In one of my favorite films, Smoke (written by the novelist Paul Auster and directed by Wayne Wang), the character of Auggie Wren (played by Harvey Keitel) owns a cigar shop on a corner in Brooklyn. Every morning, at the exact same time, he snaps a photo from that corner. When he shows his photo albums to the author Paul Benjamin (played by William Hurt), Paul just casually flips the pages and is baffled by the fact that day after day, year after year.
“It’s just one small part of the world, but things place there, too,” Auggie says, “like everywhere else. It’s a record of my little spot.”
“You’ll never get it,” Auggie tells Paul, “if you don’t slow down, my friend.”
“What do you mean?” Paul asks.
“I mean you’re going too fast. You’re hardly looking at the pictures.”
Paul shrugs, baffled by this, and laughs, “They’re all the same.”
“They’re all the same,” Auggie agrees but adds, “but each one is different from every other one. You’ve got your bright mornings and your dark mornings. You got your summer light and your autumn light. You got your weekdays and your weekends. You got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you got your people in t-shirts and shorts. Sometimes the same people but sometimes different ones. Sometimes the different ones become the same and the same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun and every day the light from the sun hits the earth at a different angle.”
As Auggie is talking, we see glorious black and white images of what he’s saying. Finally, Paul hears what his friend is saying and he slows down and actually looks at each photograph. It is only then that he sees one of his late-wife Ellen. “My sweet darling,” he laments and the beauty of what his friend has undertaken these many years has overwhelmed him in this single, beautiful moment.
How many of us miss such moments because we do not take the time to see them?
The French-Impressionist Claude Monet was taking one of his regular walks one day, with his stepdaughter, Blanche, when he noticed haystacks in a field. These were common in this area and many people passed by them daily without taking a second glance, but for some reason, Monet didn’t. He stopped and looked at them. He gave deliberate attention of something as mundane as haystacks.
Monet began painting what would become a series of twenty-five paintings at the end of that summer in 1890. Using a wheelbarrow, he would haul canvases, paints, brushes and the materials he needed to paint. Monet chose the canvas according to which one he felt best suited the subject. “It’s on the strength of observation and reflection,” Monet wrote, “that one finds a way. So we must dig and delve unceasingly.” Which is exactly what he did as he began to pain a repetition of them throughout the different seasons.
In a letter to his friend Gustave Geffroy, Monet wrote, “I am working doggedly on a series of different effects. The farther I go, the more I realize that I must work very hard if I am to find what I am looking for. . . I am more and more passionate about the need to convey what I feel . . .” And it was hard work for a perfectionist like Claude Monet, who destroyed many in the series that he found lacking.
How many of us would be passionate enough to spend our days throughout the seasons of a year, focusing on haystacks in fields? Would we willingly spend hours standing in the late-summer heat or in the bitter cold of winter to paint haystacks? Could we cultivate the awareness to not only see the beauty in them, but to see our own selves reflected in their images? To ruminate and reflect and to work “doggedly” to express what was going on inside our own souls while painting something as pedestrian as haystacks?
There in what he calls “colorful silence,” Monet wrestles with himself, with his art, with trying to capture not only what he sees before him, but deep within him onto the canvas. Monet was not just existing in his world but truly inhabiting it, relishing the beauty found in what others did not find beauty within and elevating the commonplace to masterpieces.
But do we stop to look at even these paintings? Or are we like Paul Benjamin, dismissing them as being just the same thing? Do we stop to notice the interplay of light and shadow, of color and season and composition? Do we begin to grasp what Monet felt or, even, how we feel looking at these glorious paintings?
It’s amazing to pay attention to the transience of light in each one. Reflected in that transience of light is the transience and passing of time itself. That’s why it’s important that we stop, slow down, and take a good look at the world about us. To join in the immutable conversation of the environments we inhabit.
When the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé saw these paintings for the first time, he wrote a letter to the artist, “Monet, you have so astounded me lately with your Haystacks that I watch myself looking at the fields through the prism of your paintings; or rather they seem to impress themselves upon me in that way.”
Is there a greater compliment anyone could give any kind of artist than to tell them, “Your work made me pay attention to something I ordinarily wouldn’t have. You made me take notice.” Is it not the artist’s job to open others to awareness?