The National Gallery. She sat heavily on the bench, gazing at Seurat’s painting, the working class bathing quietly by the Seine. Anonymous faces. She too, belonged to that kind of incognito world.
Cruising in front of her eyes, visitors gazed at the painting for brief intervals, and soon moved on. And for some moments they robbed her of the totality of the scene. She took those periods of obstruction to notice details on the areas she could only glimpse between the back of the moving silhouettes of visitors. She could then contemplate sober contours, clear colours, figures deprived, in themselves of inner life, and in the whole composition, deprived of movement, lazily laying on the grass, silent, no eye contact, almost dead. That was it: workers were like dead, when they were not at their tasks. They may gather with their own folk, they don’t belong to each other or seem to find any purpose into their leave, they just stay there. They just are. No further claim.
She half closed her eyes, and let a faded sigh come out from her mouth, the discoloured lips open a few millimetres apart showing in the crevasses of the flesh, badly covered by light lipstick, a posted bar code of age.
Young Asians, fresh Japanese summer students, wondering in front of the frames, moving, in her understanding, too fast to appreciate the masterpieces, to capture the magic, not a hint of a question on those eyes, the eyes she believed should be “slit” shaped in concentration, but here round as freshly collected nuts, relaxed, unaffected, untouched. One has to flicker when in the presence of these holy treasures, she muttered. The face expresses the effort to understand, to absorb, the journey to meet the artist’s …what? Message? These visitors were as inexpressive as the figures in the painting. They were part of the statistics of visitors of the venue. But this is no place for figures, numbers, in art. She had encountered a few of those student types in the gift shop. They perused books. The pictures of those works were in the books, may be on CD’s. to digest at home but here, in front of her own, and their own eyes, were the originals. The true colours. The 3D of brush strokes.
She had stood up and slowly moved half circle around the room, pausing in front of her favourite choices: sunflowers, lilies, water lilies, ballet dancers. Letting the artificial light of the room expose the crevasses of the oil paint, the infinitesimal bas relief of juxtaposed layers of dried paint.
Takes time to digest a painting. It is an act of love. And as in physical love, takes time to reach the peak of a crescendo, to get the final ecstasy. And it becomes a recurring climax whenever one comes to be again in the presence of the beloved piece. Simple as that. For her.
She started to compare the rush tourists to visitors to a brothel. Get it over and move on. Tick the case that you have been there, seen it, and get the postcard to prove it.
She knew she was being unfair. She lived close to the best museums and art galleries in the world. This is an art capital, as important as Paris. Filled with French masters, too. And the visitors, some would be like herself, returning again and again, unsatisfied, always thirsty for more.
She could never get over the beauty of those canvasses. Her eyes made love to the paintings, always looking deeper, going deeper, exploiting their textures as a passionate lover engages with the beloved.
These later years she kept coming back, looking again and again at the same images, feeling bathed in beauty, connecting with the passions, doubts, impulses, of those that were no longer alive, but could still provoke so much.
“May the gods, whoever they are, always protect these spaces”, she prayed silently. This is beauty for the public eye. Art is mankind’s property, can’t be hidden away in the storage salons of private buccaneers.
She took another tour of the room. The eyes were feeling tired, the legs heavy, the breathing painstaking. Still the mind was battling to keep her going,, imperative, obstinate. The present is too imperative to postpone. She paused in front of a Van Gogh chair. No one sitting on it, but the objects on that seat were in themselves a manly presence. The upright rectangle of the canvas was full of life. The yellow came into the composition the way the sun brightens the day.
Next to it, the green of grass blades painted by the same hands. Life is green too. Same life, two readings.
She sat again. Next to her, a gentleman, with a suit and tie, the hair carefully brushed backwards, falling half way from the skull to his collar. Another breed of visitor-ship. Not a painter. May be a dealer or simply another art admirer. Like herself. But, ah, she wouldn’t dress formally to visit a museum. Or even a gallery. She would come in dungarees, jeans, trainers or sandals. Flip flops however were out of question. That would be too low for the place.
Then she moved on to Degas. The ballerinas, bent, the movement on the lines of the composition pointing northwest, top right, emerging from the foggy frou-frou of light white ballet skirts and stockings.
There is almost always a direction in the figures of a painting. Humans are rarely fully upright – even in portraits. The bending or twisting, the distortions and contortions carry an energy, and we bend with the figures on the direction impressed on them.
Her eyes moved slowly from the bottom left of the composition to land on the top right, brushing with her vision the bodies of the girls.
These French, the impressionists, they had a way to make her see details they hadn’t exposed in the compositions. Yet, her eyes, her mind, could figure the minutiae. Their emotions and her emotions engaging in animated discussion, decades, a century apart.
Now she realized why these guys were great: once one goes into them, one can’t shake them off. The images keep coming to mind, with unabated appetite for more, more and more, more of the same.
Nothing like the images one gets day in day out from advertising, forcing you to salivate and buy. When one buys a product, that’s it. Satisfied, end of grasping. Art keeps you grasping: never, never, satisfies you! You never, never, get enough of it.
If one buys a painting and hides “her” away, like a concubine imprisoned in a harem, that is a sort of murder. Or Sleeping Beauty in a forest.. Art has to have access for the public. So that anyone can fall in love and become an art lover. The difference between man and beast.
And yet, she hated the Renaissance. The colours were ok, paintings with huge dark areas, she considered most of them a fraud. Cover the whole bloody paint, all of it, say something if you have something to say, she had shouted mentally in front of some Romantics. And those saints, their squint eyes trying to radar some deity above the clouds, pure rubbish, she muttered. Religious art is a contradiction..
And she disliked the romantics, too. Those distorted landscapes of doom. Gave her shrills of horror when she had to pass through the rooms of those brownies, as she nicknamed them.
She couldn’t paint. As much as she came to love paintings, she couldn’t draw or use colours in any forms that could convince her. The same with music. She had her favourites, but couldn’t even read the lines of a score. Illiterate!.
But, in front of those canvasses, dissecting mentally the scenes, she started to have a hint at snow and water. It was a start of understanding for her. Snow and water. “They paint the white and then the shades over, we see colour of snow, movements of water in lakes and rivers, the shapes the breeze brings as dunes of water in constant movement.. She was surprised. It was magic. To decode instantly those puzzles of strokes into H2O, liquid or frozen. To perceive the flow, almost like to feel the breeze on bent leaves, or the air sustaining the wings of birds caught in plain flight.
She remembered visiting an exposition of Frida Kahlo, a few years earlier, when she got so confused with those images. The pain was visible. There was too much pain expressed. But then, the still life. Those open fruits full of sexual innuendos, the mixture of symbols on the background, the barely coded messages for the viewer to decipher, sometimes the lines too infantile, suddenly an kind of unexpected maturity.
Art was coming to grace her later years, when light starts fading, mind drops many pursuits that that no longer matter, and time has to be filled with little islands of purpose, rich and dense as gold.
She walked out, and slowly made her way to the coffee shop. She struggled to pas through people, for her eyes were still filled with the images she had been studying for the last couple of hours. They were flowing through her mind like the colours that put movement on the waters painted on dry canvasses, the clouds flying above the skies, the birds floating, wings wide open, an illusion of movement, the illusion of life captured the way that photos can’t reach. She should learn how to paint, to mix colours. She lacked the techniques. Like some strange illness when one can breathe in but not breath out, spectator, not creator. And she pulled out her note book, this note book, and started scribbling. The pen was her brush, the words were her colours, the verbs were the wind and waters flowing, the metaphors the hidden messages waiting to be deciphered, the details were adverbs, the….she got it suddenly, she could transmit her own soul by words, words, words.