Tuesday 11 July 2023

Show, Don't Tell: The Artist's Guide to Keeping Secrets

Monet, Les Nymphéas - Musée de l'Orangerie

This article delves into the fascinating concept of the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle, creative expression, and Monet's final chapter.

In the realm of creative expression, there exists a captivating concept known as the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle.; It may sound like the name of a sex tape but, it's actually a technique used in various forms of storytelling, including writing, filmmaking, and visual art.  This technique offers the audience an immersive experience, allowing them to delve into the story and its characters through actions, thoughts, and emotions, rather than mere factual descriptions. It adds drama, sparks intrigue and keeps us eagerly hooked.

Consider, for a moment, the experience of reading a mystery novel—a fun exercise in piecing together clues and solving a puzzle. The author, skilfully conceals the culprit's identity, ensuring we remain in suspense, craving for more.  They present us with a series of events, characters, and clues, inviting us to connect the dots and unlock the secrets within.

Here's How It Works in Visual Art

Instead of telling you what to think or feel, artists give us visual clues, colours, shapes, and symbols to show us an interpretation of the world.  They tease and tempt us, creating moods, stories, and ideas, leaving us to ponder their deeper meanings. 

Like solving a mystery, the process of discovery speaks directly to our emotions and imagination, creating a personal and unforgettable experience.  The more profound our emotional response, the more lasting the memory.

By 'showing' rather than 'telling', artists can engage their audience on a deeper level, urging them to actively participate with the artwork and craft their own interpretations - the more imaginative, the better.  For artists yearn to fuel our creative sensibilities, inviting us to become co-creators in their evocative narrative.

Let's now turn our gaze to some examples of the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle in visual art:

From left to right: Dali, The Persistence of Memory 1931 | Pollock, Convergence 1952 | Rothko, Green, Blue, Green 1969 | Banksy, Show Me The Money 2005

  • Impressionism: This movement was all about capturing the fleeting impressions of light and colour in a scene. Instead of telling us what to see, artists like Monet and Renoir offered a new way of looking at the world.

  • Surrealism: Surrealist artists like Salvador Dalí immersed us in bizarre, dreamlike imagery to give a glimpse into the subconscious mind, left open to the audience's interpretation.  What does a melting clock mean to you?  The answer lies within your imagination.

  • Abstract Expressionism: This movement was all about conveying emotion through colour and form. Artists like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko showed their inner feelings through their art, beckoning us to uncover our own emotional baggage landscape.  Digging into the emotions of Pollock or Rothko would require another post or two!!

  • Street Art: Street artists like Banksy use their art to comment on social and political issues. Banksy shows us a number of perspectives on these issues, that include humour and poignancy.  They challenge us to question, to reflect, and engage.

Our own interpretations may prove more exciting and memorable than the artist's original intention—and that's perfectly fine. Trust me, I'm an artist!

Exploring Monet's Approach 

Now, let's take a deeper look into Impressionism, specifically Oscar-Claude Monet (14 November 1840 - 5 December 1926).

Monet, Waterlillies (1910)

A couple of weeks ago my brother and I visited Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris, home to 8 of Claude Monet's outstanding Nymphéas (Water Lillies).  Each panel stands tall at 6.5 feet (1.97m), and hangs on the curved walls of two egg-shaped rooms, covering an expansive surface area of 2,153 square feet (200 m2).  The ensemble is one of the largest monumental achievements of painting in the first half of the twentieth century.  

Upon entering the first room, I was immediately struck by the darkness of the paintings. This was unexpected, as my previous encounters with Monet's work, whether at Giverny, MOMA in New York, or in numerous books, had always been characterized by their vibrant light and vivid colours.  Could these dark, beautiful paintings be a reflection of Monet's inner sadness? 

Monet began working on the Water Lilies series for the Musée de l'Orangerie in 1914, a year marked by personal tragedy.  In 1911, he lost his second wife, Alice Hoschedé, and in 1914, his eldest son, Jean. Alice had played a significant role in Monet's life, providing him with emotional support and caring for their children.  His grief was profound, and his art became an indispensable medium for navigating the depths of sorrow.  As the last surviving Impressionist, Monet was also mourning the loss of his dear friends and fellow artists, especially Renoir and Cézanne.  Could the dark palette of the Water Lilies be a visual testament to these losses?

Monet's eyesight was also deteriorating, and after initial refusal, he underwent cataract surgery in 1923.  Post-surgery, he struggled with cyanopsia, a condition where everything appears to have a blue tint.  Frustration and self-doubt plagued him during this period, leading him to destroy some of his earlier works. However, by 1925, Monet's vision improved, and he was able to resume painting.

His postoperative works retained the impressionistic focus of light and colour but also exhibited characteristics of abstract art.  In other words, up close, we see heavy brush strokes, dabs of colour, and seemingly abstract shapes.  However, as we step back, something magical happens - our brains piece together the puzzle of abstract elements and the shapes and colours take on new meaning. We gain a glimpse of a tranquil pond dappled with water lilies and lush foliage. This departure from a more realistic representation gives us opportunity to put our own slant on what we see and feel. 

And so, how does the story of Les Nimphéas (Water Lilies) for Musée de l'Orangerie conclude?  The contract, signed between Monet and the French government on 12th April 1922, stipulated that he would donate the Nymphéas series of decorative panels to the French State.  But Monet wasn't ready to hand over his cherished creations.  He was a perfectionist and never fully satisfied with his work so the handover was repeatedly delayed.  Georges Clemenceau, a close friend of Monet and the Prime Minister of France, expressed his frustration.  He wrote, 'You are well aware that you have reached the limit of what can be achieved with power of the brush and of the mind.'

Undeterred by Clemenceu's letter, Monet continued to work on the 'Water Lilies' until his death in 1926. It was only after his death that the paintings were finally installed in Musée de l'Orangerie, where they remain on display today in the arrangement that Monet had envisioned.

To Condude

In conclusion, artists channel their emotions through their chosen medium. The darkness surrounding Monet's Water Lilies may not have been a conscious decision but rather a natural expression of the sadness and loneliness he experienced during those final years. This poignant example exemplifies the 'Show, Don't Tell', principle in art - where emotions and experiences are conveyed through visual elements rather than explicit descriptions.

As we reflect upon the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle in art, let's not confine its relevance solely to the realm of artistic creation. Instead, let's think about how it plays out in our own lives.  This is where the expression, 'art imitates life' is a good example of that very idea.  Are we adopting the 'Show, Don't Tell' principle without being aware of it?  Do we rely too heavily on being understood while leaving vital sentiments unspoken?  This type of non-verbal communication can often land us in the soup.  While a touch of mystery can be alluring, hoping others can figure us out, without any kind of explanation is an ambitious pursuit.  

We don't have to lay all our cards on the table, but recognising the importance of clear communication—a dialogue that bridges the gaps between our hearts and minds, allows us to craft deeper connections and understanding.  The 'Show, Don't Tell' principle teaches us the value of nuance, the power of visual cues and subtle gestures that speak volumes.  Knowing when and how to embrace it can, not only nourish our creative souls but enhance our relationships and daily lives.

I hope you found this article informative and entertaining.  If you did, please share the love by clicking on one of the share buttons below.  And please share any thoughts, questions, or suggestions in the comments below.

Have a wonderful weekend.

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History of the Water Lilies Cycle  

Why Monet's Paintings of Water Lilies Are So Iconic 

How To Read Paintings: Monet’s Water Lilies  

Claude Monet “Water Lilies” – Impressions of Monet’s Water Lily Art  

The Effect of Cataracts and Cataract Surgery on Claude Monet 

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