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Notes from Japan

An Encounter with the Monet on Naoshima

Suzanne Kamata writes of snacking on Claude Monet’s hundred year old recipes while savouring his art and that of the famed artist who makes bold art with polka-dots, Yayoi Kusama

Water lilies by Claude Monet (1840-1926) Courtesy: Creative Commons

When I heard that the annual convention of the Association of Foreign Wives of Japanese would be held in nearby Takamatsu, I signed up. I would be able to meet other women with Japanese husbands and attend workshops in wine-tasting or yoga. At night, there would be a big banquet. During the day, there would time to visit the island Naoshima.

I’d heard about this island, once used primarily as a site to dump industrial waste. Now it was full of art museums, and part of the Setouchi Triennale, an art festival which takes place every three years, including this year. Among the permanent exhibitions is one of Claude Monet’s famous water lily paintings, housed in the Chichu Museum designed by world-renowned architect Tadao Ando.

Monet’s art has long been popular in Japan. The French artist had admired Japan. His garden in Giverny, France was designed in the Japanese garden style. A garden modeled after the one in France has been constructed farther south in Shikoku, but the painting was on Naoshima.

At the convention, I met up with my friend Michelle, an artist who sometimes works in coloured pencils, and sometimes in dust. She wanted to go to the island with all the art museums as much as I did. Michelle, Elana, an Italian woman whose husband is an art history professor, and I decided to visit Naoshima together. There are no bridges connecting Naoshima to Shikoku. The only way to get there is by ferry. We took a taxi to the ferry terminal and bought our tickets.

We decided to sit outside on the deck of the ferry. The wind whipped our hair and reddened our cheeks as we watched the city receding. The smaller islands scattered off the coast grew larger. Finally, we approached the dock at Naoshima. We could see the giant red polka-dotted pumpkin sculpture created by Yayoi Kusama, perhaps Japan’s most famous contemporary artists, known for her Kool-Aid colored wig and obsession with dots. Having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, Kusama has lived in a psychiatric hospital for many years. She continues to make art in her studio at the hospital.

Inside the giant red polka-dotted pumpkin by Yayoi Kusama. Photo Courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

Once off the ferry, we were confronted with a row of mom-and-pop restaurants. A bus runs from the harbour to the museums, but we decided to walk. It wasn’t far to our destination. Later that evening, we would be eating a lavish dinner and drinking wine. We needed the exercise.

The entrance to the Chichu Museum. Photo Courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

The Chichu Museum was built into the side of a mountain, like a bunker, and lit only by whatever sunlight came in through the windows. The walls were grey concrete and most of the staff wore white lab coats. The brochure advised us to “maintain a quiet environment in the museum.”

As we were mainly there to see the Monet, we made that our first order of business. We descended an elevator to a dark hall and came upon a rack of slippers.

“Please change your shoes,” the docent said.

I removed my sneakers and slid my feet into a pair of vinyl slippers. Michelle and Elana did the same. Now we were ready to enter the hallowed space.

The room was circular, the walls blindingly white, offsetting the deep blues and purples of Monet’s sun-lit pond. We spent several seconds before each panel. The paintings were called “Water Lilies, Cluster of Grass,” “Water Lilies, Reflection of Weeping Willows,” and “Water Lily Pond.”

Michelle, who was a big fan of Monet, sighed happily. It was the off-season. We were the only ones in the gallery besides the docent. There were no other visitors in slippers waiting to shuffle in after us so we were allowed to take our time.

Michelle plopped down on the clean, white floor. Such irreverent behavior in this holy space! She leaned back and admired the paintings from this new perspective. Was she the first person to ever sit down on this floor?

“What the heck,” I thought. I admired her free spirit. I sat down on the floor beside her.

The docent stepped forward. Our unusual actions had clearly made her nervous. We weren’t touching the art or taking pictures. We weren’t doing anything bad. She had no reason to scold us, but she kept her eyes on us.

“Monet would laugh!” Michelle said. “He was messy. He would think it was funny that we had to change into slippers to look at his art.”

I was inclined to agree. I had seen photos of him. He had an unruly beard. His clothes were rumpled. Later, I would watch a video clip of Monet painting in his garden. He had a cigarette in his mouth even as he touched his brush to the canvas. Little dogs ran around at his feet. No smoking would ever again be allowed near his water lily paintings. Not these ones, at least. No dogs, either.

We visited the rest of the museum then had lunch in a café overlooking the sea which served desserts made from Monet’s recipes. In addition to painting food, he had enjoyed cooking it himself. I sampled his madeleines and apricot jam – delicious! — then bought a cookbook from the gift shop so that I could make them at home.

A madeleine made with Monet’s recipe. Photo Courtesy: Suzanne Kamata

Suzanne Kamata was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan. She now lives in Japan with her husband and two children. Her short stories, essays, articles and book reviews have appeared in over 100 publications. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times, and received a Special Mention in 2006. She is also a two-time winner of the All Nippon Airways/Wingspan Fiction Contest, winner of the Paris Book Festival, and winner of a SCBWI Magazine Merit Award.

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