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Context - Essay from Newsletter 138

Something old in something new


Sunday I saw something I’d seen many times before as I looked at something I’d never seen.

Not never noticed. Never seen.

When we were first dating, Kim worked down the hall from me and we would sometimes eat our lunch across the street at the Wade Lagoon - the pond outside of the Cleveland Art Museum.

We’d go inside and see a room or two and then we’d head back to work.

That’s where I first saw this painting by Monet that I saw on Sunday.

Kim is buried about a mile from the art museum and yet I never think of her as being there. I visit her grave now and then but I never think about it as visiting her. I’m visiting her grave, paying respect, and taking time out to think about her an nothing else.

When I want to visit Kim, I sit with people she knew and go to places she loved. Nearby places like our house, our back yard, and her parents’ house and far away places we traveled to together.

On this trip to Amsterdam and Paris I took time, as I always do, to visit the museums and paintings that she loved.

I don’t really care for the art in the Rijksmuseum. It’s famous and wonderful but I’m not drawn to the works on display as she was. She loved Vermeer and so I stood in front of “The Milkmaid” trying to see it through Kim’s eyes. There’s much to admire about this painting but I’m not sure I would have stopped and studied it had it not been one of her favorites.

I’ll probably go to the museum again in May when they have an exhibit devoted to Vermeer. Kim loved “Girl with a Pearl Earing” and I loved the movie “Tim’s Vermeer” so I’ll try to book a ticket before I travel.

Kim loved Rembrandt and so I stood in front of paintings and listened to the audio guides. There’s certainly a lot I would have otherwise missed and I’m glad that I took the time - but I’m drawn more to impressionists.

And so a few days later I visited the Van Gogh museum as I’d done many times with Kim and many times since she passed.

The museum has expanded since we first visited and the temporary exhibits are always well-curated and expose me to artists I otherwise wouldn’t know. Last time it was David Hockney and this time it was Gustav Klimt.

I know. I can’t think of two artists more different and yet each reached from Van Gogh to a unique artist whose work I appreciated in new ways.

I then walked through the permanent collection beginning with a room filled with self-portraits on the ground floor.

As much as I like Van Gogh’s studies of rooms, buildings, and outdoor scenes, his Potato Eaters always makes me pause. It’s a portrait of a peasant family that is intimate and active that contemporaries hated.

As I look at the Sunflowers, his painting of his room, a chair, nearby fields, the world around him I am visiting Kim.

You can see it in his self-portraits. Not only is the subject changing as he ages, but the way in which he sees himself changes as well.

It took me years not to want to turn to Kim to share a thought on Van Gogh as I stood in front of this work or that.

We honor people in different ways.


Sunday I took the Metro to Abbesses. I skipped the line for the elevator and climbed the stairs despite the warning that there were 181 steps to the top. I also forgot that there were at least that many steps to get to Sacre Coeur once I’d exited the subway.

I love Montmartre.

Yes, it is packed with tourists. Yes, so many of the shops are filled with Eiffel tower keychains, berets, and other “official” Paris merchandise. But I love the narrow streets that end in a staircase up to the next narrow street. I love the views of Paris and I love this beautiful church at the very top.

Before leaving my hotel room I’d dug in my bag for the one and two Euro coins that I’d taken out of my pocket to get through airport security. I’ve lit candles here for Kim and Elena on every visit to Paris as she’d lit one for Elena on every visit we’d made together.

I reached in my pocket and the coins were gone. It later turned out that I’d taken them out of the bag and left them on the foot of the bed.

But times have changed. In the old days I would have taken a ten Euro note to the giftshop and gotten change. Now there’s a machine in front of each candle offering that accepts credit cards. Contactless credit cards to buy candles.

I stood and watched the candles burn and visited with Kim. I then took her to lunch at our favorite Creperie.

Plenty of time for a buckwheat gallette followed by coffee and a dessert crepe that we had once shared.

Plenty of time - and then I was off to see a special Monet exhibit at the Fondation Luis Vuitton - a museum I’d never visited before and wouldn’t have thought to without my brother’s recommendation.


Kim’s favorite museum is the Orangerie. Downstairs is a thoughtful collection of Picasso’s that aren’t from any period we look at and think, “that’s a Picasso”. There are some very thoughtfully chosen impressionists, some amazing views of Paris, and a portrait of Coco Channel that Kim just loved.

Upstairs on the ground floor are two huge oval shaped rooms with Monet’s water lilies. One room features lilies painted at different times of day and the other features them painted at different times of year.

It is designed to make you feel peace and contemplation.

What’s striking is that Monet painted these Water lilies during the first world war.

I guess I say “striking” because I’ve been thinking a lot lately of this climate in which I endlessly doomscroll worried about the end of democracy - worried about the future for Maggie - how do I find the calm and creativity?

Monet painted the pictures of harmony and nature while he worried about two of his children serving in the army. You don’t see his stress or concern in his work.

The exhibit at the Fondation Luis Vuitton was of impressionist Claude Monet paired with expressionist Joan Mitchell.

I didn’t know her work so I started with a separate exhibit that was a retrospective of her life’s work.

I don’t think I understand it. She worked with colors that would fight and work with each other to convey her reaction to what she saw.

Her picture of two cypress trees baffled me. I wouldn’t have known what the subject was without the audio guide.

More than anything else, her paintings gave me a context for Monet.

When Monet’s room filled with Water lilies debuted at the Orangerie nearly one hundred years ago, it was not well-received. It took decades for people to understand and appreciate what had first been denigrated as sentimental scratches and spatters.

In a way, I’ve cheated. I’ve come in at the end of the story and said, “of course it’s amazing.”

I’m not there yet with Mitchell, but that’s more me than her.


With this small exposure to Mitchell, I headed upstairs to the exhibit of both her and Monet.

All of her works were new to me and some of his were as well.

I’m always struck when I see him use a color that I don’t ordinarily associate with him. His series on the Japanese Bridge was filled with reds that don’t fit my experience with his works.

But it was the last room that struck me.

It was a set of three paintings that made up the Agapanthus Triptych.

It is a continuous beautiful panarama of his water garden in Giverny. It’s a beautiful work that covers the wall.

And it’s not been seen like that because each of the three paintings that make up this single scene were sold to different museums. The right-most panel hangs in the Nelson-Atkins museum. The center panel lives in St. Louis.

The panel on the left - that’s one of the works of art that Kim and I visited when we were first dating.

I wouldn’t have known. But she would have. She would have nudged me as we approached and pointed it out and said, “remember that? That’s part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art.”

And we would sit and see this painting we’d only seen as a stand-alone piece as the beginning of a story that is completed by the other two works.

We’d see this thing we’d seen many times in a new context. As part of something we’d never seen before.

Essay from Dim Sum Thinking Newsletter 138. Read the rest of the Newsletter or subscribe

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