Impressions of despair

Art - Richard Cork discovers a darker Monet in the painter's long lament for his wife

Despair is not an emotion we associate with Monet. His irrepressible optimism nourishes most of the work he produced, but on one occasion even Monet was forced to convey a far bleaker and more harrowing order of feeling. In September 1879, his wife Camille died at the age of 32. Although her loss must have been foreseen, Monet was devastated. He decided, at some stage in the two days before her burial, to paint a deathbed portrait.

It is, in every sense, a stricken image. Camille is scarcely visible through the blizzard of brush strokes inflicted on the canvas. Restricting himself to white, grey and violet, enlivened here and there with a gash of red, Monet does not sanitise the appalling spectacle in front of him. Looking at his wife propped up on the pillows, her mouth askew, jaw bound tight and skin blanched to the point of looking glacial, he seems barely capable of making coherent sense of her corpse.

He slashes at the canvas, as if desperate to bring her back to life. But the ferocity of his strokes serves only to blur her form more fuzzily. She is fading from view even as Monet struggles to preserve her in pigment, and he is honest enough to admit that the battle has almost been lost. The woman swathed in bedlinen is hardly more substantial now than the pale autumn sunlight splashed on the sheets around her.

Nothing else in Monet's immense output approaches the anguish he exposed here. Camille Monet on Her Deathbed dominates "Monet: the Seine and the sea", the Royal Scottish Academy's magisterial survey of the work he produced between 1878 and 1883. It was a period of incessant productivity, focused above all on views of the River Seine and the Normandy coast. But the taboo-breaking intensity commanded by the painting of his dead wife gives the whole show an air of crisis. Flanked here by Monet's smaller portraits of his two sons - one a russet-cheeked baby grinning in a bonnet, the other a 13-year-old who appears stunned by his mother's recent decease - the deathbed picture makes us realise how much its painter had to endure in this period.

By 1878, the success Monet had achieved as a leading young impressionist was faltering. Fewer collectors were willing to buy his work, and his foremost patron, Ernest Hoschede, had become bankrupt. Monet was forced to move his family to the village of Vetheuil, about 60 kilometres along the Seine north of Paris. Property proved cheap to rent there, and he was able to tether a studio boat on the river at the end of his large garden.

Vetheuil was, in Monet's words "a ravishing spot", and he attempted initially to celebrate it. Dirty smoke can be glimpsed in one view of the river bank, where the bucolic stillness is disrupted by a passing steam-tug. But the other paintings present a pollution-free idyll, where the machine-age clangour of Monet's recent Gare St-Lazare paintings give way to a vision of pre-industrial innocence.

By the summer of 1879, Monet was painting with an exhilaration that suggests he saw his new home as a present-day version of paradise. Out in the fields, he managed to detach himself from the trauma of his wife's illness, to paint a mother with her children gathering poppies in an apparent state of bliss. That the woman must have been Alice Hoschede rather than the housebound Camille does not impair the picture's mood. Monet handles the crimson flowers with exemplary freedom, summarising them in swift dabs of paint that spatter the landscape with a freewheeling energy.

After his wife's death, however, he could not prevent dejection from invading his work. The winter of 1879-80 became excessively harsh, making it difficult for Monet to continue painting outdoors. Retreating to the studio, he produced a Still Life with Pheasants and Plovers in a style far more doggedly conventional than his uninhibited summer views. By paying open homage to artists of the past, most notably Chardin and Oudry, he ensured that the painting soon found a buyer. But on another level, our knowledge of Camille's recent death makes us realise how very personal this still life really is. Laid out on a creased white tablecloth, the four birds are incontrovertibly slaughtered. Monet makes no attempt to arrange their slumped bodies and limp wings. It is an utterly cold image, prophesying the even more chilling work he would go on to produce.

The Seine froze over, and in what Monet described as "a terrible debacle", the ice blocks broke and crashed against each other as they made their way down the river. He wasted no time transforming this scene into art and produced some impressive paintings of the sub-zero Seine. They look more akin to the Arctic than to northern France. Riverside trees were toppled by the impact of the shattered floes, and Monet invests this devastation with a fierce yet lamenting eloquence. It is as if the disintegration of the ice mirrored, in his own mind, the breaking up of all his hopes for life at Vetheuil. The elation in his earliest paintings of the village had given way to a dejected alternative. The frozen countryside suddenly appears bereft and defenceless. Even the ferrymen steering their silhouetted boats through the splintered blocks look like huddled, diminutive refugees escaping from a catastrophe.

They reappear in a large, powerful painting called Sunset on the Seine, Winter, where the stripped trees and skeletal outlines of houses fade into the gloom. Monet admitted that this heartfelt and vestigial canvas was "too much to my own taste" to send in to the Paris Salon, but it duly accepted his far more bland and elaborate view of nearby Lavacourt. It is a sadly pedestrian exercise, lacking the stylistic attack and headlong emotional commitment of the Sunset painting. But Monet's desire for official acceptance at the Salon convinced him that "I ought to get in there with something better behaved, more bourgeois". A similar belief must account for the tepid views he went on to produce in the spring and summer of 1880.

Subsequent paintings of the Normandy coast become livelier, and yet they are also wildly uneven. Significantly, the most persuasive paintings disclose a fascination with loneliness. Concentrating on a customs official's cottage marooned on the cliffs near Pourville, he conveys a mood of extreme isolation. A painting of a path along the cliffs at Varengeville is still more desolate, as shadows threaten to extinguish the vulnerable people making their way towards the sea.

On the evidence of this exhibition, Monet took a painful amount of time to recover from his grief. In 1901, long after leaving Vetheuil to settle with his new wife, Alice, in Giverny, he returned to paint a final series of the village. They are sweet, nostalgic images bathed in a strangely decorative pink light. But the undertone of sadness has not been ousted. The church, houses and their reflections in the water seem just as faint and remote as Camille had been, dissolving into the broken patches of light on her deathbed more than 20 years earlier.

The Monet exhibition continues at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh EH2 (0870 906 3770) until 26 October. Richard Cork's four books on modern art were recently published by Yale

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Coming soon: the new poor

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.