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New Paintings, New Worlds

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A reflection on our recent trip to the Paris museums with the Marchutz School. Pictures here. 

“How are they ever going to go to Africa if they can’t look at a painting?” John said one night in Giverny, bemoaning the study-abroad trend of sending students far-off, exotic and/or developing countries. “It’s the same thing!”

Putting aside the fact that Africa is not one place but many, and putting aside the obvious difference between spending a month, say, at a Maasai reserve on the Serengeti and spending a week in the bourgeoise setting of a Paris museum, he did have a point. The task of standing for two hours before a great painting – as fast-walking camera-clad tourists pass like zombies around you – takes surprising level of patience, curiosity, openness and mental exertion. If you give a work of art the attention it demands, it can alter and deepen the way you perceive everything. It can open your eyes to different realities, and in that way the act of looking at paintings has something important in common with foreign travel. But in other ways, it teaches us things that experience alone may lack.

This is how it worked: in about two hours, we’d proceed from our most basic observations of colors and values, discerning connections between the water jugs and women, the distant blue waves and the man’s melancholy expression until we arrived at the perception of some of the most enduring and intangible mysteries of existence. In front of Daumier’s Don Quixote and the Dead Mule, for instance, we beheld life confronted with death, and the tension and marriage of opposites – one lofty, ambitious and on guard, the other naive and earth-bound – that are essential to life. At Monet’s Water Lilies at the Orangerie we observed the relationship of the artist’s long, immersive canvases to the architecture, discovering a vision of eternity – of circular forms and clouds and lilies rising up from the surface into the atmosphere – within the horizontal plane of time.

We all saw and learned things that may well live on in the studio and in the art history classroom. I, for one, had it nailed into my brain how the form of each stroke, each color relates to every other stroke and color in service of a painting’s content. But more important that in the academic sphere was how that habit of looking seeped into the rest of our lives. Exiting the door of the Orangerie and walking out onto the Paris streets one evening, I noticed more. I noticed the proximity of the violet sky to the city buildings and the beggar with the melancholy expression a la Dr. Gachet. I considered the fast flow of traffic around the still, historic, monuments and the American Christmas music pumping from the frenzied Champs Elysees holiday market. I considered the underlying forces – artistic, moral and ideological – that made the city what it is.

Which brings me back to John’s comment. In comparing looking at paintings to traveling to some specific location on the vast African continent, he made the point that it doesn’t mean much to simply go somewhere if the traveler doesn’t open herself up to what she is seeing. Paintings – with the help of professors who recognize their intrinsic value – can teach us that. To see anything worthwhile in a painting requires that we open our minds and eyes to the reality of what is framed before us, however new and unsettling, and to pursue our observations about it through to their end.

In comparing art to travel, John also suggested something about the shared value of the two. After all, we aren’t just Americans looking at paintings but Americans in France looking at paintings. That strange configuration of strokes and colors that is a work of art may be less immersive than that distinctive smell, buildings, land and half-comprehensible jabber that make up a foreigner’s experience of a foreign country, but it demands no less of a person’s attention. Beyond that, the acts of travel and looking at paintings serve a similar function: to confront and deepen our habitual ways of seeing with new visions of this world we’re in. Which is to say there’s some necessity in seeking out unfamiliar territory. That 16 by 22 inch canvas included.

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