There is nothing better than wandering through a museum with no children pulling at you, no crowds jostling you, no tour guide and no time limit–except closing time.
Yesterday I spent the entire day at the National Gallery, just wandering through each room, lingering at any picture that caught my eye.
I found many strange and beautiful paintings, particularly in the
Renaissance galleries. A traveling altar piece painted for Richard II
with tiny jewels in the halos of the saints. A painting of Veronica
holding up a textured linen handkerchief with a startlingly realistic
image of Christ on it. The Van Eyck “Marriage of Arnolfini” which I’d
studied in school, but next to that a portrait of
his own wife with the most amazingly textured linen habit on her head
and a strange inscription carved into the frame: “my husband
finished me in year of our lord X” as if her husband created her in
paint and her image could speak.
The Rembrandt self portraits, early and late, the two Vermeers of
girls at virginals, one looking more virginal than the other, the Ter
Borchs with their magical silks, but especially Rembrandt’s painting
of the woman bathing in a stream–I looked at that for a long time.
I’d read so much about it, that the painting grew and grew in my mind
until I imagined it was monumental, but it was so small and delicate,
far more beautiful in person, and the brush strokes not only loose and
assured, worked into the wet paint, but so fine.
There were Gainsbouroughs and Turners–great Turners suffused in
light–somehow concrete and mythological at the same time. There were
Cezannes, and the heart stopping wall of Van Goghs, his true colors so
startling–the earthy red-gold of his sunflowers against the pale
lemon yellow background so much more shocking in real life than in
any print or illustration.
But I think my favorite painting in the whole museum was the Velasquez Venus:
A girl of about 16 was sitting next to me on the bench along with her
mother. The girl was sketching the Venus in pastel and she was very
very good, but she had to rub out her work many times. A
humbling exercise to copy a masterpiece like that.
All through the museum, artists were copying in pencil and charcoal and in pastels. I loved watching them draw. Visual artists are so direct when they approach the masters. They are both humble and open in their attempt to understand great art with hand and eye. We writers aren’t nearly so honest. We maintain a myth of self-expression, and worry if we read too much of this or that. We fear we’ll be unduly influenced or lose “our voice” as though one’s soul could catch a cold. How silly we are. We novelists would be a lot better off if we carried around sketch books and copied out sonnets. We should look harder at the way good prose is made, diagram its sentences, and understand its joinery. Why should critics have all the fun? Writers should be better readers. We should try to find out the secret springs in plays and novels, just as the girl on the bench tried and tried to work out the angle of Venus’ head.
That girl was learning, even though each time she drew the line, she rubbed it out.