The Passion Of The Rubens

©2005 Marion Pennell

©2005 Marion Pennell

Recently I saw “From Van Gogh to Kandinsky” at the MMFA, and a Cézanne painting of apples and pears brought tears to my eyes.  No sobs, or any other physical affect, but the water welled up so deeply that it spilled over.  I had to blink to clear my vision.  It’s not the first time great art has given me a physical reaction.

Almost ten years ago, “Landscape in Provence” at the MMFA featured many of the same artists as the current show, but it inspired a piece of writing instead. (No, I couldn’t hear them. I could imagine hearing them though.)

Cynthia Asia

Cézanne’s voice was the most intense, the most absorbed in concentration, and she thought the most intellectual. Picasso’s voice was dirty, filthy, leering and calculating. Monet’s voice was light-hearted and musical. And she related best to Van Gogh, because through his voice she could hear the voices he heard, the sun spoke, the fields spoke, and the flowers… the irises, the sunflowers spoke with the full bloom of growth and flowering….. vibrated with the cycle of seed, fertility, maturation, and disintegration to death.

Now that she had refined the ability to discern each voice, to turn off the noise of the competing voices, she loved going to the museum. The first time she heard the voices was at the Landscape in Provence show. It began as white noise, became a loud hiss, then broke into thousands of overlapping voices and sounds. Actually she wasn’t able to distill the noise into voices for quite awhile, and when she heard the cacophony in her head she was sure she must be quite barking mad.

When she calmed down and her anxiety ceased, she “heard” (although not in words, it was hard to describe) lists, nouns at first, place names, colour names, the artist’s name, his family’s and colleague’s and caretaker’s and mistress’s names… that evolved into lists of adjectives… The lists came pouring into her consciousness so fast, like there was no pause from one concept to the next…. ProvencevioletochreMargeuriteFranceriversunshineEmiliebladereflectionscarletcrimsonmagentaTheorooftoptreetopgrasswallAlexandremountaincloudsbridgehilltopumbercharcoaldinnersoupAlbertroadhorizon

She slowed her mind again and the lists started to self-organize, places and their adjectives together, nature and her adjectives together, people and their descriptions together… Simultaneous, yet distinctly separate. How did that work? Now she was intrigued. But she realized she had been standing in the same place for quite some time, and moved into the next room, planted herself facing the only un-peopled Renoir landscape in the room.

In the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is a room of Monets: shimmering haystacks and sun-kissed stone.  I swear there was more oxygen in that room, that my lungs filled bigger than usual.  So much light, and air. We were there to see The Gates in Central Park, and take in the new MOMA, and the Met was an afterthought.

©2005 Marion Pennell

©2005 Marion Pennell

In the early 1990s when NY’s Guggenheim was being expanded, and major works were traveling on exhibition at the MMFA, I turned a corner into a room of large Kandinskys.  That had a physical effect and I had to sit in order to take them in.  My field of vision was so overwhelmed that standing wasn’t really working.

But before that, after getting my BFA, I was fortunate enough to spend the summer in a dozen countries throughout Europe.  The Berlin Wall was still up – I entered through Checkpoint Charlie.  I met The Waterboys in London.  I had a salade Niçoise in Nice, the Dover sole in Normandy, a fondue on a Swiss mountain, and something weird and deep fried offered to me at a bar in Amsterdam. I watched Live Aid on a big screen at Bercy in Paris and fell down and tore the ligaments in my foot while dancing.  There was a terrible earthquake in Mexico City while I was there, and I will always regret not knowing how to comfort the Mexican girl in our hostel (I basically did nothing, which was a jerk-move by omission).  Rock Hudson died.  We talked about AIDS.  Orson Welles died.  We talked about film.  Christo wrapped the Pont Neuf.  We talked about art.  And I went to museums, sculpture gardens, cathedrals, and the preserved studio of Delacroix.  The first time I had a physical reaction to a painting inspired this piece of writing.

I never much cared for religious art. I thought of myself as a fan of modernity, beginning, of course, with the excitement of Cézanne and Manet (the planes! the planes!), and becoming bored with the cult of Pollock and America post WWII (how plain, I complain!). Not complex, merely vexing. I reveled in the Romantics and the Realists and the subject matter of everyday life that REALLY mattered. The real rendered through the personality and ego, and yes, madness, of the artist (Dali! Van Gogh!), and as such, thought my snobbery complete. I could converse and dismiss with the connoisseur or the amateur.

Then I went to Europe.

Paintings I had never seen, but had written B-plus essays about. The sheer size of the canvasses dwarfed by the size and impressiveness of their housings. Marble stairs worn from rectangles to triangles from thousands, no millions, of footsteps. Gold and gilt and gold again. Abstracts of real history, not art history, made real. WWII – no longer a black and white movie, but now bad American 1950’s architecture composing most of Rotterdam, like a leaking bandaid on a wound, designating the location of the bombs and the continuing scars of the destruction.

Buy the postcards of the cathedrals, for each one will be fitted with scaffolding, exoskeletons bracing the elderly bodies, osteoporosis not of bone but of stone.

In Antwerp I entered such a cathedral, and the painting at the altar buckled my knees. I was compelled to sit in awe and wonder for twenty minutes, at least, completely overwhelmed and in a state I had never before encountered.

Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Descent From The Cross” depicts in powerful fashion a group of people removing a broken Christ from the constraints of his execution.

Now, at the time of my tour of Europe, fresh from my graduation with my Baccalaureate, I was only ostensibly, by birth and baptism, a Christian. Such subject matter had no cause to move me. In fact, I generally viewed it with scorn, thinking of the poor artist condemned to repeat Biblical scenes ad nauseam for the only patrons able to pay any kind of commission or wage.

So, it wasn’t the subject matter itself, although my realization was that the subject matter did matter, but not to me, to Mr. Rubens. I could FEEL the depth of his faith. His despair and agony that he may somehow offend God by not getting it right. The balancing act between the sacred and the profane. What if he accepted the money, and it was simply a commercial convenience. No better than thirty pieces of silver from the clergy at hand.

He was WORRIED about this painting. He sweated. He had sleepless nights. He paced. He cursed his own talent. He WORKED. HARD.

Now, many years later, I chanced upon a documentary series that presented the concept of the Quantum Hologram. Subsequent curiousity and research led me to an article by Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, whose article “Nature’s Mind” communicated to me an explanation of the nature of all matter, as created by, well, the Creator of all matter.

What it communicated to me was this: If you are perceptive, or using your perceptive faculties, every object – animate or inanimate – emits information about itself. In the case of inanimate objects, that information includes facts about its creation, and its creator. From this painting, I FELT Peter Paul Rubens’ faith. It wasn’t what the subject matter said to me, it was what the subject matter said to him.

Art needs a relationship with its viewer.  Be a participant, not a spectator. 

At “From Van Gogh to Kandinksy” you immediately see the futility of capturing the colours and luminosity of the canvases when faced with the reproductions in the gift shop.  Dull, flat, and off-colour they seem.  People were walking quickly through the exhibit clicking the paintings on their iPhones.  When they get home, they may as well have looked up the works on the internet.  They didn’t SEE the paintings at all.

©2005 Marion Pennell

©2005 Marion Pennell

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