us in his paintings. I do give thanks for that artistic vision, and my spirits were lifted by many of his works.
I grieve, though, when pollution spreads and causes damage -- whether that is in London of 1900, or Denver of 2019. I long for the day when all of us will find such filth to be unacceptable, and when any wealth that comes from the wells and smokestacks will be rejected as too great a cost to God's creation.
Let us all work to hasten that day of enlightenment.
Eco-Justice Ministries * 400 S Williams St, Denver, CO 80209 * Home Page: www.eco-justice.org
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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