First time in Chicago in four decades. It was too cold and windy to land in after graduation, so I went further east, suitcase and borrowed money in hand, to Washington, DC. The first days there, in what I mistakenly thought would be an international city but was still a sleepy southern town when I was 21, I went to the National Gallery of Art and gawked. Yesterday, having just arrived, I went to the the Art Institute of Chicago. I was not alone.
You would have thought I was alone but I was not, and it wasn’t because of pods of high school students or tourists with museum maps. I was surrounded by 1500- to 2500-year-old people who overwhelmed me by their humanity – Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, and Tibetans. Statesmen, philosophers, fighters, conquerors, ordinary people, and gods. Mostly male, some female.
Why now so strongly? It’s not that I’ve never seen a marble bust before, I’ve seen plenty. It’s that I’ve never “felt” a marble bust – or stone or terra cotta or cast bust or bas relief or, yes, Carrara torso – so alive. They were cold, they were separate before.
Now they told me their story, how they carried themselves in the agora, their sense of responsibility or defeat, their innocent inability to explain that they didn’t know they were still innocent, their bafflement, their serenity inside the temple.
They told me through the turn of their head or the jut of their jaw, but they told me mainly through their eyes. We held conversations of a phrase here and a phrase there. My job was to listen, just that.
There was a painting of a man taken from his (Egyptian) tomb that I’d first seen in a compendium of art in a book I bought with that borrowed money so many years ago. I was struck by it then for its realism, I was almost mowed down yesterday by its eyes. This was a human being! He lived! He walked, talked, wore a wreath at least for his funeral but surely for other occasions also. Bet he was married and had children, maybe a business, or . . . what? What, dear human male, did you do when you had a viable body and mind? You had, I believe, a sense of wonder tempered by caution. I saw it in your eyes.
Why now? Perhaps because I am of an age where more people are dying around me than are being born. Of an age when people who have died are still real to me. Of an age where I not only understand the shortness of life but the aliveness of life. Of an age where nothing, nothing, nothing matters so much as caring and loving and holding, and beauty. Beauty as both treasure and key to treasure. Of an age where callousness is fatal.
It was not only the people who revealed themselves to me, but the sculptors, unknown and nameless, who created each work, and I use the word “work” here as a precious thing, for the physicality of stone, marble, and paint require muscle in the duty of message and transference. It also requires intelligence of execution (training and skill) and emotional elasticity and, ultimately, wisdom.
One cannot reveal innocence without knowing innocence in relationship to experience.
So the people revealed, and their revealing artists, surrounded me on the Chicago Art Institute and it was crowded, not by people with museum maps but by tangible presences that had navigated vast distances to say “I am because I was. Feel me, companion.”