He pointed to the right, toward where I had been looking -- at H. O. Tanner's The Annunciation. "I see a lot in that painting. I like being in this room with it. I see a cross. Do you see that? Mary is so young but I think she is ready. People don't look." I agreed with him. And I felt a strong jolt of jealousy that he gets to look at Tanner's brilliant painting (which was the first subject I wrote about for this blog, on March 24, 2008) every day as he guards the galleries in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
On this visit I saw more than I ever have before on the canvas. I saw Tanner's use of color differently; the section on the right of the painting, of a low shelf covered with a blanket, is a painting in itself -- an abstract color field. The blaze of light from the angel/heavenly idea on the left seems to transmute the blanket on the bed into thick curves and waves of yellow and white. Up close, the shape and tones of that light seem to actually generate the blanket, the bed, and the figure of Mary. Where Tanner has placed you as the viewer is also mesmerizing; this is a large canvas, and you are situated looking out of the darkness and up at the action. There is more abstraction and more action in the painting than I had remembered. Seeing it in person again changed both my thinking and my eyes.
Talking with the guard made me also think on what is interesting to viewers about the Eakins painting The Agnew Clinic, beyond its historical significance to Philadelphia and Eakins' brilliant reputation as a portraitist. Of course, people do like to look at faces. And the viewer is situated in the stands of the operating theater, right there with everyone else. But the subject matter (for those of us who are not in medicine) could make one queasy; the female patient is having a mastectomy. And it evoked in me a very strange feeling, standing there in the center of the gallery, standing between two such powerful paintings of powerless women.
The guard's observation about the standard mode of seeing in his gallery stayed with me for a long time. Like so many people, I search in my own past for inspiration, and this requires some willful revisiting. When this goes well, it too changes both my eyes and my thinking. When it does not, nothing changes, and the dull thump of the past just recurs, like a wet bath mat thumping around in the dryer.
But I feel the thrill of consciousness when I can re-encounter a painting (or a piece of music, or a piece of writing) and it presents itself seemingly anew. Something is engaged, more space is made in my mind, and a habit of seeing or knowing is broken.
That is a blissful moment.