Monday, July 07, 2008

Seeing the surface

On my recent trip to Europe, I visited lots of amazing art collections. None made as strong an impression on me as l'Orangerie in Paris.  The link is:  www.musee-orangerie.fr.

The first thing I notice as I look at the museum's website is that there were only two rooms filled by Monet's magnificent water lilies.  I remembered three or four.  That is a measure of how deep and wide a conversation I had with these paintings.

I stood before each and asked, "teach me to see."  That's what I believe great paintings teach us: they are not about what we see but about how we see it.  Monet's paintings rewarded me with a conversation about what it means to focus so intensely on the surface that the vision comes to include the changes above and below the surface.

There are no horizons in these paintings because the artist does not raise his eyes to the place where surface meets sky. Instead, he fixes his image-ination exclusively on the surface that is in front of him and pays so much attention to what he sees there that we - his audience - are able to enter a whole world through that surface.  Always the paintings tempt us to look upwards, beyond their edges. Always, with the artist's discipline and joy, we must consciously fix our eyes on the surface.

We talk about the superficial as though it were a trivial thing to be the plane where internal and external meet.  Perhaps that is a way to avoid the intensity of gaze that the surface requires if we are to enter into a dialogue with it.

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