There is an art to looking at paintings which few will ever master. Fortunately, I am one of the few. A tip or two to point you in the right direction. First, you must stand full-square towards the painting in question, both eyes at an equal distance from the canvas, taking up a relaxed position in front of it and making sure that any "Friends of the Royal Academy" (dread collective noun!) have been politely but firmly elbowed out of the way.
Second, you must ask yourself a few questions. What is this a painting of? With Monet's work, one is helped by the presence of a handy crib in the title. Without that helpful hint - Water Lilies, More Water Lilies or Yet More Water Lilies - one might have been floundering about with bosh-shots (Party Hats? UFOs? Boiled Sweets?) for a good few minutes. And a further question: what are the colours? Answer: reds, greens, yellows, blues - i.e. the full complement, all present and correct.
Finally, and most importantly, comes the question which all the key art critics must ask themselves, though it may take a few seconds of thought to answer: what - if anything - is the artist trying to tell us?
As something of an art buff, I have asked myself this intriguing question while squinting at some of the most celebrated artists of all time. There is a lesson to be learnt from all the great artists. Vermeer, for instance, seems to be trying to tell us that a jug of milk is best poured with a steady hand; Van Gogh that it's best to wrap up warm, especially if you've just lost an ear; and Turner that a bright sun can create a blinding glare which may in turn have an adverse effect on motoring conditions.
But I suspect the lessons handed down by Monet may well be the most valuable of them all. Gazing long and hard at that magnificent procession of paintings in the Royal Academy show, it is not hard to see that Monet was, first and foremost, a law-and-order man. The firm smack of blues and greens make it quite clear that he would have been the first to support Michael Howard in his call for a sharp increase in custodial sentences.
To me, the brilliant white water lily situated in the bottom right-hand corner of one of his later paintings of Giverny in Room Eight screams: "Yes, prison works!" whilst the way he has so carefully situated the bridge over the pond suggests that he believes that in the long run children benefit from the more stable environment provided by a traditional two- parent family.
Among the quaffing partners with whom I visited the Academy earlier this week were those most impressive of rusty eggheads, Mr Paul Johnson and Professor Roger Scruton. Roger, in particular, was delighted by Monet's use of brushwork in his Waterloo Bridge. "Just look at the way Monet lays it on so boldly and decisively," he mused, his hunting-spurs playing havoc with the well-polished flooring of the Academy. "It's almost as if he knew intuitively of the strides that were to take place under Thatcher in the 1980s. And what's that I see there?" Scruton manoeuvred his head closer to the canvas until it was within inches of an impressive ring of mauve.
"Yes, I'm confident it's Monet's dazzling impression of Scary Spice's mauve headband, which he here employs to symbolise the ruin that is contemporary culture in the late 20th century," he enthused, "but how could he have known of the tragedy of the Spice Girls when none of them would be born for another 70 years? Yes, the man was not only a prophet and a genius but, like myself, a successful harbinger of doom!"
Johnson was already dabbing away, adding a full-sized figure to the foreground of the 1910 Summerhouse at Giverny. "Don't tell me, Paul!" I begged, before guessing, "it's Ann Widdecombe, isn't it?"
Right first time! Paul had spotted the one thing Monet had missed. "She lends the painting a new authority," proclaimed Paul, stepping back to admire his handiwork. "Monet's always in danger of growing too frivolous."Reuse content