Claude Monet at the Chichu Art Museum, Benesse Art Site, Naoshima

Art, Japan, Musée de l’Orangerie
The Claude Monet Gallery, Chichu Art Museum
A trip to Naoshima, Japan prompts Rose Balston to explore Claude Monet’s timeless Impressionist paintings at the Chichu Art Museum

For the last 12 years of his life Claude Monet was preoccupied with a massive, multipart installation inspired by the beautiful water garden he had created for himself at Giverny, just outside Paris. The result of this project was a series of waterlily paintings donated to the French State in 1922 and displayed in the Musée de l’Orangerie from 1927. Monet’s relationship with waterlilies has been an endless source of fascination and inspiration to the public since they were first conceived at the end of the 1890s, their beauty shining out in a time of darkness when Dreyfus was grossly accused (wrongly) of passing military secrets to the Germans and the country was torn apart by the First World War. Monet’s response was to paint the shifting lights of the day and observe how willows, waterlilies and clouds were reflected in his pond. As Monet said himself, he wanted to create the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore.”

Many shores away, on the edge of the island Naoshima, deep in the Seto Inland Sea off the coast of Japan, you’ll find some of these treasured paintings that Monet reverentially made in his Giverny studio. My recent trip to Japan had many inspirational surprises in store, but this was perhaps the most exciting. In the Chichu Art Museum the waterlilies lie in wait for travellers who make the long pilgrimage. Chichu means ‘underground’ in Japanese reflecting the fact the museum is partly submerged in the ground thereby retaining the beauty of the natural landscape that surrounds it. To get to the building, we were invited to walk through an exquisitely laid out garden with a central pond filled with waterlilies. The reflection of clouds skated across the water and the dappled sun glanced through draped branches of weeping willows. We proceeded up a slope where we caught perfectly framed views of far-away mountains. Entering the Tadao Ando designed building we found long corridors of shadow and light, coupled with Zen courtyards of different geometric shapes. We were asked to remove our shoes, as though we were entering a Shinto shrine. Our minds were being prepared, calmed, steadied, before viewing the art.

Corridors of light at the Chichu Art Museum

The Monet gallery is made up of two spaces connected by a rectangular opening. The first space is submerged in shadow, enhancing the anticipation for what is the come. 700,000 two-centimetre cubes of exquisitely carved Carrara marble made-up the floor. And from here, we could see into the second space where hanging effortlessly on a wall of bright light, was a vast panoramic Monet Waterlily painting. So far from home, yet dazzling in its intensity.

We slowly advanced further. Suddenly – thrillingly – as we entered the second zone we found ourselves surrounded by not just one, but five Monet Waterlily paintings—two on either side and two behind us. With white marble frames and plaster walls the space paid homage to Monet’s fondness for white backgrounds and allowed his vivacious, colourful brushstrokes to shine out. The corners of the walls were rounded so our eyes could travel freely from painting to painting. And above us, indirect natural light filled the room – just as the artist would have liked it.

We looked and looked and allowed ourselves to become part of this extraordinary space as time ticked by. How could this experience be even more absorbing than when I visited the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris a few years earlier? Some 6,000 miles as the crow flies from Monet’s studio in Giverny, these paintings have found simply the most sublime home. In an almost spiritual way, they are brought into perfect harmony with nature and architecture.

Tadao Ando Architecture at the Chichu Art Museum

While it would have been worth travelling halfway across the world to see these Monets alone, we were given more – much, much more. Two other artists are superbly represented at the Chichu Museum – Walter de Maria and James Turrell. And it doesn’t end there! Dotted across the island you stumble across works by David Hockney, Cy Twombly, Giacommeti, Lee Ufan, Anthony Caro, Yves Kline, Richard Long, Yayoi Kusama, Antony Gormley, Basquiat, Bruce Nauman, and the list goes on and on.

We have Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake to thank for all this. It is his collection that forms the Benesse Art Site Naoshima and I would encourage anyone visiting Japan to make the effort to travel there. Benesse means ‘well-being’ in Latin. It is aptly named indeed and we left the island feeling utterly invigorated with extraordinary memories of surely one of the world’s greatest hidden gems.   

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Art, Japan, Musée de l’Orangerie
The Claude Monet Gallery, Chichu Art Museum