Once my brother Sean told me about a painting he “liked to visit” at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. A Jackson Pollock. I guess it must have been “Number 10,” . To visit a painting, like Rilke visited Cezanne, means to really spend time with it, and to learn how to see, how to look.
Yesterday I decided that I wanted to go find a painting to have a relationship with. When I say relationship, I don’t mean it like those crazy people I hear about on Howard Stern who declare their deep romantic attachments to Ferris Wheels, bridges, bows and arrows, and a host of very public monuments (if you’d like to learn more about these very “alternative” relationships, you can watch a documentary called “Married to the Eiffel Tower” ).
I just wanted a painting I could visit and study and get to know. The hunt for such a painting would be interesting even if I never found a canvas I could “settle down with.”
The closest museum to me is the sedate and manageable Norton Simon in Pasadena. I don’t mean to make it sound like a nursing home. There are lots of exciting paintings there and a beautiful pond outside. It’s just that if I don’t wear the right shoes to a museum, my feet ache after one hour, and even though the Getty Center has comfortable places to recline in the galleries, it can feel overwhelming.
One of Norton Simon’s most well-known paintings is Van Gogh’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.” I had seen it for the first time last year. It seems like famous pictures are either way smaller in person or monumental in a way that completely alters your conception of them–I felt that way when I saw Rousseau’s paintings for the first time. The Van Gogh picture is fairly small (16 X 12 3/4), but alive and electric as so many of his paintings are, and green—strange sickly green. According to the refreshingly direct wall text:
“By the autumn of 1888, Vincent van Gogh had settled into his Yellow House in Arles, and at the end of October he would welcome Paul Gauguin in what he hoped would become an artist’s collective—a “Studio of the South.” Portraits were on the Dutchman’s mind, as not only had he exchanged self-portraits with Gauguin, Émile Bernard and Charles Laval that same month, but he had also set out to complete a series of family portraits. According to van Gogh’s letters to his brother, Theo, this portrait of their mother was based upon a black-and-white photograph. Of the portrait, the artist wrote, “I am doing a portrait of Mother for myself. I cannot stand the colorless photograph, and I am trying to do one in a harmony of color, as I see her in my memory.” Despite his intent to liven up her visage with his palette, van Gogh created a nearly monochromatic version—in a pallid, unnatural green. Nevertheless, this preeminent figure in the artist’s life sits attentive and proud—a model of middle-class respectability.”
I sat on a bench in front of the picture, feeling annoyed when other patrons crowded around MY painting. When they’d dispersed, I moved in for a closer look. What I love about her green flesh is that while it is so potentially alienating, the color of living death, the overall impression of the picture is one of presence, as the museum put it: “attentiveness.”
Maybe I could become more alive by meditating on the face of Van Gogh’s mother.
The dark green background and the pale green portrait reminded me of Blake’s poem “The Nurse’s Song” from Songs of Experience:
When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind,
My face turns green and pale.
Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise,
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.
Oh the levels of green! The green where the children play, the implied green of youthful inexperience, (light green–light in shade and weight) the pale green of the nurse’s face comes with a certain kind of remembering–a dawning sense of mortality and dread…and I think of Van Gogh telling Theo that he wanted to paint a portrait of his mother in harmony of color, as he saw her in his memory. What is the color of memory? Does it vary depending on the thing remembered? I used to imagine my mother’s past in black and white while the life she led with me unfolded in color.
I decided to see what other paintings were around. Manet’s Ragpicker is impressive dominates an entire room. His pants seem romanticized, (only one tear), but his hands tell the truth. The Ragpicker also avoids eye contact with the viewer. He seems to peer down some unseen side street, as if assessing a promising, glittering heap of junk.
In her portrait, Madame Manet, the painter’s wife, looked serene, but distracted.
Matisse’s “Nude on a Sofa” possessed the unsettling stare of a murder victim posed as a an artist’s model. But I liked her mismatched nipples and that the hair on one armpit seemed bushy and full, while the other armpit was just growing in.
I also admired the pocket mirror-sized Goya portrait, and Zurbaran’s St. Francis, whose brown robe matched the skull precariously tipped beneath his praying hands. I even saw two paintings featuring female satyrs ( a first for me).
But no picture had the magnetic draw of the kind and glowing Mrs. Van Gogh.
The best plan is probably to find a few pictures (or sculptures or…) in each museum, each piece designed to elicit contemplation or agitation, reverie or possibility and go visit them depending on your mood. Plan a visit. Or show up unannounced. Pick a popular painting and eavesdrop on the conversation it inspires. Make a pilgrimage to the museum on an unlikely day, when the sun is shining and everyone else is playing Frisbee or going to the beach. Sit alone and look at the painting. When you get tired or restless, keep sitting. Push past boredom. See if the painting dissolves or resolves into something else. Notice what the picture causes you to remember. See what it allows you to forget.
Portrait of the artist’s mother (Photo credit: Wikipedia)