I am an art historian, and looking at art is an essential part of who I am. In these times, as we struggle with the devasting reality of the covid-19 pandemic, I have found comfort and pleasure thinking about some of the particularly meaningful experiences I have had looking at art and visiting ancient sites, often unexpected encounters, which have moved me deeply. Some I would call spiritual – not in a religious sense necessarily – but that take me to another realm of feeling or contemplation, that make me reflect on who I am as a human being and about the human condition. Many of these revelatory insights have come while traveling, when I am generally in a hyper-receptive state, taking in what is before me in slow motion, intensely absorbing as much detail as possible. They remain vivid in my mind long afterwards.
Several years ago, my husband and I were in Ireland driving along meandering, unmarked roads trying to find the isolated Neolithic site Loughcrew. A lone sign pointed us to a path up a steep, high hill. Upon reaching the top, we stood among small burial mounds encircling the larger cairn, which had been created by a hunter-gatherer society between 3500 and 3300 BC. Before us was a breathtaking vista, a 360-degree view with darkening clouds signaling the rain we would experience later in the day. A site ranger let us climb into the cruciform passage cairn with its two small side apses and carved back stone illuminated twice a year, in the spring and fall equinoxes. The interior sides of the passage were carved with remarkably preserved ancient symbols, some of which similar to those found on Neolithic ruins on the Orkney Islands and in Malta. Across the way on private land was another similar steep hill surmounted by another large passage cairn with a carved back stone. Together these cairns mark some recurring sacred ritual and being there was a deeply stirring experience. I felt connected across millennia with something so much larger than myself. The spiritual seemed everywhere in Ireland, immersed as we were in the beautiful and wild Irish landscape, looking at crumbling early monastery complexes, like Glendalough, or beautifully carved standing high crosses.
On another occasion we visited Louis Kahn’s masterpiece, the Salk Institute, in La Jolla, California (fig. 1). The campus was closed, but a kind guard let us in. We were alone and it was an oppressively hot day, and then wecame upon the plaza, its buildings silhouetted against the blue sky with the beam of water traversing its center, leading intoinfinity. We gasped and stood motionless and then held each other, looking at a vision totally realized in the landscape. Later I thought of our good fortune being there when the light and angle of the sun was perfect but also of Kahn’s inspiration and his genius and skill in realizing his vision.
Looking at art is unpredictable and how one responds has to do with knowledge and the physical contextwhere it is seen, but also with where our psyche and state of receptivity are on a given day. It is not something youcan force; looking well can be an intense experience. Sometimes nothing comes through, and my eyes just glazeover. Other times, I see with revelatory clarity, which can be exhilarating. On occasion I have what I call “aha moments” when something I know comes into brilliant focus or emotionally resonates in a new way. This does not happen often, and I treasure the encounters, remembering everything and, if in a museum, exactly where the work was physically situated in the gallery. Sometimes the experience is almost sensual, sometimes spiritual; on other occasions, like before a great Jasper Johns or Anslem Keifer and especially Paul Cezanne’s paintings, I have felt a connection with the artist and the act of making art in a deeply personal, intuitive way which can be thrilling and aesthetically satisfying. I have always admired Goya, but when I came across his extraordinary Portrait of Dona Antonia Zarate (1805) in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin (fig. 2,) everything else in the room faded away. I had an almost visceral appreciation of “what making” art was all about. I looked at every inch of the painting and marveled at the bravura of the execution, the sensual brushwork and juxtaposition of colors, the exquisite detail of the mantilla and the sitter’s penetrating gaze, but in the end what excited me most was the aesthetic experience, this luscious human endeavor. It is such a beautiful painting – a postcard hung in my office for decades.
Art has the ability to communicate some greater truth, to convey meaning beyond words. On rare occasions, I have had an overwhelming, ineffable aesthetic experience before a work of art during which I have been completely caught off guard, instantly, overwhelmed – subsumed by what is before me. Sometimes referred to as the Stendhal effect, they are for me spiritual experiences not in a religious sense but existentially. It happened for the first time as a college student when, at the Phillips Collection in Washington, I walked into a room of Mark Rothko paintings, an artist I had never seen before. I was stunned, so overwhelmed by the emotional impact of the luminous and ephemeral color that I became unsteady on my feet and almost swooned. Decades later, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I came upon Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion diptych (fig. 3.) recently restored, hanging alone and beautifully lit. I gasped, my knees almost buckled, and only my hands against the wall held me up. One never knows when such moments will happen, why this painting with its powerful and simple geometry and timeless poses will have this effect; they are rare and not forgotten.
I am certain the artists in creating these works transcended the ordinary and were themselves caught up in some remarkable combination of intense feeling and consummate skill, or as in the case of an artist like Matisse, with paintings like Dance and The Conversation (fig.4) at the Hermitage, a kind of mind-bending imaginative thinking that burst forth with energy and confidence. I was riveted by the intensity of Matisse’s use of blue and how he uses color in a brilliant, intuitive way, making it emotional and significant. These are the rare and profound aesthetic and spiritual experiences that one never forgets. Right now, these memories bring me comfort and deep pleasure. I feel a sense of gratitude they are part of my interior world.