Some people do their best thinking in the shower. I do some of my best thinking in museums. I feel at peace surrounded by paintings. In libraries or book stores I can’t help but read like a writer. I can’t prevent the what ifs and the oh but I’d do that differently response. In a museum I’m an enthusiast. Since I’m not a visual artist, I’m more easily dazzled.
Last year I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts with two friends, a painter and an art historian. (It sounds like a joke, doesn’t it? A rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar…) The three of us had a lively discussion of the merits of various paintings in the Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto exhibition.
“Look at that brushwork,” said the painter as we gazed at one portrait.
“But there are issues with the larger composition,” said the art historian.
I startled them with my own criterion for a good portrait. “It works if the eyes follow you as you cross the room.”
Wandering through galleries takes me away from the page and into a world of color. I like to think about the problems and possibilities of visual representation: the way Van Gogh uses the color green. The way Degas reveals the weight and clumsiness of ballet dancers even as they aspire to grace. The way Auerbach builds up layers of paint on his canvases so that his studies become palimpsests and also excavations. When I look at paintings I think about the way artists capture the world and how they develop character. I also think about economy in art. Writers and painters have this in common: the right detail can tell a whole story. Think of the eyes in Rembrandt’s self portraits: insouciant in the early paintings and then so dark, weary and knowing later on. Consider Ralph’s dying words to Isabel in Portrait of a Lady. Velasquez’s Venus and the turn of her neck. William Carlos Williams’ celebration of smallness and specificity: “so much depends / upon / a red wheel /barrow.” God is in the details, and the artist’s hand in every line.
Allegra Goodman has been blogging for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog series. Her new novel, The Cookbook Collector, is available for pre-order. Find her on Facebook and her website.