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Thinking Aloud: Something More Than Water Lilies

While setting up for a show earlier this month, our host, Marcus Smith, asked me if I liked Monet.


“Yes, on a purely superficial level, in that I think his paintings are pretty,” I responded as I tinkered with sound levels and file names and phone numbers in the studio.


The show’s topic was the creation of Monet’s Water Lilies series as told by Ross King in his book Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies. Like my take on most of Monet’s work, I expected to like it. I did not expect to be changed by it. But it only took thirty minutes of listening to Ross King for my perception of Monet’s water lilies to go from pretty paintings to representations of deep conflict: Monet’s conflict about the war, about his family, and about his place in the changing world. That conflict was something I never expected to see in paintings of a pond. 


“There’s this kind of disjunction between the tranquility we see in them and the mental and physical distress that the act of painting them caused Monet,” King said. “Which I think tell us he was painting something more than water lilies on a sunny afternoon in the Seine Valley. He was seeing something in the pond that was more than merely reflections of clouds and beautiful blossoms.”


It’s not that I was wrong to think of Monet’s work as pretty. The real problem was that I had failed to see beauty beyond the pleasant scenery and generous brushstrokes—the beauty of emotion, history, and obsession.


Isn’t that often how life goes? Whether it’s an object, an idea, or a person, we see in others what we want to see, favoring the qualities that convenience and reinforce our existing worldview while throwing out the ones that harm it. But that kind of thinking leaves out so much of the human experience. What we see almost never tells the full story of what’s really there, and it takes more than a glance and a reaction to tease out the hidden and transformative details.


That’s what I love about Thinking Aloud. It invites me to spend thirty minutes focusing on an idea or a topic I wouldn’t normally spend more than a few seconds considering. It complicates and nuances my perspective on the world around me. I’ve found that when things are complicated, it’s difficult to jump to conclusions.


Complicate your thinking on water lilies and more. Catch Thinking Aloud weekdays at 6pm on BYU Radio.

By Rachel Sherman

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