Vollard Suite

I made it over to Fort Worth’s duo of Museums: The Kimbell and The Modern. There was a gaudy (and occasionally garish) retrospective on Takashi Murakami on the second floor but on the first, tucked into a side room, was part of Picasso’s Vollard Suite. It’s my favorite of Picasso’s works that I’ve seen. I first stumbled on them in the British Museum. I’m very glad I managed to stumble across them again.

Flûtiste et Jeune Fille au Tambourin, Pablo Picasso, Etching, 1934

An Uncle and A Cousin

Henri Degas and His Niece Lucie Degas / Edgar Degas / Oil on canvas / 1876

Unfortunately the subtleties of this piece aren’t obvious on a screen, but each surface in the picture has its own texture. Also, a reminder that you can see this and every other painting in the Art Institute for free if you are an Illinois resident on Thursday evenings. Or you can tag along with me since, thanks to my parents, I have a membership.

To Organize Delirium

Be an outlaw. Be a hero.
Be an outlaw. Be a hero.

Yesterday I visited the recently opened Hélio Oiticica retrospective. Oiticica was a Brazilian multimedia artist and “the most influential Latin American artist of the post–World War II period,” as the introduction to the exhibit puts it. Most of his work was political and much of the exhibit has an explicitly political message. Che’s familiar face greeted us in the second gallery; the image at left hung on the adjacent wall. 

Not all of it is so serious, though. One section of the exhibit is a recreated beach, complete with sand, birds, and reconstructions of some of the box-like penetrables. Bouncing in the foam pit and trudging barefoot across the installation I felt as if I was transgressing all that I knew about museums. Can I do this? I asked the guard several times. Each time he nodded. Twice he added suggestions: “Feel free to go in there,” he said. 

a penetrable
a penetrable

The most effective piece was one which combined play and politics, one of Oiticica’s signature penetrables. It is built like a maze, but with one path. Every few feet the path is broken by a semi-transparent curtain which one must move through to continue. Each section formed by the curtains in front and behind has its own multicolored light-source and a television blaring contemporary advertisements. The curtains block both light and sound, so the transition between sections is as complete as stepping across the threshold of one store to enter another in a mall. The total effect is disorienting. At the end of the maze is one final surprise, engaging one of the remaining senses. But I won’t spoil it. You’ll have to taste for yourself.

Another Crucifixion

I spent half a day in Cleveland recently and I’m very glad part of the time was spent at the (free) Cleveland Museum of Art. The Italian Renaissance room, in particular, was wonderful. On one side were paintings in which the human form appeared bright and idealized. On the opposing were more naturalistic paintings and in the center was this one by Caravaggio.

It’s readily apparent that this is not a depiction of Christ’s crucifixion–the rope on the subject’s arms and his age suggest another crucifixion. I wasn’t familiar enough with Church tradition to identify this as St. Andrew but the description remedied my ignorance. Perhaps because I’m much more familiar with scenes of Christ’s crucifixion, as I looked at this painting I kept comparing it to those I’d seen before. Similarities and dissimilarities are evident at once. St. Andrew, like Christ, is the focus of the piece, and yet one senses that the true center lies outside the frame, as his eyes and the light on the right suggest. In both there is contorted flesh but blood is notably absent from this picture. One’s eyes are drawn immediately to St. Andrew’s right side–the spot where Christ was pierced–only to see that it is unharmed. 

Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” As Lent begins I hope to carry this image with me as a reminder that discipleship is loving imitation, and not a replacement, of what Jesus did for us. 

How To See A Painting

Cestello Annunciation / Sandro Boticelli / 1489 / Tempera on Panel

First, go to a museum. Enter a gallery. There should be paintings on the walls; look them over. Are there any that draw your feet closer? Surely there must be at least one. Do not resist — go to it.

Now look. Look at it like you looked at your brother: your unblinking eyes fixed on his, determined not to be the first to look away. The painting is your opponent: treat it accordingly. Document every detail. Note its frame, its size, and its colors. Ask questions of it. Entertain answers to those questions long enough to realize their inadequacy. Look at the painting as though it conceals a secret. Your only weapon is your obstinate attention. Wield it well.

Soon you will realize that you can’t possibly win. The painting has beaten every would-be opponent since its first day in a gallery. And before that it bested the artist, who had stared until she could bear it no more. Prolong your defeat a little longer and look at the painting now as if you were the artist. A single detail hides hours spent painting and scrutinizing and re-painting this portion of the canvas. The painting itself hides a room, where an artist went, day after day, to make what you now see before you. Look with this in mind. As with the artist at the end of a day painting, you will reach a point where your fondness fades and you want to be free from your work.

Look away. Wander around the gallery. The other paintings are worthy of your attention too; give them some. But do not give yourself to them. Flirt, but chastely: they are not yours and you are not theirs. Notice the red in that painting, the way that one looks like a photograph, how the light falls in the gallery. Soon you will be back before your painting. Prolong the separation a bit longer and read the description of your piece.

Now look again. Don’t content yourself with a single vantage point. Like a precious stone, a painting only reveals its full glory when seen from every angle. Move around. Find a point in the gallery where the painting shines its particular light. Stay there. People will start to notice you. Good. Then people will start to notice what you’re looking at. Even better. Stay past when people apologize for walking between you and your painting; stay until they don’t see you anymore, until you become part of the furniture of the gallery, like the guard ropes around the paintings or the guards themselves, unseen until a visitor brushes up against a rope.

You are invisible. Only now can you know what it feels like to be passed over by the hordes, or pointed at and then forgotten. As you stand with your painting, as its fellow, you are now privvy to what was a mystery before. Attention is no longer a weapon to wield, but the hand you extend in friendship. And as with a friend, nothing needs to be done. You can be content to stand in its presence. Before you believed the painting held a secret; now you know that the painting itself is the secret.

Look just a little more. In a few moments you will begin to wonder whether it is you or the painting who is looking. Then, flee!