Tag Archives: art history

Signs, Designs, Italy

(for Melinda)
People say that there are no coincidences. I profoundly and purely believe that sometimes. Other times, I think it’s an overly-convenient way of thinking. And sometimes I want to believe it more than others. Sometimes we are looking for signs.

I spent most of August in Italy. I went this time not needing to prove myself in museum knees. Or postcards. Or checked-off lists and well-obeyed itineraries. I went with my friend and daughter and I went to receive the gift of a “victory lap” after a few years promoting my memoir. I went to eat, pray, love. (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

And whether you believe in the power of intention or the manifestation of intention or signs or divine design…I will tell you this: A sculpture followed me. Dare I say stalked me. I started to imagine what it is to have Heaven dance and clap and rejoice in a human’s awakening to a great mysterious power not being at all mysterious. I started to believe in angels.

If you ask a surgeon if you need surgery, that surgeon will likely say yes. If you ask a writer if books are important, he or she will say yes. If you ask an art historian where you could have full frontal and even mystical experiences with art, they might direct you to Italy. If you say you love sculpture, they’ll tell you to go to the Loggia in the Piazza Signoria in Florence. That’s the side of my mind that thinks in overly-convenient thought patterns, justifying what happened this August in Italy. Here’s the other side:

I swear, I didn’t mean to have this happen. I swear I went to eat browned butter and sage ravioli. I swear, I actually don’t pay that much attention to sculpture. I like canvas and paper, ink and paint. The closest to three dimensional that has sung to my heart has been relief sculpture. Not exactly emergent creatures. But not this time.

This time, from Milan, to Florence, to Pietrasanta, I was shoulder to shoulder with every sculpture I encountered. The marble tears. The marble folds in robes and skin. The toes which are all of our toes, wedded to the earth and our pain and loss and fear and consciousness of our non-marble mortality. In museums, piazzas, street corners, and chin-to-the-sky encounters with bell towers, I wept with the collective non-marble We mirrored in the marble We. I saw my whole life in those sculptures. Every emotion like my life flashing before me, like they say about the moments before death. Like they say about no coincidences.

And still, there was one sculpture in particular that followed me. Like it would not let go. Like it had something to tell me.

Michelangelo believed the sculpture was in the marble waiting to be released. He released it. I received it. But this was not Michelangelo. This was Lorenzo Bartolini.

I first saw this sculpture on a plaque on a wall in the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan. It was commissioned by the lady of the house to show her grief after her husband’s death. Its rawness and courage spoke to me. The very expression of what it would be to fully claim your emotional truth…in marble. Its power and its presence were large in its physical absence, as the sculpture was touring in a show in the Accademia in Florence. I bought the postcard to remind me of the power of this sculpture I’d likely not see. I’d put it on my writing desk. I’d look to her powerful emotional choice in my own emotional choices– buoyed by her sadness and yet released in her marble. I promptly forgot the name of the sculptor.

Then a friend arranged for me to go to a private family gallery in Florence. The Romanelli gallery. She thought it was beautiful and full of history—two things I love. She told me little else. I went. I went with my daughter. As the owner of the gallery, the lovely Rubina, was showing me around, I was sorting out my intrigue with the feeling of sacred space, the presence of the place of creation with the place of exhibition, the information she was giving me, the pointing of my daughter’s hand—everything slow motion. I heard and sensed: originally a church. A family of sculptors. Famous. Major museums. Multi generations. 1860. Rodin was friends with Romano Romanelli. They shared the same model, Isadora Duncan. Camille Claudel used to walk in and out of the studio. Rodin. Camille Claudel. Early influencers of my life as an artist. Pilgrimage to the Rodin museum in Paris. Rilke’s home. Rilke. Early influencer of my life as an artist. And there was a bronze of Isadora Duncan in the corner.

And then my daughter pointed with fervor. “There it is!” There was the sculpture that lived at the Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, that was out on tour at the Accademia. Only rough.

“It’s the original plaster,” Rubina told me.

And I replayed her gallery tour. She’d said that after it was a church, it was the studio of a famous sculptor.

“Bartolini,” she said. “There’s a show of his work at the Accademia right now. That sculpture is on exhibit. It’s a portrayal of a woman’s grief.”

“I know,” I said.

“This was his studio. He created that sculpture here. In that room. This is its plaster counterpart.”

I walked in and out of the studio. I tried to feel the flesh behind the marble.

The next day my daughter and I went to the Accademia. Not to see David. I’ve spent hours admiring David. We went to see the grieving woman. Her toes so folded underneath the heft of her body and the heft of her grief. Her head so heartbroken and almost-hopeful. I wept.

How are we released?

How are we held captive?

How are we to receive the legacy of messages? Is Heaven really clapping its hands when we pay attention?

And further, what do I need to learn about grief? That it is made of marble and flesh? That it does not go away? That it is holy? And naked. And even beautiful?

What are our lessons? Who are our teachers? What is right before our very eyes that we cannot see?

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Not Another Coffee Table Book. Munch.

I love this book. I am drawn to books about artists. I want to know how other people, whether they were painters or sculptors or writers, lived the solitary life. Some did it in suffering. Some did not. Munch suffered. I’d like to see the paradigm of the tortured artist shift; to see more artists find freedom in their expression rather than having it beget more pain. It begs the question: does art have to come from pain in the first place? Can’t it come out of love and celebration and receiving the beauty of creation? I do not have the answer and there doesn’t need to be one. I only know that I am better for reading books like this which so deeply bring me along the empathic journey of a man’s passion for his art. With so many stacks of books in my office and nightstand and living room, I find that I need books with visuals. To move out of words and into images. This book is a perfect balance of both. It gives visuals as it gives wisdom. It’s not a coffee table book. It is the work of an art historian who, like certain doctors, has not detatched, but rather has moved further into her subject, if you will. When it comes to art historians, I want them to show me and then tell me what they know, in a language I can understand, as a result of all their years of passion in their field yes, but also as the humans that they are. Thanks to Jay Clarke, I feel like I know Munch now. I have had this book next to my writing desk for the last year. I refer to it often. It helps me to know the heart language of this man, behind his art. And in-so-doing, it helps me to know my own work that much better. It has me ask the question of art and suffering and freedom. We are all better for this sort of intuitive view that Jay Clarke has widened her art historian’s eye to see.

Dr. Jay Clarke is the Manton Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Clark Museum, Williamstown, MA

Maybe you saw the fabulous exhibit which debuted at Chicago’s Art Institute in 2009 and which Ms. Clarke curated. Here is a rave review and very interesting article in The New York Times.

Excerpt: CHICAGO — Society tends to prefer creative types who neatly fit the pigeonhole labeled Other. The artist as solitary, tormented, possibly insane genius is among the most durable staples of the modern imagination. It is also comforting. That’s not me, you can tell yourself. I may not be creative, but at least I’m not crazy.

The modern foundation of this stereotype lies with Vincent van Gogh, but no one gave it more definition than the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944). It is the ambition of “Becoming Edvard Munch: Influence, Anxiety and Myth,” a thrilling exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, to upend or at least balance Munch’s famous persona, which he himself helped shape, with a more realistic portrayal. Munch’s well-known suffering began with a childhood scarred by poverty and the deaths from tuberculosis of his mother and a beloved sister, Sophie; was made harsher by the religious fervor of a stern father; and was mitigated by precocious talent and the encouragement of a loving aunt. There followed early and repeated disappointments in love; recurring illness of several varieties; debilitating melancholia and bouts of paranoia; another sister committed to a mental asylum. His alcoholism didn’t help. Perhaps fittingly Munch’s most emblematic image, “The Scream,” with its hallucinatory sky and shrieking button face, was vandalized early on with delicately scrawled graffiti that reads in Norwegian, “Could only have been painted by a madman.”
Read more at The New York Times

Click here to read an illuminating interview with Jay Clarke.


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