Reading David Nice’s recent essay on Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” started me thinking about having a personal relationship with a work of art – why I want it, how to have it, what it means. David’s description of a book that can so draw us into its story, that we have a sense of being part of it, comes to me in tandem with the description included in a friend’s post of a Schubert lieder, pointing out that the feeling conveyed is so deep, one feels as if alone with the singer in a room.
Because the novel reviewed involves the story of a stolen painting, it reawakens an old curiosity about stories based on art theft! Why should something despicable be interesting? If we had an original Van Gogh, for instance, and someone stole it, we would be crushed and livid! Mine! And, isn’t this what the art thief feels? Mine! Not the thieves who want to sell the art – but the ones who want to keep it.
Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, my teenage years were punctuated by visits to the then free-entry Art Institute. Many a Sunday afternoon, after a weekend saturated with homework, I treated myself to a solitary trip downtown and spent a few hours wandering. Though it was Sunday, and it was downtown, I didn’t really have to dress up. But I did – I was visiting art, and it was important. On entering, I hurried first to pay homage to current favorites, where, ignoring the intrusion of casual gawkers, I stood, or sat, if possible, in front of each painting, gazing, drinking in, to the best of my ability, becoming one with it. I gave to each painting as much time as it seemed to want, before moving on to the next. No one else in the crowd of tourists and Sunday afternoon idlers had the same relationship with any of “my” paintings, I was sure.
It wasn’t enough, but it was what I could get. Though the reality of being left alone in the building overnight and sleeping in front of a beloved painting would have terrified me, I daydreamed about it. I even managed to work the image into a paper assigned for economics class, using it as a supposed metaphor for something or other. No doubt, it was perplexing to the poor teacher trying to follow my logic, and even I can’t justify that stretch of imagination now. The simple yearning for beauty, and for whatever more art represents and conveys, is innate in us. We’re lucky, if we’re artists and can make it. If not, we have to find another way to be close to it.
On the way out of the museum or gallery, we go into the shop and purchase postcard reproductions, little tastes of the big experiences, to take home and pin up, to keep the feeling going. An early acquisition was a postcard of Paul Klee’s “Fish Magic”. In the third grade, we had learned to make paintings by, first coloring a picture with crayons, and then coating the whole paper with paint. The paint adhered to the paper and only spotted the wax of the crayons. My creation was of two leaves, one gold, one red, painted over with a black background, and entitled “Autumn”. When I saw “Fish Magic”, I thought, here was an artist who shared my own technique – well done! The miniature went up on my bedroom bulletin board, where it remained throughout my childhood. The original of “Autumn” hangs in the hallway.
Finally, I have come across a ritual, a perfect experience for appreciating art. I learned that Charles Lang Freer, who donated his vast collection to The Smithsonian Institution, first hung the collection in his Detroit home, where he developed a reverent ceremony for sharing a single work of art with friends. Freer had a specially designed gallery in his home, where he and his friends would assemble near sundown. Served with refreshments, they would all sit, as he brought in a work of art, and remain enjoying it in the light of the setting sun. It was described as an almost metaphysical aesthetic experience! Though this ideal of art appreciation enthralls me, I have learned that it doesn’t speak to everyone. I described it to one of my artist friends, a person who has often complained of feeling undervalued in the world. Expecting her to be as thrilled as I felt, I was stunned when she rejected the idea as sounding like snobbism! “But, wouldn’t you love for people to spend fifteen minutes contemplating one of your paintings?” “No! I wouldn’t look at any painting, even my own, for that long – maybe fifteen seconds! The idea of people sitting around drinking cocktails,” (Had I said “cocktails”?) “while looking at one work of art, is elitist!”
Noted. Not for everyone. But it still holds great appeal for me. Sitting in the presence of a single work of art, sipping a cup of tea – or, perhaps, a cocktail, now that it has been suggested – as the light fades, is just the right pace for me. I might add some quiet music, if it doesn’t detract. It seems a lovely experience to share with like-minded friends – or, if none surface, just alone in the room, with art.