The secret of art, what might be called the caprice of art, invokes beauty through mystery. You’ll find it in the wonderful, daily imaginings Jenna and Masha have written about this week. Jenna describes growing up an artist’s daughter, and the attentiveness to beauty that taught her:
Art never seems far from me now. It’s in bookshelves and arias, dreams of gardening, and in wondering whether I can cut and hem my red and gold curtains to fit our new living room windows.
Masha replies in kind, describing with her usual grace ‘the rich art that comes from the happy soul’ and ‘the art of living well.’ For both my compatriots, art flows in to embrace and create and arise from life. The art of living well is transfusing the idiosyncrasies of our days into beautiful things.
My own impression of art is rather different. I see beauty in these words, and see the wonder and mystery of these entrancing rituals of the everyday, but living well and art itself remain distinct for me. I don’t know why.
But the word ‘Art’ brings me to Trafalgar Square, the long, crowded stair up to the National Gallery. You’ll find, if you read my writings about writing, that when I talk about art, I talk about paints and lines and canvas and stone. Art, for me, is visual art. And this day when I’m climbing the stairs up to the Gallery is a large portion of why.
I spent the whole day in the Gallery. It was the reason I was in London. Some years earlier, I’d had all of three hours to seeeverythingtherewastoseenowgetbacktothebus. And always regretted it. I’d seen the Van Dyck, of course (how could you miss it?) but breezed by Rubens with cavalier ignorance, and completely ignored the early Picasso. So when I had a chance to spend a day doing nothing but wander round the National Gallery, I took it. And I did.
There’s a notebook somewhere—on one of these bookshelves—with pages of my reflections on individual works of art. When you spend the day in the Gallery, first you must see everything. Wander from room to room and feel the change in depth and texture, moving effortlessly between centuries as the flat gold of heaven becomes the sensuous landscapes of Italy into the bold fragments of the Modern. But then you must return, and sit with pictures that have spoken to you, drawn you in—sit with them and spend time getting to know them as you would a friend.
I spent some time near the Van Gogh collection. The forceful sensitivity of the man is overwhelming. But before you envision me sitting in calm, intellectual contemplation of Sunflowers, I need to explain it wasn’t very contemplative. Sunflowers is on the ‘10 Paintings to See While You’re Here’ guide provided by the Gallery.
There was a queue. People chattered and shouted and crowded and laughed. Parents flipped through maps to find the next of the 10 to See whilst the children ran in impatient circles. I had a vague sense that I was in an art exhibit but everyone else was in Central Station. So I looked at some Renoirs on the opposite wall till I could nip over to Sunflowers before the next train.
Then I wandered across the building to the Leonardo. There are few sights more arresting than rounding a corner and seeing Lady of the Rocks at the end of the hall. I sat before the mystery of that image for a long while. But it wasn’t until I was nearly ready to go that I realised Lady of the Rocks was one of the 10-to-See, too.
Most of the same people rushing round the Van Gogh came in to see the Leonardo while I was there. There were occasional queues. People consulted maps and children fidgeted. Yet the room surrounding the painting was filled with a great, awed silence. The crowd bustled in whispers and moved with more reverence than I’ve seen in some cathedrals. Where Van Gogh had invited his viewers to laughter and delight, to friendship and the noisy business of life, Leonardo drew his viewers into the secret place of wonder, “where all that is not music is silence.”
The story is told of a visitor to the desert monasteries. He went first to see Abba Arsenius, who, after his custom, sat in silent contemplation. The visitor first grew bored and then grew uncomfortable, so he left. He then went to Abba Moses, who welcomed him and offered him food and conversation.
One of the brothers observed the visit, and the more he watched the more puzzled he became. Abba Arsenius and Abba Moses were both kind and holy men, yet the visitor spoke more highly of the one than the other. So the brother took the matter to prayer. That night he had a dream.
Two boats drifted along the Nile. In one sat Abba Arsenius and the Holy Spirit, in profound silence. In the other, Abba Moses sat with the angels of God, and they were eating honeycakes.