The First World War was notably a period of creative impotence as artists struggled to respond to the scale of the horror, with one notable exception, Claude Monet. Struggling with his ever-diminishing vision, he raced to finish his life’s work, creating an extraordinarily vast catalogue of wartime works, far more than any other artist during that period. Between 1914 and Monet’s death a dozen years later in 1926, Monet produced just over 200 paintings, many of which he grouped into a series on an immense scale, hitherto unimaginable, which he called “Les Grands Decorations”. He needed to create a cavernous studio on his property in Giverny simply to have enough space to work on them. He would paint quickly in summer while the light was good, and then spend his winters filling in the details. He also destroyed a vast number of canvasses, frustrated by his failing vision, which would cause him to make mistakes and, in his words, “to ruin them”.

Monet’s late super-creative period was the subject of the Flowers of War concert at the National Gallery of Australia, at the end of September. It told the story of how French Impressionism, both in Art and Music was destroyed by the violence of the Great War. Out of that traumatic wound, all of the colour of the Belle Époque bled out, leaving behind a sepia shell of cutting-edge cubism on one hand, and a strange bloodless return to conservatism on the other. This programme however, was about the last flowering of Impressionism and was an exaltation of Monet’s exploration of the emotional resonance of pure colour.

Claude Monet Waterliies 1914 to 1917. Photo © National Gallery of Australia

Monet was born in 1840 and was 74 when World War I broke out. He had been working on the creation of a magnificent jardin d’eau, or water garden, which would feature a recent created botanical novelty – hybridised water lilies which had been created by Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac. Latour-Marliac had managed to cross the European white lily with wild varieties he obtained from the Americas and elsewhere, creating a palette ranging from delicate yellow to fuscia and deep red. Monet first saw the plants in 1889 at the World’s Fair in Paris (at which the Eiffel Tower was unveiled) and they inspired him to buy an adjoining field at Giverny, where his team of gardeners undertook a vast landscaping project, diverting a nearby stream to create his famous lily ponds. In 1909 he would exhibit his first 48 paintings of Waterlilies, known in French as Nympheas.

Giverny had been a painter’s colony before the war, but with the outbreak of violence in 1914, 30 men from the tiny village were immediately conscripted and all the American painters, such as Theodore Earl Butler, who had married Monet’s stepdaughter Marthe, immediately left. A small hospital was based there during the war, which was filled with soldiers who would scream in the middle of the night believing they were still in the trenches. A nurse, Eugenie Buffet, said they would all scream over and over the same pitiful cry – “Mamam!” (Mother!). Monet would bring them vegetables himself which he had grown in his garden to nourish them.

At the outset of the war, Monet’s step-son Jean-Pierre was called up and Monet’s family were evacuated to the South. Likewise all the younger French painters were called up such as Fernand Leger, Maurice de Vlaminck and André Derain, while the young cubists, Georges Braque, Jacques Villon, Roger de La Fesnaye and André Mare, were tasked with designing camouflage, an innovation of that war.

In all, four members of Monet’s extended family served on the Western Front and miraculously somehow all of them survived, however more than 350 French artists would be killed. Painters lost to the Great War on both sides from the war or the Spanish flu, include Franz Marc, August Macke, Wilhelm Morgner, Umberto Boccioni, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. French deaths in WWI totalled over 1.4 million with four million wounded. As Ross King states in his wonderful book on Monet’s last period, Mad Enchantment, “a quarter of all French men born in the 1890s, the children of the Belle Époque, had been wiped out.”

During this period Monet was not only working in isolation, bothered by the unusually bitter winters, but also increasingly disturbed by cataracts. His sight diminished measurably and he eventually agreed to have three operations in 1922 to remove his cataracts. This operation caused colour distortions which perhaps explain the fiery palette of the opening paintings in the concert. The very final years of his life were spent experimenting with enormous special lenses which the German manufacturer Zeiss made for him, so that with what vision remained in his good left eye, he could complete his cavasses.

Cézanne had said of Monet that he was “only an eye – yet what an eye.” To slowly lose his great gift plunged Monet into severe anxiety and a sustained period of hyper-creativity, as he struggled to create his final culminating masterpieces – a body of work he hoped would summarise everything he felt and believed about painting. In doing so he created more work than any other artist during the Great War. Universally in the arts, it had been a time of terrible creative impotence, as artists in all disciplines struggled to understand how they could respond to such wholesale destruction on a previously unimagined scale.

Monet continued on with his late paintings as if oblivious to the war surrounding him, returning to familiar themes, including five substantial series of paintings, of the Japanese Bridge, Weeping Willows, Flowers, the Alley of Roses and a monumental series of Waterlilies. As his vision deteriorated, the images tended ever more towards pure abstraction, similar to the late works of Turner or Australia’s Lloyd Rees.

The horizon which had previously bisected almost all of Monet’s paintings suddenly disappeared, and his gaze dropped so that the viewer is left looking down into the pool, all the while staring at the reflection of the sky itself. It is a floating world of upside-down reflections where gravity has no sway. Here Weeping Willows rise up to the sky, while the surface of flowers and lily pads float on a background of floating submerged algae and water weed.

Leon Battista Alberti stated in his treatise On Painting in 1435 that “the inventor of painting according to poets was Narcissus, who was turned into a flower … what is painting but the act, of embracing by means of art, the surface of the pool?” Monet would take this classical approach further than anyone had ever imagined possible. Monet’s admirers called him “le peintre du Bonheur” (the painter of happiness) and Monet himself speculated that these paintings of the floating world might calm “nerves strained through overwork” and offer the viewer “an asylum of peaceful meditation”. He felt his late paintings were an attempt at healing – his artistic response to the traumatic events of the war.

Monet would paint a great series of Weeping Willows to express the grief of France for her lost sons. The Weeping Willows had been a famous symbol of mourning and are often found in French cemeteries. JJ Grandville in his prose poem, Les Fleurs Animées (Flowers Personified) put it thus: “come into my shade all you who suffer, for I am the Weeping Willow. I conceal in my foliage a woman with a gentle face. Her blonde hair hangs over her brow and veils her tearful eye. She is the muse of all those who have loved… She comforts those touched by death”.

The deeper one looks into these pictures, and indeed all of Monet’s late images, the more female figures seem to populate them – whether they are there, or if it is just our subconscious looking back at us, is unknowable. The word for waterlilies in French is Nymphéas, which is related to Nymphes (Nymphs) the female spirits who live in sacred places, and who are often represented as young, beautiful girls. The word Nymphes has a second more sexual meaning in French, being also the term for the folds of skin lining the vulva. There is a final layer of meaning as the waterlily is closely related to the lotus, which the Egyptians revered as a symbol of rebirth and immortality, while in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, it represented the mind rising up out of the mud and opening itself to wisdom and enlightenment.

During Monet’s creative “Indian summer”, a constant visitor and witness was his close friend, the French president Georges Clemenceau, who had a holiday house in a neighbouring village. Clemenceau would visit often to both escape the pressures of trying to win the war, but also to try to save the paintings from Monet’s frustration (he would slash them with razors while enraged or burn them in his fireplace). His constant encouragement resulted in the two of them deciding that these paintings would become Monet’s contribution towards the French war effort, and that gift can now be seen in L’Orangerie – a venue which during the war had been a canteen for wounded North African soldiers.

Monet’s donated creations filled two rooms with 22 enormous panels – over 80 square metres of canvas.

Their size defies photographic reproduction and even in projection one struggles to convey their scale.

They are also perplexing because they are not so much a depiction of a subject, as the evocation of its essence. It is a study in seeing – an attempt to portray light itself. Towards the end of this concert, all subject matter falls away and we are left only with the illumination of light, and finally the death of his sight. Ultimately, as Gustave Geffroy wrote in the final line of his 1922 book on Claude Monet, the final chapter which culminated his life work, was a “dream of infinity”.

Perhaps the best footnote to Monet’s remarkable life and work comes from his hero, the Japanese artist Hokusai who signed his works “The Old Man Mad about Painting”. The walls of Monet’s house were covered with hundreds of his prints. Hokusai, at the age of 75, added a postscript to the first printing of his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji:

“From the time that I was six years old I had the mania of drawing the form of objects. As I came to be 50, I had published an infinity of designs; but all that I have produced before the age of 65 is not worth being counted. At the age of 73 I began to understand the true structure of nature, of animals and grasses, and trees and birds, and fishes and insects; consequently at 80 years of age I shall have made still more progress; at 90 I hope to have penetrated into the secret of things; and at 100 years of age I shall certainly have reached a magnificent level, and when I am 110, all that I do, every point and every line, shall be distinct with life — and I ask all those who shall live as long as I do to see if I have not kept my word.”

Those who heard the concert witnessed first-hand the vibrancy of Monet’s final paintings, arguably the greatest climax to any artist’s creative career in history.

Monet’s Waterlillies (1914 – 1917) is at the National Gallery of Australia.  are at the  The final concert of The Flowers of War 2017 is 1917 – The Night is Darkest Before the Dawn at the High Court of Australia, Canberra, November 8.