Georges Clemenceau was, even by French standards, a man of intriguing contradictions. Known primarily as a politician, Clemenceau began as a doctor, then became a journalist and writer. In fact, it was his newspaper L’Aurore that published Emile Zola’s notorious piece on the Dreyfus Affair, “J’accuse.”
He was also close friends with one of the greatest artists in French history: Claude Monet.
After a tumultuous career in politics, Clemenceau wrote a memoir of his dear friend in 1928. But this is more than a memoir. It’s a memoir, a history, and an argument.
Monet offered his famous Water Lilies to Clemenceau the day after the armistice that ended World War I on November 11, 1918. Even the description on it states, Il fait des Nymphéas un monument à la paix, la paix militaire, ce qui met fin a la Grande Guerre, mais aussi la paix intérieure de l’homme. (He made the water lilies a monument to peace, military peace that ended the Great War, but also the interior peace of man.)
That interior peace was just as hard to come by for Clemenceaus as the military peace. Clemenceau first saw Monet’s experiments painting his water-lily pond in 1899. Monet eventually promised his last great works to Clemenceau and Republic. But Clemenceau would have to hound Monet for years before at last, in 1926, the year of Monet’s death, the artist would finally present France and the world with twenty-two panels of his Nymphéas. Clemenceau tells the whole story: the promise, the politics, The Great War, and finally, the masterworks. As Clemenceau told his biographer, the book would be about a courageous man’s life-culminating struggle to do the impossible with paint and canvas, to finish one huge and supreme masterpiece before he died:
“What I want to tell is the story of that conflict — a conflict which ended in both victory and defeat, a victory because he left behind a vast body of work, including many splendid things, a defeat because in that domain there is no such thing as success. And between us, I shan’t mind giving a lesson to the art critics, whose number is ludicrous.”
Bruce Michelson has produced a new English translation of this fascinating book, which is presented here with useful notes and illustrations, and an excellent preface discussing art and social power among other things. Michelson has also translated three short essays on art by Clemenceau, originally published in La Justice to round out the collection.