My senior year of college, a professor took our class to the Art Institute of Chicago for a special exhibit related to our course material. After viewing the exhibit together, we had some time to explore the rest of the museum on our own before meeting back up for lunch.
I didn’t really know what to do.
I had never really known what to do with myself in an art museum. Part of me longed for the beauty and human creativity present. I liked the idea of experiencing culture and other people’s perspectives, expanding my worldview in the process.
But when faced with the immensity of some of these places, I quickly got overwhelmed. It was almost too much beauty — how could I ever see or appreciate it all? I found these experiences intimidating and overwhelming, and I left feeling sort of incompetent.
So at the Art Institute, I just wandered. I did snap a few pictures of things that jumped out at me. I thought maybe if I took more time with my photos later I would have the experience I was “supposed” to have.
My favorite that day was Georgia O’Keeffe’s Blue and Green Music. As a musician myself, I loved the idea of crossovers between artistic media. I found myself thinking about the image a lot in the coming days. It seemed like a glimmer of what was “supposed” to happen with art: it had surprised me, and it left me thinking about and wondering at its beauty.
After graduation, I lived in Europe for two years, and during that time I had the opportunity to visit cities like Paris and Florence and Madrid — cities where visiting major museums is almost a requirement. Add the typical crowds to the vastness of these spaces and you have all the makings of a really overwhelming experience. It can be hard to appreciate anything as you shoulder through a mass of people and stand on tiptoe to even get a brief glimpse of what you came to see.
On a trip to Paris with my housemates, I dutifully marched through much of the Louvre — though not all of it! It was a freeing realization that I didn’t have to try to see it all. Unsurprisingly, the Mona Lisa didn’t live up to the hype. At a couple of smaller museums — ones that, in hindsight, I’m surprised I added to our itinerary — I found more to ponder.
One was at the Musée de l’Orangerie, which features several large oval-shaped rooms where you are surrounded by Monet’s hugest Water Lilies paintings. Near silence is maintained; it’s something of a sacred experience. There, I found myself absorbed by the abstract beauty, drawn into a long inspection of how different colors and brushstrokes worked together to create an experience.
The other was at the Musée Rodin, a building full of sculptures by the guy who most famously created The Thinker. Going in, that statue was all I knew of him. Coming out, I was in love with how he saw beauty in the human body — and especially hands.
I was learning from the art itself how to receive art and to be surprised by it. Despite often feeling pressure to see it all, I learned how to linger a little. I tried to let pieces tell me a story, and I let myself have questions that I might never know the answers to (not an easy feat for this eternally-recovering perfectionist).
I also found a guiding focus that made museums a little more fun. I had long loved the Biblical story of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus. I had read several feminist takes on the story affirming Mary’s courage in the face of a confusing message that threatened her marriage, her future, and her place in society. I returned to her courage often as I considered my own unfolding path in life.
Seeking out the different ways this beloved story had been represented in art made visiting art museums into a scavenger hunt. I started to collect as many Annunciation images as I could, snapping pictures wherever (non-flash) photography was allowed. I followed Mary and Gabriel through the Louvre and the Uffizi and the Vatican Museums.
And then I visited Madrid. I knew I would visit El Prado to find the Annunciation by Fra Angelico. It is one of the most famous images of this scene, painted by someone so holy he is on the path to sainthood, and it seemed a fitting capstone to my ongoing museum quest.
I routed myself through the museum so that I would see this near the end of my visit. It was just like I had hoped: large, vivid, beautiful. I sat in its presence for a much longer time than my younger self would have thought possible.
When I finished, I started to steer through the crowds toward the exit, passing cursorily through a last couple of rooms. I found myself face-to-face with a stunningly tall painting depicting an angel and Mary — another Annunciation! The scale of this one was unlike anything I’d ever seen, and the colors and composition drew my eye over its figures in a way that retold this favorite story in a powerful way.
It literally took my breath away.
The drama in this painting echoed the drama of the story it depicted. I was brought into the emotional experience — something of the shock that Mary would have felt upon seeing a literal angel in her presence. And the years I’d spent trying to understand and appreciate art museums suddenly made a little more sense.
In the intervening years, I’ve realized slowly that this experience taught me something about how to pray, too. I wasn’t sure how to do art museums at first, but I knew there was something there that intrigued me, so I kept showing up. I made space for surprises by putting myself in the presence of beauty. Occasionally, unpredictably, I encountered something that took my breath away.
The breathtaking experiences are not something I can plan; they’re a gift. But I’ll keep doing my part: whenever I get the chance to experience a new art museum, I’ll take it. I’ll show up, stay open, and keep pursuing the beautiful.
Good art lasts a lifetime.— Carolyn Pirtle (@carolyn_pirtle) March 24, 2021
Really good art forms us for eternity.