I imagine it was sometime after 4 a.m. Sunday when I approached the final corner of the Monet exhibit. Most of the year, most of North Carolina doesn’t care about its public art museum in Raleigh, but, at that moment, the congestion in the last bendyou know, the one with Monet’s beloved waterliliesmade me think that this Ol’ South State was suddenly full of Francophiles and Impressionist connoisseurs. Can you imagine this same exhibit in 2003, the year of Congressman Walter Jones and his admittedly regrettable love of freedom fries? Times change, right?
I can’t tell: Sure, the row of waterlilies that expertly guided the heavy eyelids of Sunday morning squarely into the waiting registers of a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed gift shop was crowded, but you didn’t get the feeling dozens of spectators stared exactly in awe. If anything, the sheer lack of a tangible buzz in the gallery signaled a modicum of “So what?” The throng at Monet in Normandy seemed to admit it had to be there, but, having arrived, it seemed pleased at best. I once stood in front of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” in Florence, Italy’s Uffizi and watched a grown man weep. Weeks before, I had seen an American family of four stare up at the vaunts of the Sistine Chapel in awe, their Fodor’s guidebooks draping down under the sunlight, heavy, $20 books suddenly forgotten beneath the strength of Michelangelo’s man-made wonder.
This wasn’t that. This was a mother smiling at the gorgeous “Garden of Sainte-Andresse,” recognizing Monet’s father on the terrace above the sea and saying, “I’ll tell you what, he and his father just did not get along at all.” The daughter just nodded. She’d heard this one before, just as everyone had. By no fault of his own, Monet’s best works are the kind of paintings that help sell those day planners at Target. He was a master of a form and of a time, and his works are common because they are truly marvelous. On Jan. 14, he took no breaths and altered no minds. People simply smiled, pointing in newfound recognition. Everyone seemed more intent on staying behind the museum’s barriers and trying to understand the numbering system for those handheld audio guides.
I hate to sound like the cynic who says something felt artificial about it all, but everyone in that final turnthe kids in pajamas, the 20-somethings in jeans, their parents carrying clips of The News & Observerseemed to sense it: 225,000 people in three months in a small gallery on the ground level of a public art museum in North Carolina in 2007, staring at 50 paintings of undeniable beauty by a Frenchman? Did Monet ever study horses staring at troughs of water? That would have been nice.
But maybe it wasn’t waterlilies keeping them intrigued or mild disappointment keeping them herded. Maybe they were actually looking for Frederick Carl Frieseke’s “The Garden Parasol,” another impressionistic work that’s a little too bright and obsessive for Monet’s canon. The News & Observerwhich could have promoted the exhibit with a little more zeal only by hinting at a rare appearance by Jesus H. Christ (or George W. Bush)had used the painting as part of Wednesday’s front-page story about the mad rush for last-minute tickets. Frieseke was the son of a Michigan brick-maker who moved to France a decade after Monet had finished his important Norman work. It’s part of the museum’s American collection, and confusing it with a Monet is a lot like mistaking Supertramp for The Beatles. Then again, down South, that Lennon character was always a tad suspicious.