With seminary class on break and Trevor in Canada for a few weeks, I find myself with large blocks of time to fill. I’d been thinking of going to the National Art Gallery downtown for a while, but decided today was the day. It always amazes me what an afternoon with art does to me, and today was no exception. I learn something new every time.
This trip made me think a lot about portraits and how they really were yesterday’s photographs. There are a large number of portraits in the collection over several hundred years. What really got to me were the awkward ones, the ones where the subject has a slightly pained expression as if they’d really rather not have someone capturing them on canvas for all to see. I know that feeling. It’s one of the reasons I like being behind the camera rather than in front of it. Because when I don’t have to see someone else’s version of me I can pretend to be okay with the way I look for the most part. But somehow another’s perception and capture of a moment can be so unfriendly and shatter my self-worth ruthlessly. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I couldn’t help feel sympathy for those people who’ve been immortalized in paint on huge canvases for all to see. I imagine they might be a little horrified to find their image had survived for centuries as awkward as the day it was first completed. And strangely, no one bothers to wonder if it’s a really true likeness. We’re just amazed at the brushwork and the skill of the artist – the way the skin almost breathes with life under the ancient varnish and the eyes reach right into your soul. Doesn’t seem fair somehow.
That got me thinking about photoshop and how artists back then must have been tempted sometimes for the health of their career to tweak a few elements of their client’s appearance. Which artists were confident enough in their ability that they refused to lie with paint? Which of the paintings I saw today really look like their subjects and which ones were afforded a measure of generosity instead? We can’t ever really know. Perhaps if the same artist painted the same subject repeatedly over several years it would be possible to get a better idea, but most of the time the artists were hired for a one off so the subject or a family member of the subject could display their wealth in being able to commission a masterpiece. Status polaroids, really, but probably far less painless and instant. These paintings often took months to complete. The subject often had to stand or sit motionless for hours at a time until the artist had enough work done to complete the finishing elements without them. No wonder some of the people looked uncomfortable or unhappy.
I even saw a few selfies. And there’s a remarkable humility to most of the painted selfies. That was interesting. A little different from the selfies of today. But then if you had to stand in the same position looking into a mirror for hours while painting what you saw, it could become a little surreal. The instant nature of today’s selfie seems to have corrupted that a little. People are less self-conscious than perhaps they should be. We have turned ourselves into mobile photobooths with our cellphones.
Good art is just magical. For me it’s proof of our divinity. That ability to create beauty and provoke thoughtful reflection is miraculous. (Of course there are also those weird art exhibits that just seem like a mess waiting for an excuse to be admired by somehow who thinks they’re enlightened, but that’s not worth getting started on.) I can’t help but be transported by the pieces that are a testament to intellect, visual genius, and plain hard work at a chosen craft. I want to see to see the artist’s soul and thought in front of me. I find it amazing that artists could create something more beautiful than any photograph with daubs of paint on a canvas or wood panel. It’s incredible that 1500 years ago people were creating pottery that looks like it was made yesterday. And it’s absolutely thrilling to see iconic, bright brilliant images produced in the last 50 years that are completely unique and oh so smart. I believe good art is like catnip for me. I could wallow in it for hours. It’s a good thing there are security guards all over the place or I might be tempted to run my fingertips over the brushstrokes and textures. I just really like art.
Art reminds me that human beings are amazing and have the capacity to be some much more than that. I think that’s why it’s so addictive for me. And I believe that craftsmanship is art as well. I have been transported by a beautiful building, a striking mosaic, a graceful piece of furniture just as often as I have been by art or music. I think that’s the test for me. If it speaks to my soul and creates a sympathetic response, I know its art. For me anyway. There was a very large piece on the ground level as you enter that was quite remarkable. A large circular pool painted sky blue sat in a raised platform. Assorted sizes of white china bowls floated on the surface, stirred by the recirculation of the pool filter and gently clinking against each other from time to time. Because of the varied sizes, the chiming was random and soft in varied pitch. It was beautiful because it made me feel like more than just a person. It reminded me that I am a being, an intelligence, a work of creation myself. It made me want to pause and think and be grateful I get to be here on this planet with so many other creations. That's the purpose of art. To remind us who we are.