Tag Archives: Pope Paul VI

Our Stairwell Gallery: A Familial Experiment in Art Appreciation

31 Mar

“It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and…which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.”
~
Pope St. Paul VI

“I’ve been meaning to tell you,” said my wife, Nancy. “That new picture you got from the library? You hung it upside down.”

She was referring to “Goldfinch and Cherry Tree” (c. 1834) by Hokusai Katsushika. It’s the latest installment in our household gallery which features a solitary work of art, intermittently alternated, at the bottom of our main staircase. Our source is the main branch of the superb St. Joseph County Public Library, which has an extensive collection of framed prints that patrons can check out for a few weeks at a time.

I remember when I first made use of this unusual service after hearing about it from friends. I was outside the downtown branch’s children’s area on the third floor when I spied a framed print propped up on a tripod. It was something recognizable – maybe the “Mona Lisa” or something famous like that. “Can I really check this out on my card?” I asked a passing librarian.

“Sure,” she replied with a shrug. “And there’s more in that hallway around the corner.”

Indeed there was. Scores of framed prints of various sizes and shapes. Paintings, photos, drawings, and even retro promotional posters. The Becker Rotating Stairwell Gallery was born, and I’m told by the librarians that many in the community regularly swap out selections like we do. And since the checked-out items, like books, can be renewed twice, that means that there’s a steady flow of local domestic curators returning to the library every couple months to select something new to exhibit.

By default, I’ve become the curator of our own rotating display. I’ll turn in the previous selection at the circulation desk, and then head upstairs to browse the available collection. Sometimes I’ll search for a specific print, especially if someone at home made a request, but usually I’ll just go with my gut and choose something that catches my fancy at the moment. A big, bright Georgia O’Keefe flower is ideal in the middle of winter, for example, but something languid and light seems more fitting as the weather warms – like “The Siesta” (1890) by Van Gogh, one of Nancy’s favorites.

And that’s one of the joys of this routine now that we’ve been doing it for so many years. Some of the repeat picks have become familiar to us all, and we even have certain ones that stand out in our memories. Based on an informal survey of the fam and my own (albeit biased) impressions, here’s a few that rise to the top of the list.

  1. Andrew Wyeth, “Christina’s World” (1948): My daughter, Joan, herself a serious artist, particularly recalls that “we once had a copy of ‘Christina’s World,’ which I really liked.” Me, too. To view this poignant scene through Wyeth’s eyes is to be simultaneously unsettled and comforted. The lush, illuminated landscape is peaceful; the farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings on the horizon, reassuring. Yet, the young girl in the foreground appears to be lacking composure as she begins to crawl, leaning toward her home and yearning for shelter and solace. The fact that the painting’s subject, Anna Christina Olson, was in fact crippled from a childhood illness offers some insight into the painting’s allurement, but its power to conjure wistful reflection extends well beyond its historic origins.
  2. Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup I: Tomato 46” (1968): If there’s one print that’s come to represent the spirit of our revolving collection, it’s this pop classic. “That one is clearly the family favorite,” writes my daughter, Meg, although my wife would demur – strongly. Even so, Nancy demonstrates a tremendous generosity of spirit in quietly enduring the soup can’s appearance in our stairwell about once a year. Personally, I think “Tomato 46” is hilarious, and it certainly challenges assumptions about what art can and should be – which was part of what Warhol was getting at. Plus, it prompts me to contemplate this thoroughly modern artist’s unusual interior topography, for he was a Mass-going Eastern-rite Catholic who respectfully, perhaps conscientiously, avoided the sacraments. “Warhol was bonding with a God and a Christ above and beyond the church,” said a priest who knew him, and we can hope that this visionary seeker made his peace with God before his death in 1987.
  3. M.C. Escher, “High and Low” (also known as “Up and Down,” 1947): This lithograph, like so many works by Escher, is abrupt and intellectually demanding. It’s also another consensus favorite in my family, and I think its occasional placement at the bottom of our staircase offers a subtle ironic counterpoint to the routine clambering of our daily lives. You have to pause when you see it, slow down and ponder its interlocking, yet conflicting perspectives, or else ignore it and pass it by. Its beauty is in its complexity, and while it is narrowly vertical, it nonetheless prompts the viewer to expand his mental horizons. Like the work’s two pairs of figures gazing at each other amid the convoluted angles, we’re invited to broaden our outlooks while attending to what’s right in front of us.

And that brings me back to Katsushika’s “Goldfinch” and Nancy’s admonition about its topsy-turvy placement. “That’s what Katharine said when I put it up,” was my reply. “But the hanging wire is positioned that way, and, besides, it looks even weirder the other way around.”

Kath chimed in. “Yeah, it’s not right,” she said, adding, “I don’t like this one.”

And yet, there it hangs in our stairwell – and it’ll stay there for another, oh, six weeks or thereabouts, despite Kath’s disapproval. When I snagged it off the wall at the library, I saw the graceful ascent of the cherry blossoms contrasted against the deep blue background – nice. Frankly, the finch escaped my notice at the time, but his awkward pose makes the painting all the more appealing to me now.

For, as curator (and dad), I’m not simply interested in adorning our stairwell with pretty pictures. I’m especially inclined to host images that rattle and rouse, confound and console. I think that’s what Pope St. John Paul II was driving at when he wrote about the “art of education” in his 1999 Letter to Artists (§4). He explained that “genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery” (§6). Thus, the Katsushika print is beautiful, but not only beautiful. The upturned bird catches our attention and imagination: Is the artist telling us something about himself? His community or society? The world?

Moreover, how can Katsushika’s vision inform our own? As St. John Paul notes, we might not all be artists, but all of us are called to make of our lives “a work of art, a masterpiece” (§2). For now, Katsushika is a resident mentor in that regard, and we can dwell for a time with his artistic expression. Who knows? Maybe “Goldfinch” will have even grown on Kath by the time it’s returned to the library. Even if it doesn’t, she, like the rest of us, will have benefited from the encounter.
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