Gallery 80 at the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C., is not much of a room at all. There are no windows to penetrate the whitewashed walls; the wooden floors are nondescript except for the subtle groans under the feet of passersby. Gallery 80, in fact, would be an altogether forgettable place if not for the silent two-dimensional residents who line the walls and, with a sort of otherworldly strength, elevate the space to another plane. In some museums, the architecture attempts to prop up the art. Here, the art itself provides windows with a view as high as the heavens and as wide as the expanses of eternity.
As an architect, I can say that Gallery 80 has its priorities straight. There are few places in D.C. I would rather go; indeed, there are few places in the world I would rather go. To commune with these works and have my heart speak with the hearts of these masters is like fresh water for my soul. Here in Gallery 80, I find Monet and Van Gogh. Here I find Rouen Cathedral, the Bridge at Waterloo, Green Wheat Fields at Auvers, Woman with a Parasol and Van Gogh’s self portrait from 1889. Each of these works is a touchstone for me. Each matters to me. It’s not academic; it’s personal.
My intent in citing these artists and their work is not to discuss the technical value of these priceless works of art; I’ll leave that to better-credentialed critics. My only hope here, is to explain something of myself, of my own struggle with my humanness and my art. My hope in all things is that there resonates something in my children (or other readers) as they read that will shine a light on the absurd notion of earthly perfection, the nobility of the quest for it, and some recognition that being fragile, broken and human is not only honorable but that there is wonder and beauty within their every effort.
My endeavor here is to explain a portion of the internal flame that burns deep within me and finds expression through exploration, creativity and art. When I see Monet paint the Bridge at Waterloo, multiple times, over a series of years, I see beauty but I do not see perfection. I see a man searching for his best self. I see a journey documented through simple postcards from stops along the way. In the repetition, I sense an artist beguiled by the talent he can feel but he can’t quite hold long enough to perfect. I see a fellow seeker. I see a man who loathes those things that come too easy because they have no intrinsic worth, a man who dives deep because he can.
Monet’s late work is all atmosphere and environment. His work is capturing everything that isn’t anything. He sees and tries to capture all the world that we feel and sense around us. Perfection, then, might only be achieved if his viewers actually smelled the smoke, felt the chill in the air and walked away from the painting with the sniffles from the dampness of the morning. The dive, indeed, is far too deep. The quest is impossible! The effort to duplicate what God has made is worthy. To know, in some small measure, while still a man, what it means to create as God: That is the resting place he seeks. Monet was in his seventies, suffering from cataracts and still painting daily, seeking to duplicate the natural affects of light and atmosphere in the world around him. Imperfect man will always seek, but this chimerical haven will remain a distant creative oasis, never to be attained.
I have always seen art, in all forms, as a way to order my world. Drawing, painting and writing help me push back the personal doubts that gnaw at my mind. These doubts are always ready to strike at the foundations of my own self-worth, but over the years I’ve negotiated a delicate peace with them. Art helps me maintain this peace. Without it, my mind is a constant territorial dispute around internal battle lines that were drawn when I was very young. In art I take shelter from the siege of doubt and, for a while, simply struggle with my own talents and and drive.
In this cocoon I fret and fidget with the interplay of light and dark, the gentle fall of a fabric and rendering its various folds, or perfecting a cornice detail. There are so many things to break down, to study, to criticize. For a moment at least, my mind relents in its study of the self and focuses on the work. Often this work, though satisfying, is less I hoped to achieve: Thus gently sown, the seed of self-doubt germinates anew. Yet, I cannot deny the feeling of renewed strength that comes from the time spent “away” from my daily mind. The snarling teeth of madness have no reach into the creative process itself.
Alas! As I consider my work, I feel a sting of remorse: Look at all that I’ve lost between vision and execution! Beautiful ideas and emotions spring from my core only to travel the cluttered neurons of my brain, through the fatty sinews and musculature of my body and finally fall limply onto the page. There they dance for all the world to see as deformed children of my creation, without the glory that I intended for them. Flat forms, muddy colors, created by an untrained artist. Yet, there are corners and moments within each sketch where the intent shines through and I can see a small part of what I intended to say. The essence of the artist somehow remains and there is beauty. Through this yin and yang I continuously feed both sides of a lifelong internal war.
Vincent Van Gogh is known and celebrated for different parts of his work and life. I think I feel a kinship with him based upon a common Dutch heritage and an empathy with his personal struggles. I love the expressiveness of his work, his ability to capture feeling and emotion and freeze it on a canvas. Still, when I look upon his face (as he saw it) I know there is a longing within him to be more than he thought he was being. A longing to squeeze more from himself, to be more, fail less; and, perhaps, to even struggle less with his own demons. Even the fashion he turns his face away from his own self-portrait to hide the ear he severed off his own head (in a fit of madness) demonstrates his efforts to show himself as more complete than he really was.
Van Gogh was prolific and astounding in his talent. But I don’t believe talent was his daily personal concern. I believe his personal fight with his demons, his struggle within was the true daily challenge. Van Gogh’s talent was a simple manifestation of that struggle; his prolific artistic production was a sign of the level of his fight and the all consuming nature of his desire to perfect and order what he felt and saw in his heart.
Gallery 80 is a room with a view. It is a room of reflection and introspection. Clearly, the earliest and most rudimentary work of these two masters far surpasses any of my own; however, my comparisons and conclusions are not intended to be about the end product. The affinity I feel for the work is driven by a sense of who these two men were and what was happening within them as they worked. This is the lesson. The two men were contemporaries and traveled in some of the same circles, although Van Gogh was an unknown and Monet was considered far more successful during his lifetime. Each man had his own crosses to bear. One of these men never knew he was a success because he was unable to win the internal war with his own demons and his life was cut short by a revolver fired by his own hand. It was the struggle for a fullness of expression—or perhaps sanity—that drove their excellence.
Sadly, we do not choose all of the circumstances in our lives. Each of us will be forced to reckon with moments, limitations and losses that we would not desire. But dire circumstances can lead to some of our greatest work. Van Gogh himself, produced some of his most enduring art from within the walls of an asylum.
A question floats to my ears from somewhere within the temperature-controlled banality of Gallery 80. It is little more than a whisper: “Who will you be?” I peer quizzically at the elderly couple seated to my left: They are engrossed in the audio tour; the question didn’t come from them. Far across the room to my right, a jacketed docent docent stands next to a large Degas painting: He didn’t ask the question either.
The question comes again: ”Who will you be?”
This time the voice is faintly familiar—a mixture of all of the the voices of me. A chorus of friend and foe alike. Although some of them sound different without the sneer of accusation and doubt, they are undoubtedly my own.
The question hangs before me like a cloud of summer gnats, unable to be ignored and insistent. I look out the window and contemplate a response.
I have heard it said that growing old is nothing more than the slow decay of abandon giving way to expediency. The thought of losing passion and abandon makes me cringe at the prospect of an expedient existence where life is spent in the thick of thin things. My fear of expediency—my fear of an existence bleached of the passion, whimsy and wildness of youth—leads me back to a relationship with my own madness and doubt. The self-loathing is a companion of the creativity, and they never visit alone. For this reason I give myself willingly to the madness. In my mind, I leave the door slightly ajar and set him a place at the table. I do this willingly. I choose the suffering and the self-doubt. It is a choice I have forgotten how to unmake.
This is not a place without hope. I can prepare, as can any other, who deal with self-imposed expectations and perfectionism. In my personal journey, the mental madness has but one standard when it pertains to my art and it goes something like this:
To be able to express fully and completely what is within us, wholly and without error. For just the briefest of moments to be one with God through line, space, shade, shadow and paint. Using those abilities and talents bestowed upon us by the creator to replicate this world. His world. Our world. We replicate emotion and atmosphere and excite in others feelings they feel when they experience God’s creation. This is the only perfect art and the only expression worthy of pursuit.
I will fail. I can only fail when any effort is held up to the standard of the madness. Still I can prepare. I can accept that I am on a journey and that, while imperfect, there exist moments of perfection in my postcards from the journey. There is worth in the pursuit of perfection in anything that we do, even if the final result is far short of the goal. It is a fool’s errand to require perfection in this life as a precursor to happiness, worse yet to stake our self-worth on our ability to achieve it in any one thing. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, it lies in us…” We should set reasonable goals for ourselves, be more gentle and kind with ourselves in our humanness and fragility. There is a beauty that lies within each and every human being that we may or may not realize in our lifetimes. We should not snuff it out in ourselves simply because it doesn’t arrive on our timetable.
When I think of the subject matter chosen for these great paintings that I love I can’t help but think that each subject is so ordinary. They are just normal objects or people that have been animated by the touch of a master. I hope we find more time to celebrate the normal in our lives. There is so much of it, and there will come a time when the madness will make us wish for its return. I am reminded of a poem by Mary Jean Irion called “Normal Day”
Normal day, let me be aware
of the treasure that you are.
Let me learn from you, love you,
bless you before we depart.
Let me not pass you by in quest
of some rare and perfect tomorrow.
Let me hold you while I may,
for it may not be always so. One day
I shall dig my nails into the earth,
or bury my face in the pillow,
or stretch myself taut,
or raise my hands
to the sky and want, more
than all the world, your return.
Gallery 80 is indeed a room with a view. This is a place I hope to return and report throughout my life. How am I doing? Is the madness at bay? Have I remained fair and kind with myself? Am I working on my art and remaining true to my mission? Is my art expressive and emotive? There is so much to be seen within these simple four walls. There is an old bridge in London, an old church in France, a field of wheat, a woman and her son dancing in the sunlight, and the self-portrait of a man long since dead by his own hand (in the aforementioned field of wheat no less). Most importantly within that room there is me, and there is possibility.
Deep breath. Time to stand up and go. Floor groans. The windows close and the white walls return; but the mind, once expanded, does not retract so easily. I take one more look around, wipe my eyes and make for the door. As I pass, the docent gives a knowing wink. I look back to where I sat just moments ago and I swear I can make out a plump bearded man in a beret fidgeting over two or three canvases. Unbeknownst to him a gaunt, red-bearded man sits with his back to the canvases; his attention consumed by a charcoal sketch he is working on held just 12″ from his nose. I smile broadly and step from Gallery 80 eager to continue my journey.