90 Minutes at the MFA

“The important thing is first of all to have a real love of the visible world that lies outside ourselves as well as to know the deep secret of what goes on within ourselves. For the visible world in combination with our inner selves provides the realm where we may seek infinitely for the individuality of our own souls. In the best art this has always existed. It has been, strictly speaking, a search for something abstract.” – Max Beckmann (translated by Q. Beckmann and P.T. Rathbone) from Letter to a Woman Painter (1948)

I am not often caught without a notebook and pen. They are comparable to an appendage – naturally just there. This proximity enables frequent use. On my recent visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I challenged myself to not pull out my notebook, to just look. I was unsuccessful – Renoir shattered what little determination I may have had to stick to the challenge. For me, apparently, looking – soul-seeking – necessitates writing.

One may not immediately think of energy when they think of museums. Perhaps they think of white walls and long hallways and people speaking in too-long words and too-quiet voices. But, without a doubt, museums are full of energy – charged with it. Visitors are constantly in it – perhaps little stray sparks are what draw us toward one piece or another. They send out little invitations: Here, they say, walk through this doorway. Pause. Turn, slowly. Survey. Find the one that catches your eye and let it pull you into its undeniable gravity – there’s no point in fighting, something will draw you in and you will obey, observe, enjoy. Take it in one piece at a time: after all, you can’t see the world in 90 minutes.

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Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Dance at Bougival (1883)

Pause. You are struck by the light, the color, the movement. You are caught mid-twirl with the woman. You can imagine heavy skirts, taste the smoky setting. Trees bend in the wind – or maybe not the wind, but the breeze of the twisting dress fabric. There is music and conversation. The air is thick with excitement – a woman tips forward on her stool.

The man (looking suspiciously like van Gogh) cannot take his eyes off of the fresh-faced, coy girl. The pair is on their toes. Their mid-step is forever captured in oil. The maybe, want-to-be, almost-and-forever lovers hold each other close. It certainly isn’t the worst way to spend an eternity: safely suspended, together. The painting waits for people to sit on the nearby bench and watch. It, too, sends out an invitation: imagine the inhale that comes at the end of the twirl, imagine the smiling eyes beneath the brim of the man’s hat, imagine fingertips on fingertips.

Imagine: eventually, in a foggy someday, the woman’s stool settles safely back onto the dusty ground.

Scratch, scratch, pencil on paper, canvas to hand to sketchbook – carefully copied. The noise guides you through the massive galleries, drawing you from one space to the next – one painting and sculpture and subject and place and feeling and thought and not-quite-time-machine to another…

All the way to Pollock.

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Jackson Pollock, Number 10 (1949)

Here’s a challenge: trace it. Pick a drip, isolate it, follow it. Don’t get dizzy – don’t get too close. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Relax – it’s all in the flick of the wrist, flick of the paint can, flick of the eye following frantic motion frantically. Take a step back so you can see the whole image, all the way to the edges. Feel it out. Feel it. Can you decipher this drip-calligraphy? It is an unlimited, although not always easily-accessible, language. Try to learn it. Become bilingual – say you can speak energy disguised as paint on canvas.

Nearby, a few Picassos are mislabeled. There has to be some metaphor there, right? Something about the superiority of the image? Some condemnation of the crutch of a label?

Remember following that Pollock paint drip? Did it have a name? Did it need one to have a soul?

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