For the Love of Art
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
Art and the creative imagination of those who create it fascinate me. It was in the early sixties when I first became enthralled by art. As a thirteen-year old Josephite seminarian in Newburgh, New York, I routinely roamed the narrow library stacks, browsing art books. Then, I was particularly attracted to religious themes and natural landscapes. The grim images of the suffering Jesus or the facial expressions of devout men and women in angelic ecstasy enveloped me spiritually. I longed to imitate their unrestrained piety. Among the many religious depictions I most admired were those of the baby Jesus with his mother, Mary. But it was the dark and brooding landscape pantings that impressed me most. Their seductive allure beckoned me to discover hidden secrets within nature’s thick foliage. Beyond the fascination of landscapes, the female body intrigued me. I leafed through those pages, furtively glancing at nudes, my budding puberty awakened.
(Images from the National Galleries in Washington, D.C.)
Now in my seventh decade, I find less appealing the religious artwork of the Grand Old Masters. The posed frozen facial features of their subjects staring blandly from the canvasses are less enticing. Yet there are moments when their stares meet mine that I feel the eerie crawl of goosebumps. Are we subtly communicating with each other? Landscapes, particularly those of the Impressionists, still enthuse me. The artists’ artificial rendering of the natural world makes nature’s bounty and grace alive and tangible. And as for those nudes, I admire the artists’ dexterous and graceful portrayal of the human body.
In my travels, I never pass an opportunity to visit a museum. Even in the smallest village or town, I’ve found magnificent art. A few years ago in the Portland Museum of Art, I stumbled across a Picasso, clearly not a major piece, but nonetheless a Picasso. In the local museum in the small city of Utica, New York, there was a lovely Georgia O’Keeffe equal to any of her works on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, or so it appeared to my novice eyes. Many years ago, I remember being pleasantly surprised by an El Greco in the St. Louis Museum of Art. There are several paintings by John Singer Sargent, one of my most admired portraitists, at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston that are amazingly photographic. Happily, since I spend extended periods in France, there is an abundance of museums for me to indulge my passion for art.
Within the last few weeks in visits first to Chicago and then D.C., Melanie and I spent afternoons at the Art Institute and the National Galleries. In Chicago, we met Melanie’s grand-niece who, taking a respite from her missionary duties in Costa Rica, was spending a few a days in Chicago with friends. Naturally, as we visited with her we strolled through the Impressionist wing, lingering long enough to observe with new eyes the canvasses we’ve seen dozens of time. Particularly interesting, and a singular reason why we all met at the Institute, was the special Rodin exhibit. Ultimately, we wound our way to the Modern Wing. Admittedly, I favor realism over abstraction, but there are many Modern Art canvasses that I find strikingly beautiful in their complexity. A Picasso or Matisse, even a Dali or Braque, can transport me. I have more difficulty though appreciating Rothko or Jackson Pollock. In each of the museums, we observed artists standing or sitting in front of unfinished canvasses imitating one of the masterpieces on display. Apparently, this is an important learning exercise for both neophytes and mature artists. In his book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCulough makes note that artists like John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt did likewise in the Louvre.
(Images from the Art Institute in Chicago)
Primitive art also fascinates me. It is equally as important in my view, as the more sophisticated forms of art. Though it is deceptively simple, it still depicts deep common truths and perspectives. Great artists like Picasso and Gauguin have included primitive themes in their work. Being a native Louisianan, it is not surprising that I like Clementine Hunter’s art. Her work is highly copied and dishonestly promoted as originals. Haitian art with its vibrant colors, also appeals to me. Walking the streets of old San Juan, Puerto Rico, I stumbled across a gathering of Haitian artists in a dilapidated studio. Hearing a soft lyrical French sounding dialect — it was actually Creole — I entered a dimly lit room and began speaking French to them. Before leaving I had purchased a small painting. Many years later, I discovered that Haitian art can be purchased through the Vassar Haiti Project.
My tastes in art have been further nurtured by my university career. I’ve been fortunate to work at universities with first-rate faculty artists. At Xavier, I admired the work of John T. Scott, a sculptor now deceased, whose work is found in many public spaces in New Orleans. Scott’s tortured body of Jesus, twisted pieces of metal suspended on a wooden cross, hangs in our bedroom. There were fine artists on the faculty at Saint Louis and Humboldt universities, but none, in my estimation, equal to the remarkably gifted artists at Indiana University South Bend — Harold Zisla (now deceased), Anthony Droege, Alan Larkin, Ron Monsma, Tuck Langland and Dora Natella, the latter two sculptors. The work of each of these highly lauded artists is in museums and private collections regionally and nationally, and in my view, is of the quality that could be included among the world’s finest museum collections. The impact and importance of their work are chronicled in the book, Fine Arts of the South Bend Region: 1840-2000, by the Wolfson Press of Indiana University South Bend, 2014.
Through my son and daughter-in-law, both MFA graduates in photography from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, I’ve learned to appreciate photography as a high form of artistic endeavor. When I visit museums, I now search for the photography collection. Because of them, I now look at photos and imagine seeing the subjects through the photographer’s eyes wondering what he or she wants the viewer to observe and know. Texture, light and tone have meaning. They are purposeful and not random abstractions. When Paul speaks about his creative process, I listen attentively, intrigued by his explanations of how he approaches photography. I may not fully grasp the complexities of his thought process or his technique, something he calls light chamber exposure, but what I am certain about is my admiration of his creative mind and the way he thinks about art. Found objects and memory play heavily in his manipulation of reality.
Sometimes I dream of what it would be like to have unlimited funds to purchase art. From time to time, I read a newspaper article about a collector who had an eye for a certain kind of art, or of a relatively unknown artist whose collection becomes valuable after several decades. I imagine what it would be like to be such a person. But for the moment, I am content to roam from room to room in our home, admiring the modest collection of art that Melanie and I have been fortunate to acquire.
What I enjoy most about art is discerning the artist’s intent, then surreptitiously harboring sentiments that are mine alone. Such an exercise is akin to an explication de texte of a poem or literary passage. No one can share the same interpretation of and reaction to Monet’s waterlilies or to Van Gogh’s myriad renditions of his bedroom. In that way, the power that art holds over the individual is uniquely personal.
So that I could better know what to look for in a painting, I audited a survey class of Western Art taught by the inimitable Professor Andrea Rusnock in the semester after my retirement. What a joy! In her class, I learned how to look intimately at a canvass, exploring its subtle details. In that regard, I now examine a Vermeer painting, looking for features that may amplify and elucidate the entire composition. And frankly, being a student without fear of a grade made the learning experience that much more enjoyable. I amused Andrea by chiming in occasionally with a comment or two!
Although I’ve written principally about painting and sculpture, the aesthetic appeal of architecture captivates me. I’m fortunate to live near Chicago, one of the most interesting cities architecturally. One of our favorite things to do is the architectural boat tour with visitors. I sense that my curiosity in art will never be satiated. Each viewing of a canvass, a sculpture, or ceramic brings new sentiments, new sensorial experiences. My journey to satisfy my artistic thirst continues. At the Art Institute in Chicago this summer, there are two exhibits I am eager to see, Charles White, and John Singer Sargent. Both of these artists had ties to Chicago. White, an African American born in Chicago, drew inspiration from his time in the city, and Sargent from his Chicago patrons and creative circle. Artistic discoveries await me every day!