Friday finally rolled around.
It was hard week. The Kant seminars never seemed to end. After lunch, after a session of French translation, around 2:30 pm, I made a bee-line to my dorm room in Pinckney Hall. I dropped my books off, grabbed a sketchbook and a bottle of water, and headed to the DC Metro station. A bus would take me to the New Carrolton train station near Annapolis, Maryland. From there, off to the heart of DC, the mall, and the National Gallery of Art.
I used to travel to DC with my family when I was kid, having grown up not too far away in south central Pennsylvania. We always hit every major museum in one day, seeing about 120 paintings, several dozen aircraft in the Air and Space museum, thousands of natural objects in the natural museum of history, plus a hundred other things. There comes a point after seeing so many artifacts of all kinds, that it physically starts to hurt, to ache. Your eyes, your lips even, start to ache.
My experience of museums was always dominated by the ethos of taking as much in as you can, until you are just too weary to go on.
The same ethos, I would discover, dominates our reading of books – whether in the colleges that still read books, or in post-college reading groups. Value seems to be measured by how many pages and how many books you read, not so much by the quality of your relationship to them.
It’s an odd thing, though, that we feel this way. After all, we don’t dance, to get to the end. We dance, to get in the middle of it. Why the hurry, then, to consume as many books and works of art as possible, or to read one book or look at painting as fast as possible?
But during a certain Spring in Annapolis, as a college student, I would begin to try a different approach. And it forever changed the way I related both to museums and to the reading of great books.
Here I was, living in Annapolis, in my third year in college, so close to these treasures in the National Gallery. I could find at least a little time each week, couldn’t I? What if I visited every Friday, after French, for just an hour or so? I could then make it back to dinner, and Friday night lecture.
So I tried it.
And this is how I began to learn how to live with the masters.
And every Friday, I spent time with no more than 2 great paintings. I thought about it like this: like a relationship, like spending time with friend. Yes, I know it’s just a painting and not a person. But the more time you spend with these works – whether great paintings or great books – you find yourself seeing more and more, capable of reflecting on more and more, more than you ever thought possible.
The first painting I learned to live with was Leonard Da Vinci’s haunting portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci.
She doesn’t look very happy, does she? Kind of a downer, really. A little tired. It’s an odd portrait. And that’s why I chose to spend some time with it.
There’s a story here.
You can’t really see the color in the reproduction, but the genuine color of her visage is strange too. It’s pale, but not white. I felt I’ve seen that color before, but I couldn’t place it. After several weeks, visiting on Fridays after French, I finally felt convinced I understood where I’ve seen that color before: the moon. At certain times of the month and at a certain angle, the haunting color of Ginevra de’ Benci is precisely the elusive color of moonlight! Did Leonardo study the color of moonlight for this painting?
The other piece I spent many days with was Rembrandt’s self portrait hanging in the National Gallery, painted in 1659. You always hear things about Rembrandt – his reputation precedes him – so I decided to turn to his work and see what I could see.
I would spend a whole hour just hanging about, looking at the painting, asking questions of what I was seeing (or what I thought I was seeing). I would use my sketchbook to write or draw in to help keep track of my thoughts.
Sometimes nothing at all would come to me. But I’d stay anyway.
I noticed how floods of people would come in and out of the little room where it was hanging. Most would pause for less than a minute to look at the painting. Many more came to see Rembrandt than Ginevra de’ Benci.
Almost without exception, visitors would spend a lot more time reading the historical placard next to the painting, than actually looking at the painting itself – and then they would move on to the next painting, or leave the room.
I too had been one of those masses flowing in and out of the galleries.
But not today.
The painting quietly looked on as hundreds of people passed, barely stopping to notice.
In the art of portraiture, one of the things that you can notice – if you take the time to look – is what the hands are doing.
Pay attention to the relationship between the hands and the visage of the sitter. What are the hands doing? What are they holding? Or how are they resting (or not resting)? Very often a great portrait will give you little clues about the person’s character through their hands. Are they folded in the lap? (Are there hands at all? The frame of Ginevra de’ Benci does not include her hands. What could this say about the work?)
Hands folded on a lap could suggest a certain contentment in the sitter. Unless the hands are held tensely, as you could see by their position. A hand-wringing posture could suggest some sort of inner turmoil, a clue to the mental state of the sitter. Or are the hands positioned in a more active way, suggesting the character of a more active sitter?
In this portrait by Rembrandt the hands are muffled, muted, practically non-existent. And they look almost like they are gripping each other tensely.
You can sort of see that they are folded, but it’s almost like he took very little interest in them – which is unusual when you compare this to other great portraits, or self-portraits.
But they are there, nonetheless, in the frame of his self-portrait.
The placard next to it (yes, I read it finally after seeing a hundred people read it) mentioned nothing about the obscuring of the hands, which strikes the viewer as deliberate. Someone whose interaction is mediated primarily through these placards, might miss this detail entirely. So one has to ask of the painting – why are the hands obscured? or what does this tell us about Rembrandt’s depiction of himself? What clues does this give us about the man? What difference does this make?
Sometimes questions are more powerful in the opening and asking than the answering. Instead of snatching at the easy answer or the ready definition (and reading more placards), by taking the time to look, one could slowly gather material that leads toward answers.
Some questions you ask the painting or the book, and you let them speak for themselves, in their own way.
Whatever else you are left with after time spent living with this Rembrandt self-portrait, you are left with an impression of total, complete, intensity, focused on the eyes and around the eyes, that makes this portrait unsettling. It is disarming to be near it.
Looking at the painting is like you are being let into a secret, but a secret you are not sure you want. Perhaps this is why most people don’t stay with it for very long. Do they sense somehow that the painting could make demands on them they don’t want? But if this is true, they are demands that call us into much needed reflections about ourselves and about the whole of life, that makes it worthwhile living with for a time.
This Friday visit to the National Gallery taught me how to slow down and look. I would return to my life at St. John’s College, where we read a hundred authors aver 4 years – a whirlwind tour of the greats from the Greeks down to recent times. We lived with these books too, but there was no earthly way to master any of the material in so short a time. It was like going on museum visit and seeing 100 paintings in 2 hours.
With this experience of slow seeing at the National Gallery, and also the experience of participating in a little study group I did with a tutor on the Plato’s Theaetetus, I would rediscover a few years later, with friends and colleagues after graduating, the magic of slow reading, the magic of living with the greats.
Great works of arts and great books (also works of art, of a different kind) are gifts of time. They are not course content. May we use these gifts to slow down and help bring us a certain measure of healing of mind and heart in our Age of Disruption.