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Archive for April, 2011

in awe of art

The BYU art museum has an incredible exhibit of artwork by Danish painter Carl Bloch. The central focus is on a series of large altarpiece paintings that were done for chapels in Denmark in the 19th century.

It’s difficult to describe how impressive these paintings are if you don’t see them in person. They are very large, 10 or 12 feet high, and invite a long, long look. Even though there are lovely reproductions (and some of these are well known as illustrative Christian art), it’s an entirely different experience to stand (or sit) and take in the beauty of these works.

We bought a giclĂ©e print of this Gethsemane painting. A little JPG image can’t begin to do it justice. I found myself drawn to this painting, and wished I had more time to sit and absorb it. The exhibit is well-run and usually busy, with people walking through several rooms attached to headphones and iPads with video information about the artist and paintings. I was with a group of friends and we had to wait in some rooms for a chair to be free so we could sit and look. I found, as with several of the altarpiece paintings, that I wanted to look and look, walk from one side to the other, sit in a meditative way and try to take in the painting.

When you see it in person, the brush work and details are amazing. Stars in the dark sky, the sweep of brush strokes that reinforce the visual structure of the painting, the gentle details of hands and the protective posture of the angel… There’s so much to see. And as you see, you identify with the painting. You feel Christ’s anguish, you feel the tender gesture the angel offers. You sense the contrast of dark and light. It’s so much more than an illustration of a scene. It’s a great piece of art that challenges and invites you to … not think, or just feel, but experience the work as a whole.

I think I understand better how Catholic writer Henri Nouwen was able to write an entire book (The Return of the Prodigal Son) about his experience with a single Rembrandt painting. He traveled to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and spent two days simply sitting and looking at Rembrandt’s large painting. He wrote a lovely book that used the details of that painting as a starting point to explicate the parable of the prodigal son in the New Testament. Having had a short time to experience these large works by Bloch, I can see how it would be possible to spend hours looking, experiencing, and looking more as the work’s meaning is revealed.

In a time when art is being taken over by technology, it’s a rare experience to return to the roots of hand-crafted artwork that has such power. I didn’t care much for the iPad videos and quotes from various art and history professors. I found they were distracting compared to the awe I felt simply standing and looking at these masterpieces.

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