Hung Up – Women Who Will Live Forever

As I’ve gone through my art books in preparation to move, hoping to lighten the load, I’ve found my art books impossible to give away. The movers will simply have to load a few extra heavy boxes filled with hard bound art books onto the moving van.

Please don’t tell me that these paintings are available online. I know they are. The colors and the replication of the brush strokes are better online. I know they are. One can make the paintings larger to better see details online. Yes, I know! Yes, I know and I do go online. But I grew up looking at art books, with pages to dog ear and paper to trace my finger across. The very holding of the heavy book gives the artwork gravitas, approximating a framed painting: flip the page, smooth the bulge rising near the binding, run your finger down and around the shapes on the page. It’s wonderfully tactile, especially since the museums frown on visitors tracing shapes on paintings hung up on their walls.

Which brings me to the women who will live forever because they’re “hung up” somewhere in a museum. There’s every kind of woman on those walls: saintly women, the holiest of all women (that would be Mary – there are a whole lot of her), other biblical characters, socialites, accomplished women, prostitutes, can can dancers, ballet soloists, hat makers, laborers, drunks, sisters, wives and mothers. They’re all a part of every woman and we are a part of them because witnessing their visages hanging in a gallery binds us and allows them to seep into our self-image. As women, we really can’t “unsee” their influence on us.

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And men? Surely they experience something similar. Perhaps that’s where they learn to crave that Madonna/prostitute trait in their women. Certainly film and television and social media mold our perceptions of sexuality as well, but not in same part of the brain, I think. Paintings force us to embrace the painter as well as the painting and the women painted. Seeing them in person is unique and will always have the strongest impact, but I can vouch for absorbing good printed reproductions in childhood as coming in second!

The Van Gogh painting above is incorporated into the many years I studied the piano. I ceased taking lessons in high school to sing and dance, but in my dotage, I have gone back to practicing my scales, which feels meditative now. I wonder if this woman did the same thing? Her fingers are not showing proper position, like she hasn’t played for a while. Or maybe she has arthritis now. She definitely is playing for herself, and not performing. Like me.

Painting Degas dancer

How many times did Edgar Degas paint ballet dancers? He often painted them at class in the Paris Opera studio, but this dancer (detail shown) is onstage, with the footlights bouncing across the bone structure of her face, her brown bangs so very French, and wearing a costume cut low enough to show cleavage, a slightly lascivious touch, but one that Degas barely suggests. This may be a dress rehearsal, because, really, what are those dancers in the back doing? I love the way Degas’ yellow pastel streaks on her tutu suggest movement, as she reaches out to the audience, dancing precariously at the stage’s edge.

Growing up, I always had small Degas prints in my bedroom. I danced in two small, regional ballet companies throughout high school. I think if I’d tried harder, I’d have been a better ballet dancer, but it served me well in musical theater. I can still feel which muscles ballerinas are utilizing when I watch them dance. Sometimes I twitch involuntarily, which makes me laugh and feel a touch sad at the same time.

 

… to be continued, in direct relationship to inspiration …

 

 

The Art of the Book

We are moving. Not by choice, but because of the needs of our landlady. Her chagrin was obvious, removing anger as a rational reaction to the news. We are simply moving. We don’t know where, yet – not the city and not even the state. I would even include country, if I could throw Italy into the hat as an option. Alas, I’m in a minority of one.

Moving presents the valuable but painful opportunity to sweep away the mounds of clutter that accumulate in our closets, garages and on bookcases. I began going through my books first without even thinking, probably because subconsciously I knew that they would be the second most difficult possessions to purge, the first being piles of memorabilia from school and career, items that make my life appear like an unbroken chain of successes, because why would I save reminders of the many failures? Those are seared into my brain’s hard drive – with charbroiled lines underscoring my mistakes. But the successes, which shouldn’t, but do have meaning for me, will carry less meaning for our son, even less for our grandson and little for the generations that follow. Still …

But books can be timeless, like the 1881 Little Flock Hymnal, the old Winnie the Pooh edition, the dictionary my father gave me when I left for college, and the art books – internet images be damned – those should hold their valuable for future generations possessing a modicum of sensitivity.

When I was young, I poured over my paternal grandmother’s slim art volume with the fleur-di-lis cardboard cover. I’m not sure if the “fleur” were French or Italian, because in those days I was unaware of the difference. But I was entranced by the European art inside and very curious about what held up those fig leaves. Fifteen years ago I asked my mother if I could please have the book. “Oh, we got rid of that a long time ago,” she said. How cavalier she was about it! Some people lack sentiment.

As an art museum rat, my whiskers twitch to visit the originals of paintings I’ve admired only in books and to marvel at the way the brush strokes and hues leap from the canvas in a manner impossible in print. The books refresh my memory of the paintings I’ve experienced in person. I’ve swooned in museums from the Louvre and the Uffizi to the Norton Simon and the Nelson Atkins.

As I lined some of them up for the photo above, I was struck by the varying manner in which women were portrayed. More about them soon.

Next – Hung Up: The Women Who Will Live Forever