Some kind neighbours of ours left two tickets to the National Gallery in our mailbox over Christmas. They were to be travelling to the Caribbean and were unable to use them before their 2017 expiry date and they’d hoped we could make good use of them.
Going to the gallery today would not have been high on my list of things to do. We’re in the middle of a deep freeze and I would have been quite content to get our groceries and other miscellaneous supplies for the upcoming New Year’s closures and then spend the rest of the day with my wife reading our books in the living room by the fire. But when someone gives me a gift that compels me to action, well sometimes that’s what it takes to get me to do something I wouldn’t normally consider. It’s an act of duty spurred on by a feeling of gratitude. So out into the cold we went.
I am grateful we did.
Let me state from the outset that I’m not a particularly cultured man. I know a little bit about art but not that much. I’ve been to a few ballets and three or four operas but I’m no sophisticate in that world. I like what I like in classical music but I couldn’t expound with any authority about the different periods or about who influenced whom and some times I might be off by a century with regard to when a particular composer was composing. I’m not bad with jazz but I haven’t dived deep into the Bebop era and some of the fusion/acid stuff makes my ears bleed.
With this in mind, we headed off to the gallery. My wife is much better at this stuff than I am. She took art history courses in university and her parents were always art-aware. She just knows so much more about these things than I do. If I recognize the names of the most famous painters, she knows the specific paintings and can tell you what movement they came from. I know the basic stuff like Impressionism, Cubism, Pointillism, Surrealism…but if I know some of the alphabet, she knows a lot of the words.
There was an exhibit by a Canadian turn-of-the-century painter named Morrice. He’s someone I’d never heard of and I’m not sure why. I very much liked his work. It was a discovery I didn’t know I was looking for or had been missing.
I saw some famous Impressionist stuff, which is generally my favourite. When my wife and I got separated in the gallery and I was on my own, I discovered that I really liked Sisley. When I told my wife this, she said that Sisley had been one of her dad’s favourite.
I still don’t get a lot of the modern stuff. It doesn’t bother me that I don’t get it. If everyone liked everything then in essence no one would like anything any more than anything else. The friction of art appreciation and aesthetic debate would be muted.
More than anything in my experience today I was impressed that over the last five hundred years the core of humanity hasn’t changed all that much. The art has changed, the mediums have changed, the perspectives have changed and our appreciations have changed. But there’s one thing that remains consistent.
Artists have always tried and will continue to try to figure it all out and then attempt to explain it to us. To find truth in our experience. To decode what it is to be human, to be in love, to show humility before God or nature or anything else that continues to mystify us.
As someone who has attempted creative endeavours, however modestly, I can’t help but try to imagine these artists in their studios, on a Tuesday afternoon, with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a cigarette. I try to picture them doing what they were born to do, doing what keeps them up at night or gets them up in the morning. People who may be geniuses in their art but all too human in their lives. People who ate and drank and laughed and cried and felt confident and felt insecure just like the rest of us.
Like anyone else, I’m amazed that I may be privileged enough to be in the same room as a Monet or a Van Gogh or a Picasso or a Matisse. But as I looked at these paintings that were hundreds of years old, I wondered what the artists themselves might think of their day’s work being displayed in a museum eight generations after they took their last breathe. I’d like to think it would be humbling.
Some times when I’m in a museum, I’m less concerned about what I’m looking at than I am awed by when I’m looking at it.
No one lives forever. But the art can. It’s the closest thing to immortality any of us can achieve. It’s genuinely inspiring.