the impressionists and the circle game

I just came home from my trip to Washington DC, where I went to several museums down the National Mall. I went to the iconic National Gallery of Art (with the best museum cafe I’ve ever visited anywhere) without expecting anything.

It was great but it was mostly pre-19th century European art, which I didn’t really have as much of an affinity for (I was much more excited about their East Building, which houses their modern art collection). However, one corner of the museum piqued my interest — in the Impressionists collection lies two version of Monet’s paintings of the Rouen cathedral, side by side. It was great to see two Monets side by side outside of special exhibitions.

I first learned about Monet in my art history class in college. Monet (and other Impressionists) believed in expressing the fleeting nature of time through painting multiple paintings of the same thing. When time changes, sunlight will hit differently, the wind will change the position of the objects, and people will come and go, therefore creating different visual scapes. The argument of the Impressionists is that these paintings are fundamentally different, even if they portray the same thing. Monet would paint the same thing over and over again, switching canvasses when little things change. To see these paintings side by side is to see the differences between impressions, and how a mere few minutes changes a lot of things visually.

I was also listening to Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” a wonderful meditation on the fleeting nature of time in her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon. I first heard a version of this song through Buffy Sainte-Marie’s cover, which gives us a more powerful, optimistic outlook on time. However, Joni Mitchell gives a quieter, nostalgic performance in her original version. Mitchell writes about a young boy’s life, starting from his childhood catching dragonflies in jars, ending in his 20-year-old self and realizing that even though a lot of his dreams are lost, but “there’ll be new dreams maybe better dreams and plenty.” All of it is framed by this beautiful chorus, which is a great defense on why Joni Mitchell is one of the greatest songwriters of all time:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We're captive on the carousel of time
We can't return, we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round in the circle game

Mitchell is accompanied by other voices in the chorus — men and women — and for me, it represents the people that grew up and lived with Mitchell, reminiscing together about memories of the past. When it comes to songs about growing up, there is no denying that Mitchell is the best writer of those kinds of songs. Her hit “Both Sides Now” (which I think is one of the best written songs of all time) is about knowing nothing, even when you’ve grown up — it is more powerful when you listen to both versions, recorded at 26 and 54 years old. “The Circle Game” is as strong of a meditation as “Both Sides Now”, taking a third person position of a story that makes us meditate about how the passage of time affects our lives.

I listened to “The Circle Game” again after my DC trip and I was reminded of Monet’s paintings. Monet’s paintings are the perfect examples of the carousels of time Mitchell was talking about. We cannot go back to that version of the Rouen cathedral in 1890s France, but Monet’s paintings serves as a window to that exact time, place, and impression. A few years from now I’ll listen to “The Circle Game” again and I’ll look at my camera roll and think about this time of the year — the exact wind touching my face, the warm ray of sunlight in the summer. Well, the impressionists have got that figured out long before they invented phone cameras.

Closing this blog post, I want to show you an excerpt of a play I’ve been working on this past year. This scene below is mostly inspired by Monet and “The Circle Game” (with a cheeky reference to Phoebe Bridgers’ “ICU”).

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