We’re so used to Monet’s Japanese Bridge that we don’t think it odd. “There’s Monet’s Japanese Bridge again,” we say.

And yet there are things to say about it.

On March 17 1893 Monet wrote to the Prefet de l’Eure: “in order to pass from my land to the land that I rent on  the other bank and vice versa, I plan to install over the stream of the Epte two small, light, wooden footbridges ..”  Permission was  finally granted in July of that year. The bridge we know from the paintings is a practical construction:  a way of getting from one side of the river, or lake, to the other.  Its structure is very three dimensional: the upright members of the bridge rails are stablised by buttressing members which lean back at an angle from extending planks which otherwise form part of the bridge floor.  You can see them leaning in the black and white photograph.

The form of the bridge was influenced by an exhibition Monet had seen of prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai (the trellises, added later, were completed in 1904). Popular Japanese artists celebrated bridges, from the simplest planks to extraordinary engineering feats – perhaps the most exciting architectural structures of their time. Unlike many products of the Industrial Revolution in Europe, these structures are not felt as opposed to natural beauty: they are accepted and celebrated in the prints as adjuncts.  The Famous Bridges enjoy the same reverence as the Famous Waterfalls.

Hokusai: The Manenbashi Bridge at Fukagawa

At the same time, almost always, Ukiyo-e  artists celebrate bridges for their human function: persons, or a bustle of people, cross with animals and carts, banners, Lords, fishermen and travellers. The bridge does not stand as a silent witness to the ancient work of men, or enta geweorc (the buildings of giants, as the Anglo-Saxons called Roman remains): it is a busy place where people pass endlessly.

Hiroshige: The Manenbashi Bridge at Fukagawa

Claude himself, his family, visitors, dignitaries and friends, posed on, and celebrated, the bridge – but only for photographs. There do not seem to have been any Monet paintings of the bridge with a human presence. Its function in painting was different from its function in life.

If we stand back and put this in a wider context, Romanticism had moved the emphasis to ‘wild’ nature where humans were dwarfed or often absent altogether. Lewis Carroll parodies the romantic image in “The wild man went his weary way To a strange and lonely pump” (Poeta Fit, non Nascitur). An earlier version of extreme Romanticism was presented by a chapter in Gerard De Lairesse’s The Art of Painting in all its Branches (trans 1788) entitled Of Things Deformed and Broken, Falsely Called Painter-Like.  This material made its way through Robert  Browning’s consciousness to provide the landscape for Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.

Early Impressionism more pragmatically accepted the intrusion of industry in the domesticated landscape, but whereas Millet, and later Pissaro, presented  a landscape with its working people, Monet and Cezanne emptied their landscapes, unconsciously anticipating the process of industrial capitalism, which, via two great European civil wars,  has denuded the countryside of its labourers. The nostalgic view, of a countryside full of people promoted, for instance, by Kropotkin in Fields, Factories and Workshops, or presented by Kurosawa in Seven Samurai, stands against urbanisation and the emptying countryside of today.  Cezanne paints his gardener sitting in a chair, not working in the garden.  Apart from the folie de grandeur of all those nudes among the trees (Cezanne knew he had not seen them there), people in his paintings occupy one space, and the landscape another.

It is common ground that Monet reduced the elements in his paintings, eliminating figures as he went.  Paul Hayes Tucker writes of the Belle Isle series at the end of the 1880s that:

“Of the thirty-eight views of Belle Isle that he produced, for example, thirty-five include no reference to humankind. There are no people in those   pictures, no houses, no boats, or other traces of civilisation. There are only earth, sea, and sky”

Monet in the ’90’s: the Series Paintings  1990  Boston Museum & Yale UP  p.29

Nonetheless, Monet greatly enjoyed Japanese prints, a large number of which hung in the house at Giverney.  For western artists these prints introduced to new ways of  ‘framing’, presenting space, and cutting away from images (in return for what Japanese artists themselves derived from European art – perspective, and Prussian blue). These devices  marvellously recur, in Kinogasa’s film The Gate of Hell (Jigokumon), visually a cinematic homage to Ukiyo-e artists. Degas and Toulouse Lautrec were much better placed to make use of Japanese modes, since they had people as their subject matter, as Bonnard and Vuillard did later.  In spite of his familiarity with Japanese art,  Monet makes little use of these devices from the Japanese in his own painting.

In simplifying his subject-matter he moved steadily towards a painting which  presents a flat plane tilted up towards to the viewer: in effect no foreground or background, and no perspective, but one continuous image from the bottom of the canvas to the top. What this also does is to eliminate the sky – always a problem for landscape artists since the sky’s contents are so substantially different from those of the land, and tend either to produce two different languages in one picture, or to force a formalisation on one element or the other to make it conform.

His Japanese bridge  is a curving structure, the chord of a circle. In early days, as you can see above, the bridge was reflected in the lake, forming an ellipse,  a kind of symbol of eternity.  By the time Monet started his series the water-lilies had more or less covered over the water, so the reflection was only faintly visible, or does not appear at all – the bridge stands above like a rainbow, and the rainbow colour is distributed beneath. The series has one main format, though in some versions the point of view shifts slightly to the left, so that the curve of the bridge rises up towards the right side of the canvas. The bridge is a linear event: one hand-rail curve reinforces the other, echoed in turn by the mid-rails and the base. The vertical posts rhythmically mark and echo musical intervals in the curve: they do not function as spatial indicators. The curved horizontal of the bridge is counterpointed by the straight horizontals of the water-lilies, and interrupted by the vertical strokes of the rushes and the willow. This presentation of the bridge icon would be compelling even if it were not reinforced by the many versions in different lights with their variations of attendant shape and colour.

Paul Nash: Behind the Inn

Why do we find this meditation on an object in the landscape so powerful?  It is the intensity of the observation, however deployed, which makes it so, but it is difficult to identify the indicators of intensity. Paul Nash’s Pillar and Moon has a symbolic loading, as do many of his semi-surreal images and photographs but his  Behind the Inn (in the Tate, but hardly ever on display) is almost as mesmerising, with none of the undertones. This question is partly directed at myself, since. like many other artists who paint landscapes, I deal in images that are modulated through human consciousness, but which often  do not contain the human persons who would inevitably have been shown in earlier painting. The work of Breughel is close to that of Hokusai, but in our time the fields are empty. Am I wrong to see in this a sort of moral deficiency?