Archive for August, 2022

Freud and Magritte

In high school, a friend unknowingly exposed me to the arts in a way that I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) fully appreciate until almost two decades later. Shelly, (an incredibly gifted artist themselves) was a close friend at the time who showed me a huge coffee table book full of famous paintings during a sleep over. I sat completely engrossed, pouring over image after image of famous paintings I had never seen or heard of. She told me to put sticky notes on the ones I loved most, later colour printing them onto expensive photo paper handing them over to me the next morning when I went home. I remember gasping at holding the gorgeous glossy paper, the luxury of being able to take these images away with me, every detail of these impossibly faraway paintings, I studied over and over, putting them up in my bedroom, overwhelmed that I could have something so beautiful so close to me. Although the physical images now long gone over the many moves over the years, one image in particular is etched in my mind: The Empire of Light by Rene Magritte. The evening intimacy of street lighting amongst the protective trees should have been creepy to me, but my eyes repeatedly roved over the empty streets unsure of what I was looking for.

As a child, our family did not visit art galleries, although I’m not sure if many of my friends or their families did where I grew up. While my family visited museums and libraries, art seemed irrelevant to our lives. We were not a house that had artwork up on the walls, we didn’t discuss art, there was no awareness. It’s not that I didn’t create art, or that we didn’t have an appreciation for notable pieces of art we saw in passing, just that my expansion of understanding art was non-existent in my family home. As I discussed in a previous post, my early childhood was quite full of my own creations of art, but not so much being exposed to art, other than working for a local artist as an early teen.

The only time I visibly remember visiting an art gallery as a child was once on an elementary school trip. It was at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery that I vividly remember the first piece of art that really moved me. There, in the main entrance of the gallery stood an enormous imposing painting: a night sky with the faint silhouette of what I later learned was the Star of David, below were piles of ash. I stood as a young child, absolutely transfixed on this image. I had no idea what it was, or what it meant, I just understood that I couldn’t move past it. So much so, that I had fallen behind my peers, with an adult ( I cannot remember who ) came back to retrieve me. ‘That’s the Holocaust’ they told me, as if I already understood the historical and cultural relevance of that painting, it wasn’t until I asked my father to explain the word to me when I later went home. In that moment I had no knowledge of these factors, I only understood how that painting made me feel, how it completely absorbed me, how I could not look away.

I don’t think I set foot in another gallery until University. Beaverbrook Art Gallery laid at the bottom of the hill in Fredericton and I wouldn’t have stepped foot within it if I wasn’t assigned to as part of a theatre project. During this time the gallery had a controversial exhibit aptly named ‘Art in Dispute’ where paintings at the Beaverbook were now in legal proceedings between the gallery and Lord Beaverbrook’s family arguing over whether these very famous and thus coveted pieces of art were a gift or on loan. The paintings, ones that had surely been there for many forgotten years were suddenly the talk of the town. My theatre professor at the time, Ilkay, organised a guided tour of the gallery for one of our theatre classes, instead of going to lesson, we were to head to the gallery. When we were finished the tour we were to choose a painting from the gallery to correspond with the plays we were studying, we were to then perform these scenes in front of said painting to a public audience. These paintings that I might never have had reason to see, or know about, I might have remained oblivious to, are now such a vivid reminder of that class and that time. I visited the gallery several more times after that performance, aching to see Salvador Dali’s imposing Saint James the Great but it is Lucien Freud’s ‘Hotel Bedroom’ which still greatly affects me even when I recall it now, the excruciatingly worn faces of two people, lovers, who show all the exhaustion of a couple who tried to stay in love but failed.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that after university and even in my early years of living in London, I started going to art galleries regularly for all of the wrong reasons. As I come to unpack a lot in my own relationships with the arts over the years, although my early interest in the arts might have been more innocent and pure, it is undeniably the case that later on this was due to the appearance of how I looked to others while engaging with the arts. There is no secret that the arts are heavily linked to class politics and I went to galleries because it was the ‘cultured’ thing to do, also galleries being free in London meant that no money, only time might have been wasted. I realise how ridiculous this may sound, and how privileged I now am, having all of these things I was supposed to appreciate within arms length but so much of that time feels like a blur. I wandered aimlessly through galleries, and instead of looking at art, I looked at visitors wondering if their reasons for being there were purer than mine. Were they there to look at the art or to appear as if they were looking at art?

My partner is a person that goes to look at art. I didn’t really clue into this at first. Weekend after weekend, we went to gallery after gallery. He went to see specific things. He was completely immersed. He was inspired. Not because of how he looked looking at it but because he loves art. He makes art in his every waking spare hour. Not for others to look at, not because he is talented, but just to create. Just to do art. Shockingly, his family is like this too, both parents incredibly talented and dedicated artists. They did and do art for the sake of doing art. My partner’s mother did her art degree after raising two children, she went to art school just after my partner did. My partner’s father has kept a visual journal for 40 years, sketching or painting an image from everyday of his life. He did not go to art school. He just loves to create. They regularly go to galleries to look, to learn, to appreciate. It was like someone lit a match within me, that I now suddenly had to look. Like words, and melodies, there were endless images out there for me to absorb. Like a secret now unearthed, I felt like I now had permission to seek out as many as I could find.

The first artist I remember more recently really being taken by was Jenny Saville. My partner and I were visiting the Edinburgh National Gallery of Modern Art. Her paintings are immense, grotesque, consuming. One painting can take up an entire huge room at a gallery, and there they were, room after room. Bigger than any other painting I had ever seen, even Dali’s ‘Saint James the Great’ seemed to pale in comparison. She painted fat people, like me, so unabashedly, bodies like mine, on repeat were taking unimaginable aesthetic space rooms upon room upon rooms. I had never seen or felt anything like it in my entire life. I felt like that little girl that day at the Nova Scotia Gallery. I was a moth to a flame, I couldn’t look away. This time I was the one immersed, inspired.

A few years later, I saw a advertisement for a Lucien Freud exhibit hanging across the Royal Academy of Arts. The only reason I knew this name was of course from my time in university. I knew nothing else by the artist but I was intrigued. I saw immediately work similar to that of Jenny Saville, the same kinds of bodies, bodies like mine, painted again and again but different. I had always knew that artists inspired other artists, but it was the first time I had seen it so blatantly and so effectively. The influence Freud had on Saville, their realism. I wandered around, taking in so many of his own self-portraits, so many other portraits until- there it was. I have to admit that when I saw the name Lucien Freud, I hoped beyond seemingly impossible measure that ‘Hotel Bedroom’ would be there. I was then quick to remind myself of how far away Fredericton was, silly to hope for something so implausible. Yet, there it was, their worn faces right in front of me. I stood overcome, at this painting transported from another time and space. As much as things change over the years, it was so, so comforting to have something remain the way I remembered it. It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment, that there was a high likelihood that I may never have seen that painting ever again, but there it was.

More recently, we visited the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. It is a grand and enormous museum. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had COVID, and I do not exaggerate when I say I suffered for art that day. The gallery is a shocking 7 stories full of incredible work after incredible work. When we finally arrived in the Magritte section, which is situated a inside maze away from the regular gallery, I looked left and right, again hoping for something that was unlikely. So many famous paintings as I knew from the Lucien Freud painting are on loan, or are situated away from their similarly famous counterparts, owned as singular pieces by other galleries around the world. My partner, also ill, sat back on a bench, unable to continue on our journey, I pressed forward, searching, arriving at the final little room, ready to turn back empty handed. However, lightning struck twice, because there it was. I was alone in that little room. I had the whole painting to myself. I could take as long as I wanted to look at it, to study it. I stared at every inch of that painting, getting as close as I could without some alarm sounding or some security guard interfering. I stood. I looked. I absorbed. Each time I went to leave, the painting pulled me back, reminding myself that I may never ever see it again. I remembered Shelly and that same image that she had given to me on that glossy paper. How could either of us have known that twenty years later, I see would see ‘The Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte before me, this time in person, once again struck by the quiet intimacy of that illuminated street.


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