Taking Time with Art
If we take time with Art, it can (and will) transform us, softening the heart or tweaking the brain gently with new vibrant thoughts. The key is to slow down and to allow what you see to enter your physical being. Breathe - look again - breathe … and notice what you feel inside.
About a week ago I was in need of a serious dose of peacefulness and wellbeing, and I decided to take a trip to San Francisco’s De Young Museum to look at an exhibition of Monet’s late paintings so I might find safety and pleasure all together. My lifetime of looking at art had taught me that it was indeed a refuge to be treasured. There is something almost magical that happens to you when you enter a museum with its perfectly spacious galleries and generous lighting … it is akin to walking into a church where all the elements — the stained glass, the votive candles, crucifixes, the hard wooden pews and incense — invite you to come to rest and find solace in the quiet. And so I marched through the galleries at the De Young to witness the paintings Monet created in the last decades of his life when he took refuge in his humble country estate at Giverny and meditated on the flowers, the lily pond, the Japanese bridge, and the ever changing light.
Monet is an old friend in my life; I’ve been looking at his purple/green/blue/gray and pink impressionistic pieces since I was pretty young, and have noticed that the paintings keep pulling you in each time you return. Close up you see the affectionate and meticulous brush strokes that create the movement of water and plants, and stepping back you feel the enormity of the natural environment: a luminous lily pond where you can see layers below the surface and feel the dampness, and the perky freshness of the lilies. I don’t know who told me that this back and forth viewing of the painting was the best … it feels almost as though Monet with his flowing white beard and dapper fedora stepped up and whispered this into my ear as I stood before the giant “Nympheas” at L’Orangerie in Paris, paintings he gave to his country at the end of World War I … Each time I see these canvasses, I feel compelled to stop, sit down and breathe deeply for a while, reflecting on the generosity of nature and this prodigious artist.
Being a witness to Art can replenish our hearts and calm our agitated psyches. When I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum in New York recently, I came upon two exhibits that felt transformative. One of those was a small show of Dutch paintings, featuring Vermeer, Hals, and Rembrandt. I remember standing in front of a Rembrandt portrait and again being pulled in … to see up close the deep dark tones of his oil paint : the blacks, browns, and ochres … and then there was the stunning gloss of the surface; it was so seductive I could imagine the smell and taste of the paint itself. When I come close, I see the smooth strokes with no bristles apparent, and when I pull back I see the smooth blending of light and shadow, texture and smoothness, and the haunting human face staring back at me from years ago. I am invited in. Another small exhibit featured Italian drawings in the tradition of Leonardo, master draftsman as well as all around genius. The figures in these delicately rendered pictures came alive with a minimum of busyness on the paper. The fine swirling lines in ink, the shading and the cross hatching, all succeeded in making the face of a young man feel palpable, sweet and soft and alive. Stylized as they were, these fine line drawings revealed humanity in their subjects… I walked away with a desire to pick up sketch pad and pencil and begin to draw.
So, I’m imagining sitting around the dining room table with wine and cheese and flickering candle light, and asking these particular artists what all of this means. Why are we so captivated by their work? Why exactly have these men become legendary? What I think they’d say to me about this alchemy they’re responsible for is that it is all about being present with love and tenacity, about forging ahead, knowing you are an integral member of the natural world. None of these works of art could have been produced unless the artist agreed to continue witnessing and belonging to this world. I’m thankful that countless artists over the centuries have stayed this course and countless people now journey to museums all over the world to take a look and receive the gift…
Art’s generosity puts me at ease and makes me feel held... I’ve come home to a safe place, and for the time being beauty (and love) is all that matters.