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Friday, March 9, 2012

Listen—The Past is Not Finished Speaking

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 sang
Born in South Dakota, I grew up in Illinois, only 45 miles from the great city of Chicago. My family made annual trips to the Brookfield Zoo and the Shedd Aquarium. Occasionally we went into the city for a musical. (I particularly remember seeing and hearing the stage performance of “Camelot” with my family.) There were orchestra trips to Chicago, also, usually to Orchestra Hall, and beginning in 6th grade there were many school field trips to the Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry. One summer our family joined with another family to drive downstate to visit Lincoln’s boyhood home of New Salem and his later, more elaborate house in Springfield, the state capital. The outhouse in the back yard in Springfield was particularly fancy, as I recall. 

We read (and I wrote) poetry
My parents loved poetry and opera. There were always books and records in our home. One area of culture, however, was pretty much completely absent, except for its appearances in our educational books, and that was visual art. My painter/sculptor husband can hardly believe that I did not visit the Art Institute of Chicago as a young person. I guess it just didn’t occur to any of us. Oddly, although I dated an art student the summer after my high school graduation, and we made at least one trip together into the city, we never went to the Art Institute. We had dinner with some cousins of his and went to a movie. Or did we go and I don't remember it? Is that possible?

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.

Leather binding

Title page
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?


dmarks said...

Click here and never think of Monet the same way again.

I learned about the real Monet in a university class.

By the way, my Sleestak Sunday entry in a couple of days should be one of the most interesting ones.

P. J. Grath said...

But dmarks (yes, I followed the link and saw them), will a Sleestak ever move me to tears?

dmarks said...


Your post also gave me fond memories of a university Humanities class which had art appreciation as part of it. I didn't understand Monet at all and others until this class.

P. J. Grath said...

Glad to hear someone else has a good word for those old underclassmen requirements. I learned a lot, too, from those classes.

P. J. Grath said...

Glad to hear someone else has a good word for those old underclassmen requirements. I learned a lot, too, from those classes.

Dawn said...

I had similar, though not so intense, feelings when I saw original Van Gogh's at the Detroit Institute several years ago. I think original art, be it masters work or not has so much to say if we stand still and listen.

You had an interesting was fun to read about it!

P. J. Grath said...

The friendship duet from the opera "The Pearl Fishers," which I heard for the first time only a few years ago, dealt me a similar paralyzing blow.

My childhood seems to me very ordinary. That's not a bad thing. I have a lot of good memories and am grateful to my parents for all they provided.