Assuaged at the Accademia

Win recalls: ”I caught the worst flu I’ve ever had on an overnight January flight to Venice. What I thought was epic jet lag all the first day there transformed over the first night into a racking cough, with fever and congestion so severe I woke several times a night for the next week gasping, my mouth sealed shut by dryness and my nose sealed shut by its glutinous opposite.

But I was in Venice, so I had to go out every day. When would I ever be back?

The churches and old public buildings of Venice are cold and dark in January. The great paintings I went to see were veiled by the gloom and my overheated head and body.

Carpaccio, Bellini, Tintoretto… I dropped a series of hundred lira coins in a succession of gray metal boxes in ghostly corners of five hundred year old churches, and with a loud, snapping sound ultra bright flood lights came on for a minute or two, making the masterpieces painted on the walls seem flat and fleeting, because with another snap the lights would go off.

None of them meant anything to me. It was like they were part of a punishment some evil imp had devised in making me ill.  

By the end of the week I felt no better, with only two days remaining. The first of those was even colder than the ones before, and in the afternoon it began to rain, so I went to the Accademia, Venice’s collection of old master art.

The lighting here was constant and kind, the museum almost empty, as the churches had been. But unlike the churches, the emptiness here was comforting, even luxurious, as if the building were a palace
in a dream I had wandered into and had all to myself.

Still the paintings made little impression on me, until I came to one wall on an upper floor.

There were three Giovanni Bellini paintings on one wall. Each showed Mary with Jesus. In one he was a baby in her lap. In another he was a dead body laid across her elderly knees.  

In the third he was a baby again, held between her knees. Mary’s gaze was downcast, in a reverie, but
she wasn’t alone with her child. A bearded St. John the Baptist was to one side of her, sideways and in shadow looking down at the infant, and another saint I couldn’t identify, this one androgynous, was to the other side, looking out at me. The three figures were small in size, but they felt large in scale, because they were taking up almost all the foreground. Behind them white clouds drifted across a distant blue sky over pale blue mountains, while bits of a Renaissance city, walled and castled, peeked out from between their shoulders in the middle distance.

But what moved me was the mood, identical in all three paintings but most intense in the
one with three figures, an atmosphere I’d never felt from a painting before.

Complete calm. Total peace. Loving gentleness. But also privacy almost to the point of isolation, each figure in a deeply interior state, barely conscious, if at all, of each other’s presence.Yet it felt as if I were with them, and they were with me. I was flooded by a sense of connection and loss at the same time. They were comforting me, but they didn’t know I existed. I felt lifted up. My spirit floated out and filled the air around me, mingling with theirs, and the four of us (Jesus looked a little too young to join the séance) stayed there for what is still the deepest and richest experience I’ve had with art.”

Giovanni Bellini
Madonna and Child with St.John the Baptist and a Saint, detail of the background waterside city
oil on panel
54 x 76 cm
Gallerie dell’Accademia

Mothering with Milne

Sara shares: “In April 1942 the Imperial Japanese Army conquered what is now Indonesia—at the time, primarily the large islands of Java and Sumatra. Before World War II, Java and Sumatra were Dutch colonies with large European populations in addition to their indigenous folks. The Japanese took thousands of Dutch and British (plus a few American and Australian) prisoners of war there. They also interned thousands of Dutch and Eurasian civilians: women, children, the elderly.

While civilian internees were not deliberately mistreated to the extent that former combatants were, resources were scarce and deprivation rampant. Internee camps organized educational and entertainment programming, but life was at best dull and at worst a constant struggle to stave off filth, disease, and starvation. Read or watch Empire of the Sun for a taste of an internee child’s life.

In the midst of this war-within-a-war a brilliantly artistic woman used her skills to ease the lives of others with a delightful text that’s now a classic: A.A. Milne’s When We Were Very Young. Painstakingly she translated into Dutch and illustrated most of the book’s major poems. This beautiful handmade volume is on permanent display at the Imperial War Museum North in Trafford, outside of Manchester, where I was a visitor on June 11, 2015. Sadly, I can’t remember the name of the artist or of the child she made it for, but my impression is that it wasn’t her child—possibly one of a family she’d been tossed next to in a tent.

I circled the IWM’s World War II section several times and kept returning to this book, lump very much in throat. It touched me partly for the story of its origin, partly because my central interest is in the military POWs whose parallel struggle echoes in this poem, and mostly because When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six were staples of my own preschool years and ring to my ears in my own mother’s whimsical voice. My mother was with me on that visit. Now I am 38, now she is 70. I pointed to that book, unable to speak, knowing she would understand it regardless of the language. She did, of course.

This is the original poem.


An Intense “L’Italienne”

An anonymous contributor recalls, “I don’t know what came over me that time.
I’d seen her before. Many times over the years.
I sought her out and smiled plenty.
But that day I couldn’t help myself and I couldn’t stop the upwelling.
That’s what it was, a surge from somewhere in my gut up through my chest and finally out through my eyes.
She’s not a beauty, not in the generic way. But beauty isn’t generic anyway – really.
Not generic. But common if you know what to look for, and she is beautiful.
I don’t know why. What exactly is it that moves me?
the color. the brushwork.
(whoops. artspeek. I hate artspeek…)
Decisions he made, like deciding to paint over her shoulder; some color to bring
the background forward and meeting that black streak of her hair.
Can you imagine that hair? Can you imagine the audacity of painting that strange curve over her shoulder (but not really hiding her shoulder?), then?
Decisions like – what to do about her hands? Oh, just leave it, just leave it………
I guess I sort of know why, but not exactly and I’m not getting it over on you, am I?
I get it, and I guess that’s what counts.”

Henri Matisse
The Italian Woman (L’Italienne), 1916
Oil on canvas
45 15/16 x 35 1/4 inches
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
By exchange, 1982
2016 Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Affinity in the African Gallery

Karyn says, “At the ARLIS conference in 2008, we attended a party at the Denver Art Museum, and I started crying in the African Gallery in front of [one of] the exhibit case[s]. Inside the case is a Yoruba sculpture of a deceased twin (an Ibeji) and I felt so sad thinking both of the lost twin and of the remaining one, whose soul the Ibeji is supposed to appease, that I started crying. I think what really got to me was imagining that now, with the Ibeji halfway around the world on another continent in Denver, it might be even harder for the twins to find each other. (Glasses of party wine might also have been involved.) My colleagues were very kind about it, if puzzled!”

Master of the Owu Shango Shrine, Yoruba, Nigeria
Twin figures, Ibeji, (ca. 1850-1925)
Wood, beads; 28.5cm (11.3″)
Denver Art Museum, Native Arts Acquisition Fund
1997.3.1, 1997.3.2.

Dear readers, this is one post where an image and credit info was very hard to find as it does not seem to be available through the Denver Art Museum. The image and collection info were sourced from a dealer’s site rather than my preferred method of sourcing from the institution whose collection the work is in.

Choked Up by Van Gogh

Time for me to share another of my own stories! I’ve got several, so I’ll periodically chime in here. Luckily for you, dear readers, I’m a veritable font of tears in any number of circumstances.

Visiting the new Barnes Museum in 2013, I was delighted to see Van Gogh’s portrait of the postman unexpectedly gazing out at me from the corner of the room. Happy tears welled up in me upon coming face-to-face with one of the paintings I had admired as an art-hungry teenager. Hello, wary man. It’s good to see you again.

Vincent van Gogh
The Postman (Joseph-Étienne Roulin),1889
Oil on canvas
25 7/8 x 21 3/4 in. (65.7 x 55.2 cm)

Riveted by Ross

According to Brenda, “A couple of weeks ago, my spouse and I were in Toronto. Folks had suggested that the Aquarium was a great place to visit so we decided to go by. As soon as I approached the building and heard the Disney/Spielberg music I knew I was in for Aquarium-as-interactive-video-game, complete with a soundtrack that would ‘tell’ me what to feel. So we went to the Art Gallery of Ontario instead.

The AGO has never failed to spark. There is always something and its usually not what you thought would be the thing you came to see. In this case, we went to see Emily Carr but we also went into all the side rooms. That’s how we got to see ‘Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross’.

The photographs of souls young and old going about their day-to-day lives – given that the quotidian in Lodz circ 1940-45 is unspeakable – was heart-shattering. It robs you of speech. Words trivialize the lives, the souls, the hearts, and minds, and delicious energies that were squandered in the name of such utter and complete bullshit: the megalomaniacal overcompensation of one wannabe trading on the hurt feelings of a losing nation after World War One.

When you see Henryk’s shot of 4 chubby little babies in their onesies & with their wriggly little legs and toes and smiles and the mute grief of the woman sitting on the bed beside them there is nothing for
it but to let the anguish out. Being Canadian and all, I didn’t wail. I had to settle for just letting the tears out. There are no words.

(But here comes a trio of perky BFFs…on their way to the next selfie…..that — and the snot beginning to run along with the tears — spurs me into the bathroom for toilet paper.) Because I have to return to these images and witness every face, every look, every gesture.

I am utterly helpless except that I can be here now and see the lives that Henryk Ross immortalized.

Every face is a universe in itself. All I can do is see. No more than that. But no less. I am so grateful for his witness. Remembering now, my heart remains shattered. I can still feel the wail in there, and I won’t forget.”

I highly recommend exploring the full collection of the Lodz Ghetto Photographs over at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s marvelous and moving website, which includes lesson plans for teachers and students, and the opportunity to contribute tags to enrich the metadata around these images.

Henryk Ross
Portrait study of young girl in the ghetto, 1940-44
35 mm cellulose nitrate negative
Frame: 3.4 x 3.7 cm (1 5/16 x 1 7/16 in.)
Gift from Archive of Modern Conflict, 2007

Enraptured by “The Rose”

Sara relates, “Whitney Museum – May 7, 2015. I was standing in front of Jay DeFeo’s The Rose, when a female voice behind me asked if I could step aside so she could take a photo. I turned around and there was a teenage girl wearing a crown of flowers and holding a sparkly pink cellphone, ready to take a Rose photo without me in it. I said sure, and moved to stand back, next to her mother. We started talking while the girl took a number of shots. I told her mother that I have been wanting to see this painting in person for the last fifteen years, ever since I first wrote about it in
graduate school where it directly inspired my own work. The girl, whose name was also Sarah (with an H, Canadian, celebrating her 16th birthday in NYC), joined us and I started my story again, but this time
sharing what I knew about DeFeo and the history of the painting, and how deeply it has inspired me.

In the course of the story, Sarah began to weep, then actively cry. “I don’t know what’s happening to me! I am totally overwhelmed right now! This is all so emotional, and can’t stop crying!!” Amen, sister. I told her I had just spent the last ten minutes crying in the AbEx room, and that maybe that’s just what happens here. For me, crying at the new Whitney came from witnessing a history of American art laid bare, and, as an artist, feeling to be a connected and striving part of that unfolding and open history. I know Sarah and I were not the only ones, either, shedding tears in those new galleries that morning.”

Jay DeFeo
The Rose, 1958-66
Oil with wood and mica on canvas
128 7/8 × 92 1/4 × 11 in. (327.3 × 234.3 × 27.9 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of The Jay DeFeo Trust
and purchase, with funds from the Contemporary Painting and Sculpture
Committee and the Judith Rothschild Foundation
Accession number 95.170

Bewitched by a Bodegón Scene

Larissa shares, “I surprised myself. I am a museum educator and have also taught dozens of college level art history courses covering all periods of art history. I had admired this image by Velasquez in books and in slides. But standing in front the actual painting-seeing its sheer size and the quality and complexity of its composition-for the very first time in person- was such an intense experience. I was caught up in its humanity and its history—this work of a young artist from Seville chronicling the life of the market (a bodegón scene)–it overwhelmed me and brought me to tears something I am not sure has ever happened to me in front of a painting before.

I think it was the beauty of the piece and also my complete gratitude for being able to witness a work that will go back to Scotland and which I will probably never get to see again.”

Diego Velázquez
An Old Woman Cooking Eggs, 1618
Oil on canvas
100.50 x 119.50 cm
National Galleries of Scotland, Purchased with the aid of the Art Fund and a Treasury Grant 1955

Paralyzed by “The Parents”


Miki says, “I saw this I believe at a temporary exhibit at the Museum of Biblical Art. All of the woodblock prints that are a part of this series are incredibly moving, but this one held me captive and paralyzed, with silent tears, for minutes on end. I have never forgotten the feeling of being so struck by this image, and never will.”

Käthe Kollwitz
The Parents (Die Eltern) (plate 3) from War (Krieg), (1921-22, published 1923)
Woodcut from a portfolio of seven woodcuts and one woodcut cover
composition (irreg.): 13 13/16 x 16 3/4″ (35.1 x 42.5 cm); sheet (irreg.): 18 5/8 x 25 11/16″ (47.3 x 65.3 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, Gift of the Arnhold Family in memory of Sigrid Edwards, ©2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
MoMA Number: 470.1992.3

Gobsmacked by Goya

Gooby recalls, “I was in a gallery in Spain, I turned a corner and it was just there.
Goya’s ‘Saturn Devouring his Son’. I’d seen pictures of this painting since I was a child, and was always terrified and fascinated by it.

And all of the sudden, there it was… right in front of me.

I cried like I was meeting a lifelong hero, and it was even more frightening in person than any print could ever give justice. It’s a strange kind of melancholy you get seeing pieces like this, and there is no preparing for it.”

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes
Saturn Devouring His Son, 1820 – 1823
“Mixed technique” on wall (transferred to canvas)
143,5 cm x 81,4 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado