Why This Art: Traveling Through Time with ‘The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light’

Artist Raffi Kalenderian gazes at a cathedral the way Monet captured it.

claude monet’s "the portal of rouen cathedral in morning light," 1894
J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles/HIP/Art Resource, NEW YORK

Monet sucks!” Such withering criticism from 18-year-old me, laid upon the long-dead French impressionist master, was surely the result of hours spent studying Claude Monet’s work, right? You might be shocked to learn that my younger self made no such effort. This hot take was based on my disdain for the vast assortment of coffee mugs, calendars, and umbrellas that were plastered with reproductions of Monet’s water lily paintings. At that stage, when I first dedicated myself to painting, I was often, sadly—and in some ways beautifully—a dumb idiot.

This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.

During my undergraduate training at UCLA’s art school, famed for its artist-professors and insanely talented students, we were encouraged to make “whatever you want!,” but we had to figure out what that was.

I learned how to make oil paintings by snapping up supplies in the art store and going crazy in the studio. In 2011, about seven years after graduation, I made a self-portrait. It was one of the first paintings for which I had the technical chops in glazing, staining, and texturizing to match the vision in my head. Shortly after finishing it, I visited the Getty. Even though I had been there about 20 times, I had never noticed Monet’s The Portal of Rouen Cathedral in Morning Light. (I was a dumb idiot, remember?)

This time, I was surprised by the painting’s complex color combinations, which look like rainbow sherbet left for too long in the sun. Guiding the observer’s eyes from top to bottom, the texture of the heavy paint fuses with the colors in a violent, performative way, imbuing the serene setting with an almost eerie mood. The composition is also unusual, cropped like a photo taken while stuffing your phone back into your pocket—it seems to suggest a specific time and point of view. Staring into this painting, you can experience how the cathedral was the morning that Monet captured it.

A painting will stay the same, but through the years, with any luck, you will change. You might even have the chance to look at the same Monet painting you walked past stupidly for a decade and travel through time.•

Raffi Kalenderian lives and works in Los Angeles.
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