Friday, February 3, 2012

Starry Starry Fright

I went to the Frist Museum with my dad about a year ago. I love art museums. I love museums in general, for so many reasons I can't begin to describe. The smell, the air, the carries the feeling of great libraries and old churches. Something is there that opens the senses and brightens the mind.

The main exhibit at the time was called The Birth of Impressionism. We looked at the works of Manet and Monet, Renoir and Cezanne, Pissarro and Degas, and many other names that are now synonymous with the Paris Salon in 1860-1870s. One doesn't have to look far to find a work by one of these artistic masters in pop culture. Mugs abound with the very familiar faces of Monet's water lilies. Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' can be seen in poster form on cafe walls. The works of the Impressionists have recently become so 'in' that they are 'out' with many an art aficionado.

I love art enough to appreciate it, ponder it, cherish it. But I'm not in the art world, have no talent for anything artistic, and know only of the pieces that my art degreed sister or my Alf look-alike college art teacher have informed me of. Therefore, I was free to love and appreciate the exhibit in a manner that some would have scoffed as too banal.

I don't care of Monet has become the Starbucks of the art world. There is nothing like standing in front of something that he actually made. His paintbrush paused over this very canvas, waiting to tease the shadow out of his genius. It is amazing, observing someone else's creation. You feel as if you are looking into something very secret. You are part of it, but you are still kept at a distance. It is wildly intimate and yet still mysterious.

I had the immense good fortune to visit The Louvre several years ago with that same art degreed sister. We visited with our cousin and good friend, and spent what felt like several days meandering the plush hallways of the ancient palace. Medieval painting here, ancient Greek sculpture there, modern cubism here and felt like walking through a dream sequence. Not in the sense that it was a dream come true, though it was. I mean to say that it felt like the collective artistry created a billowing fog that overwhelmed my spirit. It was a bit like forming my own dream as I walked from one small room to another.

Luckily for me and my over-dramatic feelings, we ran smack into a group of French high school boys who were snorting at the famous painting of two ladies, one oddly pinching the other's nipple. I won't pretend that I didn't have to bite the insides of my cheeks not to follow suit. Art or no, nipple tweaking is some funny stuff.

What always interests me is the history of the thing. The story of why something was painted or what the sculptor was like is what jumps out more than the technique. In most cases, art has been a thankless profession. Artists are generally 'before their time', but the public doesn't agree on this label until the artist is dead in a pauper's grave. Artists in many fields, not just the creative arts, are given the immense task of describing things or depicting events that they can only convey through clay or a brush. They have the stigma of being tortured because, quite frequently, they are. They see the world in a different way. Shapes jump out at them in ways I don't understand. Colors speak to them, maybe even literally. I can only appreciate that sacrifice, because I have the same relationship with words. Whatever 'your' thing is, you experience it very differently from the rest of us.

My cousin in the medical field sees pathogens and medicine in way that makes me reach for my OCD meds. My friend who choreographs dances actually feels the moves, as if the dance is using her body as a medium. My friend who cooks knows spices like old friends. Some go well together, while some create ugly scenes. Yet another friend is a veterinarian, and as crazy as it sounds, probably can talk to animals. There are certain things that we just GET because we KNOW them. Artists have a hard time of it, if their art isn't immediately received. If they have the common misfortune of being progressive, they most likely feel like they aren't contributing anything to society. But they also can't stop painting.

Well, I couldn't help but think about the scandalous history of The Paris Salon. Monet and crew were majorly ridiculed for their artwork. Their colors were imaginary, their scenes soft, their imagery too mundane. Who wants to see a dancer lace her shoes? Why should we want to capture the image of a mother bathing her child?

In a world that was largely filled with grandiose scenes of fables and myths mingling with reality, a canvas filled with lilies was out of place. It had no thought, no depth, and no purpose in the world of art.

Most of the Impressionists were trained artists who could copy and produce the desired art of the time. But they didn't want to. They saw something different. They wanted us to see it too.

I left the exhibit and saw that another, smaller exhibit was upstairs. William Eggleston's photography was on display. I had never heard of him, never seen his work, and have even less knowledge in the area of photography than in painting. But we went upstairs to enjoy another few minutes in the delicious museum air.

His work is interesting. You should look it up. At first I was thinking that I could let my kid loose with a camera and they'd come back with this kind of stuff. Picture of a dirty sign, angry fat man on a bed, hotel room carpet. Seriously? What was this doing in a museum?

With The Paris Salon ringing in my ears, I tried to look at it differently. Here was a modern example of someone seeing things differently. Whether or not I liked it wasn't the point. I could see that the artist was purposeful. He was trying to show me something. Sometimes I saw it. The man on a bed suddenly had a past. He was lonely, his suit was cheaply made, and he was struggling with thoughts I couldn't read. But I was supposed to see this image, and think on it, and do something with the information.

Art has a purpose. Sometimes art has the simple benefit of beauty. We enjoy this kind of art, and there is nothing wrong in it whatsoever. The gilded walls in Versailles' Hall of Mirrors is that kind of rich, beautiful, scrolling beauty that makes the heart glad. But some art is harder to decipher. There are clues, always clues. In medieval times it was the type of objects the person was holding, the cards in their hands or the ribbon on their sleeve. Magnifying glasses show us that the artist hid many secrets, but the kind that are meant to be found. They want us to know their ideas or messages, but only if we have the desire and depth to do so.

It is easy for us to look at a modern painting and dismiss it. It was certainly easy enough for the 1800's Parisians. But I don't want to be one of those. I want to see what the artist has to show me before they, or I, am gone. 

No comments: