Saturday, February 03, 2007

Georges de La Tour at the Met

At a lecture/discussion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art last night, I was struck by how unsophisticated my peers were. The focus of the meeting was an amazing painting from the 17th century by Georges de La Tour, a French artist rediscovered by art historians in the 20th century. His intimate Caravaggio-esque scenes are eerily -- and often almost impossibly -- lit. This particular painting, showing Mary Magdalene (or so art historians think) with a memento mori and jewelry which she has cast off on the floor and table.

What frustrated me about my art appreciation compadres was how much they focused on the details. Ten, twenty minutes went by where we debated whether or not the mirror was actually a mirror. Maybe it's an empty frame? Never mind the bevelled glass. It wasn't the disparate conclusions that I found so agonizing; it was that these flights into absurd detail focused so much on whether or not the painter painted things realistically that everything else about it was lost. The skill of the painter, the subject matter, the symbolism, everything.

Where some viewers asked why the woman in the painting had such disproportionately short legs, I though of Michaelangelo's David, whose head is too big. Why? Because it was intended to be seen from a distance below -- the over-sized head makes up for that distance. In the case of this La Tour painting, the legs are too short because the painter wanted us to focus on the upper body. He literally made it bigger because it was more important. Or so I imagined.

Some viewers got hung up on the frame in the painting. While they marvelled that Mary wasn't reflected in the mirror (maybe she wasn't in front of it -- ever think of that? Or maybe the painter just decided that she wasn't going to be in the mirror. that doesn't need to call into question its mirror-ness) and rattled off the possibilities -- mirror, empty frame, a painting within the painting, a portal to another dimension -- and then titillated themselves with the frisson of endless interpretations, I was wondering why the conversation didn't actually explore those interpretations.

And further, this crowd made the sort of intellectual leaps based on assumptions predicated on guesses that give criticism a bad name. Go ahead, tell your own story about the painting, but understand that it is subjective. Know that when you unilaterally decide that the flame is unrealistically high and the mirror is not a mirror, you change the painting and all of your conclusions thereafter will be found on these bizarre misguided premises.

Realism, while an interesting diversion in this painting, is besides the point. To me, there are two rewarding ways to look at this piece:

1. As a composition and an eye-pleasing decorative scene
2. As a metaphor or a Christian mediation on faith, the meaning of life, and the mysteries of God

The first is entirely formal. How is the painting composed? Look at the geometry -- it's all rectangles and triangles. Note the skull in the center, and look at how it sits on her lap next to her pregant belly, two circular shapes. And look at the color, and how the shadow cuts across Mary's face to highlight it. The contrast between light and dark in this painting is extreme.

Now look for symbolism. What does it mean that the skull is next to her pregant stomach? It's a doubling that is echoed in the candle, real and reflected. Is Mary looking into the candle or into the darkness? Notice that her hands are on the skull, and not on her belly. She seems comfortable with the skull, and our view of its nose looks a lot like her own.

To be fair, the museum's lecturer pointed this out. She knew what she was talking about, and she accepted the group's enthusiasm as a welcome sign that young professionals were engaged with the art in the museum, which can be intimidatingly large and off-puttingly crowded.

But I'm disappointed that my little group of appreciaters couldn't break free from the pleasure of possibilities. It could be my generation's notorious attention span. It could be our lecturer's inability to guide the discussion away from dead ends. It could be the classic liberal trap of relativism: Every interpretation is equally important.

Whatever it was, it was maddening. And still, I can't wait for the next one. The key here, and this is a lesson I learned in a wine-tasting class, is attention. Strange and wonderful things happen when we pay closer attention. These paintings come alive, and I think my group was so taken with that discovery that they lost focus, the way someone tasting wine might get so excited at all the new-found flavors and senses that he or she may become drunk. When you stand in a giant hall of Baroque paintings in heavy gilt frames and realize that each of them could be an entire world, full of eyes staring back and messages between the folds of expertly painted fabric, it is overwhelming. We should pay such attention in everyday life. This, in the end, is the lesson I draw from art.



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