I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with Vincent van Gogh's Stairway at Auvers. It was an amazing experience! Here I was standing in the busy Saint Louis Art Museum with hundreds of people passing me by, yet there was an intimacy with that work. The technical mastery of composing an image on canvas and communicating the calmness of the ladies contrasted so sharply with the frenzied cacophony of pain within the artist that I could not help but to be moved with his work. And so I stood there. And stood there. And stood there.
How could this collection of paint on a piece of canvas hold my attention for so long? How could it communicate as much about the artist as it did his subjects? The longer I stood, the deeper the connection grew and the more questions I had. But these are not the kinds of questions you would ask, or get answers to, in art class. These are the kinds of questions that arise the further you engage art -- whether it is your own creation or that of someone else.
In this encounter, much as those I have had with other Masters, I got to meet a man who died nearly a century before I saw his painting. Visiting museums and traveling to different places, I have met many of these famous artists, and whether their work is a display of the glory of God or of the terror of living, I have been educated in each of these encounters. Their art has the ability to draw me deeper into the subject they portray and deeper into myself. I recall the first Michelangelo statue that I saw, The Pieta (Mary holding the dying Jesus). Even though I was separated from it by 10 feet, I felt the intimate connection to the story he was telling as well as his own personal devotion and faith. A little later, I saw a statue of St Paul carrying his cross, and it held my interest in the same way. Michelangelo knew how to connect with the viewer's emotion as well as his intellect.
The contrast that I want to note is that there was another statue, very well done, across the sanctuary from Michelangelo's. It did not have the same kind of compelling quality that the Michelangelo did. It was very well done, but it just didn't have that intangible connection. The same thing happened with the paintings in the room next to Monet and van Gogh. I could easily walk away from a lesser artist. But each of the Masters hold my attention. They have something to say. (Whether I want to listen is an altogether different question!)
As I reflect on these encounters, I am beginning to understand my craft of photography a little more deeply as well. By having the opportunity to engage world class art first hand, we get an education in what the good stuff is really like. I am able to see first hand that real art is indeed a form of communication involving not just mastery of technique and showing the subject matter, but also the artist and the viewer, and all three points of contact are essential.
As I was standing in front of that van Gogh, I had to wonder whether the artist meant for himself to be so prevalent in his painting. And as I ask that question, I am forced to consider how I have inserted myself into my photographs. Just as van Gogh's thick paint, bright colors, and squiggly lines made himself present in the ladies' quiet walk on a peaceful street, a trained eye can also find traces of the artist in the photographs he takes.