About Looking (homage to John Berger)
My new year’s resolution: look more closely.
My favorite writer John Berger said: “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the Earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” LOOKING at something, afresh, as though it were the first time we’d seen it, explodes our preconceptions and challenges our assumptions.
This is why I love to travel. Tourism, by definition, places once in unfamiliar surroundings and gives one license to gawk. I’ve just had the enormous privilege of three weeks traveling in Europe, the first such trip since I was in my 20s. As one does, we saw a lot of famous art under very crowded conditions. We jockeyed for position in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch”; squinted to see Van Gogh’s brushstrokes obscured by our own reflections in the glass that now protects the paintings from vandals; mooed and lowed in a great listless herd through the Sistine Chapel. Florence at Christmas was less of a zoo; we had a breathtaking, quiet interview with Michelangelo’s David. And then, at the Uffizi Gallery, a painting of Judith slaying Holofernes slew me.
It’s the image below: painted in 1621 by Artemisia Gentileschi — a name I’d not heard before. I was expecting to be wowed by what I already thought I knew: Caravaggio. But whereas Caravaggio’s version has Judith meekly decapitating Holofernes as though he were a roasted pig, this one at the Uffizi is all violence and brawn. Judith and the other woman have him pinioned by the hair and throat, and he’s fighting for his life as the sword severs his jugular. The spurt of blood, to which this reproduction does no justice, is in the original a great roostertail of crimson gore, worthy of Quentin Tarantino. I thought, who was this painter, and how many people did she arrange to have executed in her studio in order to get the work right?
It turns out that Gentileschi was initially a follower of Caravaggio and a protégée of a guy named Agostino Tassi, who raped her, promised to marry her, and then reneged on the promise. Her family brought charges, and during the trial she was tortured with thumbscrews to “prove her truthfulness”. Tassi was found guilty and sentenced to banishment, but the sentence was never carried out.
In the painting, Gentileschi painted herself as the avenging Judith, and the rapist Tassi as Holofernes. I went into the Uffizi expecting Madonna and Child. I’d come out with Thelma and Louise.
On the While in Florence I caught a nasty cold and spent Christmas in bed. So I made a little drawing, as I often like to do when we’re on vacation when I have time and space to really look at something. When I do, I realize the apples and oranges are not round, but have strange bulbous shapes, and the tassels of a shawl are rarely straight. I especially like trying to draw fabric, in the way light hits the folds.
Berger again: “Whenever the intensity of looking reaches a certain degree, one becomes aware of an equally intense energy coming towards one through whatever it is one is scrutinizing.” That rebounding energy has been described in many ways: the divine, the muse, the light of inspiration. When I look at art, I try to find, in that point of intersection between the artist and the subject, a burst of energy, like the green flash at the end of a sunset. That’s where the painting comes alive. It’s usually in the eyes of a person, a face. It happened in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where I got tired of crowding around the Rembrandts and Vermeers and instead focused on some small portraits by Jan Steen. One, the “Baker Oostwaert and his Wife”, filled me with simple, openhearted joy.
On my return to the States, I became immediately sucked back into the vortex of the known. Work obligations and household tasks stacked like unwashed dinner plates. Shrapnel from Trump’s latest detonation hit close to my heart. By yesterday I had careened back into seeing exactly what I expected to see. A Facebook row with a conservative friend was turning sharp – and before turning out the light I sent a last reply, calling him racist and ignorant, hesitated, and then punched post.
But this morning the New York Times gave me a little buried gift in this quote from Georgia O’Keefe: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see it takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” I opened Facebook to see that my friend had amended the words that had sent me over the edge, and I amended mine in return. He’s a hard friend to have, given the gulf between us. I haven’t really seen him yet. But maybe this year, if I look harder, I will.