|Today, Friday, was another wild Up North morning!|
My background growing up was hardly deprived. It’s true we only had a single bathroom for two adults and three children, didn’t have television until after I started school, and our vacations were limited in early years to visiting grandparents, in later years to camping in state parks. But my sisters and I had music lessons, and the whole family sang in our church choir. Thanks to violin lessons from 4th grade through high school, I also played in an excellent series of school orchestras and enjoyed travel with the orchestra to regional and state music competitions, the National Music Festival in Enid, Oklahoma, and, in high school, a cultural exchange with a high school orchestra from Toronto, Ontario.
|We read (and I wrote) poetry|
|But the only visual art I knew was from books|
At any rate, as far as I recall, it happened that my first visit to the Art Institute of Chicago came fairly late in life. It also happened that I went alone. I didn’t expect an extraordinary experience. After all, hadn’t I seen pictures of famous paintings in books all my life?
I was completely unprepared.
The painting that turned the tide for me was a small Monet, probably smaller than two feet across inside its elaborate gold frame. It was a very “ordinary” landscape, in terms of what was depicted, and it didn’t look that different from other works by the same artist that I’d seen in books for years. But here was the canvas only inches from my face. The artist’s brush strokes were visible, not as lines in a reproduction but with dimension and mass. The artist’s hand had labored over this very object before my eyes. (And I cannot present here an original image! You can't have that online!)
For the longest time, I couldn’t move from the spot. It was all I could do to hold myself together and not burst into wracking sobs. That’s how moving the experience was. And my response took me completely by surprise. I hadn’t expected it at all.
You have to understand that the way the painting affected me had nothing to do with its monetary value, of which I hadn’t a clue. That the artist was world-renowned was a factor, because, after all, if I hadn’t known his name and images before, there wouldn’t have been that huge difference between reproductions of famous paintings and the one small, modest, original painting on the wall before me. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt the artist himself close to me, a real person, someone whose world I shared, though he was long dead and though our paths would never have crossed in life had he still been alive.
That’s the best I can do to explain why I respond the way I do to old books and ephemera, which are not one-of-a-kind items like original paintings but still, for me, carry the sense of having been touched and held and felt meaningful by other human beings, often no longer among the living. For instance, a friend sent two little leatherbound graduation programs from the University of Michigan, Class of 1913, asking me to sell them for him.
Hovering over the date, for me, is the Great War, World War I, which began the following year. Could these graduates see it coming? Next year will be the 100th anniversary of this particular graduating class. Who remembers them today? Great-grandchildren?
|Beginning of roster, Class of 1913|
These are objects for which I can’t help but feel a certain tenderness. Look at the names, the lovely old script. Imagine their youth and hopeful anticipation of the future. Now that future is past. But looking at these documents, one takes in imagination the perspective of ninety-nine years ago and shares that happy day. Even if all the information in these little booklets were available online, would seeing it on a screen evoke the same feelings as holding the objects? For me it would not.
Other old books, originally printed in greater numbers at the time of their publication, may have wider historical significance and less personal feeling to them, but they still carry me back to the past in ways that the bare "information" they contain could never do. But I'm going to save that topic for another time because all this shifting about from my own younger days to my middle age to the time of the Impressionists and then to Ann Arbor nearly a century ago has got my head spinning. And you thought a life among books was sleepy and dull?