The Impossible Question

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Impossible Question

“So you like art, do ya luv?”
My gregarious cab driver posed the question as he drove me across London, from The Wallace Collection to The National Gallery, through the teeming traffic of the afternoon.
"Well, yes. I suppose you could say that I do”, I replied, reluctantly turning my gaze from the window through which I’d been admiring the amusing juxtaposition of a round little woman being yanked up Regent Street by three sleek whippets at the end of a long red lead.
And then came the next impossible question.
“What sort of art do you like then, luv?”
My head clouded.
I mumbled something about the Pre-Raphaelites and Atkinson Grimshaw as all through the boundaries and balconies of my brain a host of heads turned to gaze pointedly into my mind’s eye. A variegated assemblage, they defied any coherent categorization.
Several elegant ladies of Sargent who sat beside a bouquet of O’Keefe flowers that rested in a vase by Chihuly.
Scores of French bathers from Monet and Seurat and a crowd of lush Tahitian natives, their bronze arms smoothed by the brush strokes of Gauguin.
There was Howard Pyle’s Mermaid and N.C. Wyeth’s Giant, and Lord Leighton’s Flaming June even awoke from her nap.
All the while, a rather imposing horse named Whistlejacket cantered round the periphery underneath a flock of Van Gogh crows that swung and swooped in the foggy air.
All these, and many more, were waiting expectantly, certain they would be mentioned.
Too much, too much.
The cabbie’s question hung in the air and, as I teetered precariously close to the edge of a nonsensical babble, his phone suddenly rang, and I was spared the embarrassment of attempting to speak coherently about art, which is, after all, totally exhausting in scope and a highly subjective concept besides.
There is just too much.
How can I possibly narrow it down?
Let me share just three of my encounters during my recent trip to London and I know you'll see what I mean.

1. Brizo
My trip to the old city had been a personal quest for inspiration, and of course, London is incapable of falling short in that department. In just a slight span of days, I was rocked back on my heels by astounding art. Some I gazed at with affection, like Rosa Bonheur’s lovely portrait of the shepherd’s dog, Brizo, that hangs in a stairwell at The Wallace Collection and is shown here at the top of this post. As I was, at the time, especially missing Edward’s soulful gaze, there is no doubt why that picture spoke to my heart, now is there? Sweet and sincere, it beautifully captures the dignity and the devotion that shines in the eyes of a beloved dog.
Just gorgeous.
2. Isabella
Then later that same afternoon, I entered a tiny, closet-like space off one of the contemporary rooms at the National Portrait Gallery and simply stood there, quietly stunned. In front of me was an object which at first (and even second) glance was simply grotesque. Resting atop a wooden stake was a taxidermied glob of rats and ravens, magpies and snakes, all held together with faux moss and wood. I had not read of this piece, didn’t even glance at the title before entering the room, so I came to it cold, which is almost always the preferable way to approach something extraordinary. I stared at it in silence and then, suddenly, I noticed the shadow on the wall. Oh my goodness! It was Isabella Blow. Wearing one of her infamous Philip Treacy hats. Her shadow, at once flamboyant and unmistakable, was emblazoned on the stark white wall, a striking sum of parts both morbid and macabre. A startling work, it stood in flagrant defiance of the expected and banal, a fitting testament to a woman who did exactly the same.
I saw many wonderful portraits in the gallery that afternoon, but it was Isabella’s head that I remembered most.

3. The Dennis Severs' House
I had stood before paintings and objects of wonder, but a couple of days later I entered into both, as a wanderer in another age, a breathing spectre in a time-traveling tale. I had waited on the cobblestones of Spitalfields for the opening of a polished black door and, when allowed admittance, I entered the world of The Dennis Severs’ House and left my role as observer behind, for I was now a participant in the art around me.
I was in the painting, an actual visitor in the candlelit rooms of the long ago.
The spicy fragrance of pomanders flooded my senses as I tip toed through the bedroom of the lady of the house. I spied the sugar mice hiding amongst the teacups in a kitchen redolent of fresh baked scones and pies. And later, in the bleak, Dickensian attic bedroom, I could hear the bells from Kensington tolling the death of King William IV, signaling the birth of the Victorian age.
When I left this place, it took me a while to regain my emotional footing in my own century, and I am dazzled by the experience even now.
It is a work of art as enthralling as it is unique.

So you see, even though I knew he wasn’t expecting an exhaustive answer,
when my cab driver asked me what sort of art that I liked... I just didn’t know what to say.
Should I bring up the works I find beautiful - the ones known to bring a tear to my eye and cause me to sigh? Or do I mention the ones I find challenging and, perhaps, a bit disturbing? The ones that push me outside the gilded doors of beauty and force me to reconsider its very definition?
And what of photography, or sculpture, or fashion?
I just cannot narrow it all down to encapsulate into one casual answer. There is too much that astonishes, too much that stretches my imagination and renders the world amazing.
I am still grateful for the ring of that phone.

If you find yourself in London, you must not miss:
the utterly amazing Dennis Severs' House

and don't forget to enter the giveaway in the post below.
The drawing is on the 17th.