Another Sort of Shock of Recognition
In my last entry, I used the phrase “the shock of recognition” to name the feeling I had when I thought (incorrectly) that, courtesy of a Renaissance art exhibit at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), I was in the presence of a painting from the Louvre, Giotto’s St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. I have thought since that I would like to mention another sort of recognition that I have experienced with visual art, one that doesn’t rely on recalling a specific memory, as my encounter with Taddeo Gaddi’s St. Francis did, but rather reflects an instantaneous bond with an unfamiliar work of art encountered unexpectedly.
Although my AGO moment with Taddeo Gaddi was unexpected in some ways—for example, I did not know which Renaissance works were in the exhibit—I nevertheless went hoping to find something from the Louvre there and also hoping I might be able to recognize it on sight. The shock I experienced in seeing Gaddi’s St. Francis depended on my familiarity with what I was looking at, rather like noticing a face in a crowd and feeling sure I had seen it before, even if I couldn’t instantly put a name to it.
But another sort of recognition of a work of art also occurs, I think, and is in some ways even more profound. It is free of all mediating influences, including my own memory. There is only a sense that a thing I have never seen before has impressed me greatly, that I have seen a great work and had the good sense to be moved in its presence. This type of recognition is rare for me. My meetings with art are almost always mediated; they occur in buildings devoted to preserving art and to supporting art’s importance by introducing me to crucial details of the work’s origin, production and history in the world.
I especially associate this shock of recognition with an experience forty years ago when my husband and I were visiting Guadalajara, Mexico. We were walking downtown, near the public square in front of the cathedral; it was a regular business day, and the street entrances to the government buildings were open, allowing us to glimpse lovely interior courtyards. We went in. There was a flight of stairs, and we started up it to reach a second-floor walkway that looked out on the courtyard from above, but were stopped almost at once when we saw a mural that filled the domed roof over the landing. It was an enormous image of the face and upper body of a white-haired man. He was wearing priest’s vestments. His right arm was extended in front of him and supported a flaming torch that, like a sword or club, extended lengthwise across his body; his left arm was raised over his head. Enormous eyes looked upward.
I had not expected to find a work of art in the stairwell, I didn’t know the name of the artist, I didn’t know when the mural was done, I didn’t know who the revolutionary priest was. It was simple enough, of course, to gather all this information. Based on what we learned, we viewed several other murals created in Guadalajara in the 1930s by José Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), who was born near the city (For more, go to http://hoodmuseum.dartmouth.edu/docs/orozcobrochure.pdf.). We also discovered other signs of the city’s role in the 1810-1 battle for Mexican independence, including other monuments to revolutionary leader, Miguel Hidalgo, the man pictured in the mural. But I have always prized that first encounter, even though I can’t claim that I can recapture in memory exactly what I saw that day. In fact, my first attempt to describe from memory what the mural looked like had the torch up over Hidalgo’s head and his eyes staring down at us. I corrected the description after checking my photograph and online sources.
As much as I love my Louvre book and the hope it gives me of being able to return someday to the Louvre a better informed and self-confident visitor, I wonder whether I’m working too much on one sort of recognition—being able to put a name to each new image I see and then on each return visit to hail it as an old friend—and not enough on the other sort. There’s some comfort, I suppose, in noticing how quickly I forget: sometimes after only a few days of looking at new paintings, I can’t remember the names of the artists I’ve made notes on or recall the images I’ve seen. Won’t there be a lot of “first encounter” moments with paintings I have already met?
Besides, even if I can’t identify them by name or describe them fully or even label them great, some of the paintings I have seen for the first time during the Louvre project are still with me because of the shock of that first sighting. I have included here, as an example, by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) active 1423-1450, Blessed Ranieri Delivering the Poor from a Prison in Florence ca. 1440.