Sunday, July 20, 2014

Scenes from the National Gallery I: Ordinary Names

Drafter's Note: This series marks the second time that the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. has driven me to write. (I had to go back to read the first one just to make sure I wouldn't be repetitive--and I'm sure your recall on 3-year-old blogposts is as god as mine.) If I stick with my plan and quick notes, this will be post one of three.

I've rolled my eyes any number of times at the titles I see on placards in galleries. "Woman with Fan." "Portrait of Young Man #3." C'MON, says Chandra's Sass. Where are the deep, intriguing, sexy titles--those I'm used to seeing on everything from TV episodes to nail polish bottles.

I don't know that it ever occurred to me before today, though now it seems painfully obvious. And maybe I'm way off base, but--assuming that being a visual artist overlaps more than a little with being a word crafter--what artist knows what pieces will be "good," remembered, treasured?

I have a pristinely clear memory of meeting with a college professor after I (once again) failed to win the annual poetry award. "Your poems are good enough to win," she told me. "You're just giving us the wrong ones." The criticism was crushing to me--yeah, yeah, yeah, I could have won the contest but you're missing the point: I didn't know what made my writing good. (I asked her which ones might have won--she looked at me like I was asking the meaning of life, and I think answered with something to the tune of, "See that for yourself, you must.") But I remember her pointing out that sometimes--maybe often, maybe always--the work that we love the most, feel most attached to, is not what anyone else would say is our best. Frequently I've seen pieces of mine that I really didn't love so well get more praise and attention than I thought they were due. And those I'm closest to--the ones that make me smile or choke me up--will never be seen but through the gleam of a computer screen.

And so I imagine Mary Cassatt documenting "Mother with Child XI," not knowing how it would survive, and never dreaming that a century after the paint had dried it would hang in a marble hall as tourists speaking a dozen languages passed it, studied it, bought it on a postcard. I wonder which of the eleven (or more?) she loved most. If I had to guess, I'd say 2--so similar, but less finished, less pristine, more capturing of a moment.

And I give due props to Vincent for distinguishing: "Weaver Facing Right," "Weaver Facing Right (Half Figure)," "Weaver Facing Left with Spinning Wheel," "Weaver Seen from the Front." A man after my own heart. And to Pierre-Auguste for not giving a damn, with his 19 efforts of "Landscape" and 6 "Roses in a Vase" (not to be confused with the 2 "Still Life with Roses," 5 "Flowers in a Vase," and 3 "Bouquet of Roses").

We don't know what will matter in the end, what we'll be remembered for, and I find myself--in writing and in life--being over-focused on the presentation, the title, how it will look. I fuss over the signature while the paint dries on the palette.

Dear me: The eleventh effort is as important as the first--maybe more. Stop preparing and just get some color on the canvas.

"Mother with Child 2," Mary Cassatt

"Mother with Child XI," Mary Cassatt

1 comment:

  1. That's an astute observation and excellent advice. You're talented and brilliant, get that canvas painted. ;)