This morning’s Review in the Daily Telegraph had an interesting article called “The Shock of the Old” in which “five leading artists describe the paintings that changed their lives”. The article was an edited extract from “In My View: Personal Reflections on Art by Today’s Leading Artists.”
Unfortunately, I can’t find an electronic version of the article on the interweb thingy so I can’t refer you to the bits by Mark Wallinger (about Velazquez’s “The Triumph of Bacchus”), Jeremy Deller (on Hogarth’s “The Shrimp Girl”) or Rachel Whiteread (on Piero della Francesca’s “The Baptism of Christ”).
American artist Bill Viola talked about Giovanni Bellini’s “The Dead Christ Supported by Angels”:
“I discovered the Bellini painting ‘The Dead Christ Supported by Angels’ in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, London, on a weekday morning back in the late Nineties.
“My father had recently been diagnosed with colon cancer. My emotions were raw. The galleries were practically empty as I walked silently through them. I could almost hear the pictures speaking. Then I came across Bellini’s picture. A slumped male figure, his torso wounded, apparently dead, with blood dripping from his hand and ribs, his fingers curled in rigor mortis … the body is supported by two young angels, sorrow and despair visible on their faces.
“I lost my composure and began weeping, looking round to make sure no one was watching. Afterwards I felt liberated. I think it was because of the angels who were about to lift Christ up to heaven. They seemed too small and delicate for such a task, and my first inclination was to call for help. However, suddenly I knew they could do it on their own. I felt a wave of relief, and intuitively knew somehow that my father, even though he was dying, would be taken care of.”
“In 1986, I went to see the Princely Collections of Liechtenstein [at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York] … All [the large works] were arranged in ample horizontal planes, so viewers could change positions in front of works to access specific details – just like switching channels on a television set…
“But then, as I followed the exhibition, observing the audience more than the paintings, I encountered another viewing dynamic. In the Rubens section, in a smaller room adjacent to the main galleries, I noticed people were not scanning the pictures as they meandered, but instead, without instruction, they were forming a line to see one work. I got into the line with no idea where it led, until I faced a painting that surprised me.
“Arrested in a timeless gaze, Ruben’s daughter Clara Serena, around five years old and slightly cross-eyed, burst out of the minute Baroque frame as if inviting me to play. The artist had managed to depict a subject he must have known by heart, without missing any asymmetries we usually overlook when drawing familiar faces. He did it without losing a single drop of the affection he had for his beautiful child. That makes this picture personal and, at the same time, universal.
“People stopped in front of the painting as if directed by a mark on the floor, at the exact point where they were able to negotiate between the work’s surface and the portrait of the girl – that perfect spot at which an arrangement of pigments and oil embodies the soul and likeness of an angel.
“That tense moment of transformation when the ball has left the hands of the basketball player and hasn’t yet reached the rim, the second before a first kiss – the appearance of a new form, the pure sublime.
“After standing in line again and again until the museum closed, I went home and started to draw. I knew I wanted to become an artist.”
In my very first post, I wrote “… I appreciate that the internet itself is very ephemeral, but other media such as TV programmes and newspaper articles can be even more so. I often think “That’s interesting. I wonder if other people know that.” I hope that this blog will allow me to flag up some of these passing moments…”
I feel these two stories, in “tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”, of now-established artists encountering influential paintings for the first time are just such a passing moment. Hope you agree!