28 April 2006

Encountering art

Old Masters Gallery at the Zwinger Palace, DresdenThis is a photo I took in the Old Masters Gallery at the Zwinger Palace in Dresden. It demonstrates the three difference paces at which people take in an art museum (you can click on it to enlarge it to see this better). There are those who rush through trying to see as much as they can (the lady on the left going by so fast she's a blur). Others stand for a long time in front of each painting (the lady facing away from us who stood without budging for the entire long exposure). And some are so pooped out by the whole experience that they just sit around on the benches. Which is your art museum pace?

I remember being dragged around to art museums as a kid and not appreciating them. I took the nearby Clark Art Institute and Berkshire Museum for granted (I have memories of childhood misbehavior in both of them!), and was bored by the Louvre and the Jeu de Paume in Paris, which we got to see when I was 14. How much has changed since then! Now, seeing the art museums is high on my priority list when I visit a new city. I'm fortunate to have had the opportunity to see some of the world's greatest museums: besides the Louvre, I've seen the Sistine Chapel in Rome, the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

As for my pace, I tend to pick and choose a few works to stand and study or simply admire, and rush through other rooms, depending on how much time I have available. I could return to the greatest paintings (especially Rembrandt and van Gogh) over and over and never get tired of them. Henri Nouwen spent more than four hours in front of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son at the Hermitage, and it totally changed his life. He writes about it in his book by the same title: "A seemingly insignificant encounter with a poster presenting a detail of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and offered me new strength to live it." Do you have any experiences of encountering art which changed your life?


Iambic Admonit said...

Read: The Dark Tower by C. S. Lewis again; articles/books on interior design
Listened to: my sister Nadine’s (mezzo-soprano) senior recital, which included songs by Tosti and Wolf; scenes from Rossini’s L'Italiana in Algeri and Il barbiere di Siviglia; the Storm Trio from Rigoletto; and the final scene of Carmen, among others.

I apologize for the long silence; I’ve had several days traveling here and there, never near a computer.

Amazing photo, Rosie! And great discussion drawn from it.

I have had several profound experiences in art museums, one in particular most moving. My mother and I were on our way to visit Cardiff University, where I was considering an pursuing an MFA in Poetry (I didn’t, in the long run). We stayed a few days in London and spent the better part of a day in the National Gallery. At that time, I was working on a long epic-ish blank verse poem about the Sibyl and her encounter with Apollo. Working primarily from Virgil, and also Ovid (Wikipedia links), I envisioned the encounter as rather an unwilling ravishment than a willing ecstasy. The whole thing began to take shape as a contrast between pagan prophecy and pre-Christian prophecy. But I didn’t know how to get from Apollo to Christ. I knew the sibyls were on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, but I didn’t know how, through the ages, they got there. (Michelangelo’s Cumaean Sibyl). Well, I had this dilemma in the back of my mind as we wandered through the wonders of the National Gallery.

Suddenly, voila! There was “The Cumaean Sibyl with a Putto” by Guercino. I asked, “What’s a putto doing there? And what does it say on his tablet?” link to National Gallery Then I read the accompanying plaque, and it all came together. On the tablet is inscribed: “O LIGNUM BEATUM IN QUO DEVS EXTENSVS EST SYBILLA CUMANA [O blessed wood on which God was stretched out].” The accompanying information read: “This is one of Guercino’s finest late works, imposing in composition, rich in colour and dignified in pose and gesture. It represents one of the twelve pagan sibyls, or seers, who were reputed to have foretold the coming of Christ. The Cumaean Sibyl predicted that Christ would be born of a virgin in a stable at Bethlehem. The inscription refers to the cross on which Christ was crucified.” Wow! This led to more research, which eventually revealed that that the Catholic church, during the Middle Ages, had appropriated the sibyls from Greco-Roman mythology and paired them with Old Testament prophets. (Wikipedia again). Hence, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the figures are seated in this order: Zachariah, the Libyan Sibyl, the Cumaean Sibyl, Isaiah, the Delphic Sibyl, Joel, the Erythrean Sibyl, Ezekiel, the Persian Sibyl, Jeremiah. Thus it all came together. I was rarely more excited by art and learning before or since!

Then we proceeded to Cardiff, and had fun explaining that encounter to some other writers from the University in a pub. I’m not sure how much they understood the religious part of it, but they were very interested. I’ve since become much more enamoured of Ekphrasis, and few things delight me more than wandering in art museums. I am drawn to the “lineaments of a plummet-measured face” and can spend ages among pure white marble sculptures. Sigh.

Here’s a dating/courtship hint, too: before you marry, spend time in a art museum and make sure your art pace is the same! If one of you is speedy and the other slow, you’ll have a problem! We’re blessed with both being among the slowest museum-goers on the planet. We choose a time period or geographical focus, then zoom through until we get to those rooms. Once there, we dawdle for hours in one century, spend the afternoon among 18th-century French neo-classicism, or sit for forty minutes in front of one Turner. Then bring home the notes and try to poem what I saw!

Rosie Perera said...

Oops, I've been forgetting to post what I've been reading and listening to (and in this case, watching).

Read: How to Write: A Christian Writer's Guide by Miriam Adeney (aimed mostly at Asians writing for an Asian audience).

Listened to: Vancouver Cantata Singers concert, including Bach's motet "The Spirit helps us in our weakness," his sublime Cantata #21 (I love the moving duet representing the dialogue of the Soul with Jesus), Pärt's delightful short piece "Bogoroditsye Dyevo" and his Berliner Messe.

Watched: Under the Tuscan Sun (lovely Italian scenery, though the story and acting were pretty weak; I'm told the book is better)

Wow, what an awesome experience you had! I can't think of any quite so profound off the top of my head, though I know I've been inspired by some of my art-viewing experiences. I got to see the exhibit of the winners of the most prestigious awards at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow in 2004. Wow! Talk about amazing photographs! They took my breath away. That inspired me to want to enter a photograph in the contest this year, and I was thinking I'd enter my one from New Zealand which I posted on this blog not too long ago. But alas, I had not taken it in RAW format on my new digital camera (didn't know that was important) and they required that for entries. So it's ineligible. And I have no other images even close to being able to make the cut in such an incredible competition. Maybe next year...