Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Empathy


Empathy

In the serene stillness of Gallery 910 in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, just steps away from the frenetic animation of Fifth Avenue, hangs a painting that possesses the ability to transport an ordinary human being right inside the paradisiacal velvet of a flower.  Stare at it long enough and you begin to feel, rather than merely see, the very essence of the bloom as the luscious purple and fathomless black violet petals encircle your imagination, blotting out peripheral vision and ambient sound.  Stare at it long enough, and you begin to see the world from a flower’s point of view.  This is the magic of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris, a painting that provokes a deep recognition of the flower for which it is named, recognition both unexpected and profound.   Such was the talent of Miss O’Keeffe.   She reduced her subjects to their essential forms in order to allow us to see them anew, or perhaps really see them for the very first time.  
Strangely enough, I first became aware of this ability of Georgia O’Keeffe through her interpretation of a very different subject.  The charcoal drawing above is hers.  An early work, and one I think I could have recognized without ever reading her explanation of the piece.  As a sufferer of migraine headaches for most of my adult life, I knew, almost instinctively, that this was a painting of a headache.  Which indeed it is.  Cryptic, almost occult, the image is appropriately menacing.  A river of black fire?  A brain, sliced and laid bare, with its thoughts and ideas simmering?  It was easy to tell that the artist responsible for this drawing understood a migraine at its very core.  I have felt empathetic towards Georgia O’Keeffe ever since.
The capacity to enkindle and fan empathy is but one of the vital powers art has to make our lives more malleable and fine.  Through fiction and music, painting and performance, we are better able to walk inside the shoes of others, despite our own perhaps limited experiences.  Can an authentic empathy develop and be nurtured through art?  I think it can.  I have been fortunate in my time here on earth to never empirically know true desperation, but I have felt its heaviness resting on my shoulders as I journeyed to California with the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath.   I realized the heartbreak that can occur when one must choose honour over love when I read of Newland Archer’s fateful choices in The Age of Innocence.  If one is truly open and interested in the lives of others, if one really wants to know how other hearts beat and other eyes see, art is not a bad place to begin.  
The often callous words that have been spoken during the current nominating process for president here in this country have sometimes caused me to shake my head in disgust.   For myself, it is disturbing when anyone states that they are not concerned about the very poor”.  But when that statement is expressed by a man seeking the highest office in the land, I shudder.  Growing up wealthy, with all one’s needs more than mitt, I mean met, does not necessarily preclude empathy. It cannot be faked - the very attempt is cringe-worthy - but it may be cultivated if one has a willing heart.   And of course, there is always art to help out the candidate if he is interested.  For instance, there is currently an excellent revival of Death of a Salesman playing on Broadway.  Anna Deavere Smith has a new play that tackles the issue of health care in America called Let Me Down Easy.  For books, perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood or the wonderful new collection of essays by Marilynne Robinson called When I Was a Child I Read Books.  And of course, I would most heartily recommend Lad, A Dog by Albert Payson Terhune.
What about you?  
Has your mind ever be opened or changed by a work of art? 
 Has a painting or a piece of fiction ever gifted you with the type of recognition leading to empathy previously unfelt?
Do share.

22 comments:

  1. Absolutely Pamela, and by the way I do love O'Keefe's works of art.

    Mark Rothko...I did not understand when I was young, and as my art appreciation grew; I could see and empathize; when he went from his brightly saturated works, to duller and then grey/black works which preceded his suicide.

    I am featuring Anita Rivera, Designer and Paper Artist with Castles Crowns & Cottages, with her Giveaway on my site!

    xoxo
    Karena
    Art by Karena

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  2. Yes, one of Rembrandt's self portraits. I was maybe 10-11 years old when I saw it in a book and was so taken by it! I think it inspired me to be a portrait artist.

    When I went to the Louvre in Paris there were a few Rembrandts and to actually see the work of the artist who inspired me was very emotional.

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  3. Your piece on the gardener did exactly that - thank you :)

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  4. I remember being in awe when I saw Caravaggio's work in the Prado, in Madrid. The fact I was seeing one of the Great Masters work that I'd only seen in art books, was what made my spine tingle.

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  5. Such an interesting post - as another migraine sufferer, I'm fascinated seeing an interpretation of the feeling.

    When I first saw Monet's Les Nympheas at Musee de l'Orangerie, standing in the center of those rooms, surrounded by floor to ceiling panels, I felt almost as if I couldn't breathe. It truly changed the way I felt about painting and art because I was transported, not only to his garden, but to his vision of it.

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  6. Pamela, the exquisite expression on the Head of Medusa by Antonio Canova at the Art Institute of Chicago moves me nearly to tears every time I study it. It kindles compassion in me for the undeserving lost. I feel it toward the phantom in Phantom of the Opera and Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Even monsters can be pitied. So, yes, I too think art can nurture authentic empathy, but to keep it from dissipating into sentimentality, to make it authentic, we have to translate it into the real world. There's the rub. That, for me, is the hard part. Thank you for your question, it has given me something to think about today.

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  7. I have been overcome with emotion a number of times when coming upon a familiar or beloved piece of art In Real Life, Chagall, Picasso's Gurnica, Van Gogh, but to answer your question I think I would need to ponder it awhile!
    Thought provoking post, Pamela, ponder I will!

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  8. Hello Pamela

    What a delightful post.

    I had not seen the painting of a Migraine before and as a sufferer, I see exactly what Georgia O'Keefe felt in her portrayal.

    Several books have influenced me. My love of gardening possibly attributed to reading of Vita Sackville West's white garden and also Rosamund Pilcher's writing.
    My interest in painting in encaustic started when I saw the American flag by Jasper Johns, some 30 years ago. I have been moved by the paintings of Jack B Yeats in the National Gallery in Dublin, his brother William Butler Yeats poetry moves every vein in my body. Sorolla's paintings speak loudly to me. My first visit to the Uffizi and seeing Michelangelo's "The Holy Family" reduced me to tears and I stood before it for what seemed like an hour. Sorry to ramble on so much, I could go on an on.

    Thanks for another wonderful post
    PS. I am reading Home by Marylynn Robinson

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  9. Thank you for another insightful post!
    PS: Are you watching 'Birdsong' on PBS Masterpiece Classic? It's good!
    xoxo

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  11. I have never heard of O'Keefe Pamela and shall now look her up.

    As to works of art changing me - I have several very favourite paintings - depending upon my mood. If it is a sad time then I get comfort from paintings of English landscape - Constable, Turner. If it is a happy time then I want to look at works by people like Kandinsky, who is another of my favourites. As to what I would wish to hang on my wall to make me really appreciate it - maybe a Canaletto to remind me of many happy days spent in Venice. I adore Van Gogh and spent happy hours in the Amsterdam museum with his works - I love their vibrancy and their colour but on my wall permanently - maybe too demanding.
    My favourite animal is the hare - it reminds me or my childhood, it epitomises for me the wildness of the countryside. I have many pictures and sculptures of the hare dotted around my house and I couldn't bear to part with them.

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  12. Thanks for pointing out romneys quote... Geezsh!

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  13. Pamela, I have been touched by so many works of art, sculpture & painting, I can't even begin. But seeing the Big Buddha at Kamakura was an especially magical sight and makes an impression of peace & love. And though it's not really my style, I read part of the Hunger Games yesterday...makes me go hmmm...

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  14. Pamela,

    Thank you for coming to visit! What I think is so amazing about that image on my blog this morning is that there are over 2.2 million images that will now be available for us all to access. I cannot wait to get on the site to see the treasures.

    Speaking of being moved by a piece of art...every time I visit the Louvre I find myself sitting in front of La Jeune Martyre by PAul Delaroche. There is something haunting and mysterious about this piece of work.

    I am also moved by photographs, such as the one with the poeple in the bread line...how horrible that must have been for them, having no job, no money and standing in a line around the block for a loaf of bread.

    Thank you for sharing, have a wonderful day!

    Elizabeth

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  15. When I was a little girl, the print called "Museum Watcher" hung in our living room..I imagined it to be me. In green, and wearing a hat from the times, a young girl is posed looking deeply, I think, into a painting hung in a museum...I believe intensely that empathy has to be cultivated and that it comes from one's soul, and without it, one misses so much. Walking in another's shoes through reading, feelings put on canvas, history revealed, absorbed by a movie or concierto - to relate to another human's story, painful or otherwise, is truly a privilege and gift...oops, you got me started, Pamela ;)

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  16. Hi again,
    ...it's called The Museum Visitor by L. C. Earle..

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  17. Ooh dear, sorry. The Museum Visitor is by Lawrence Beall Smith, 1946; Earle is the painter of St. Andrews Caddie, another favorite of mine...

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  18. I think one of the geniuses of empathy was Norman Rockwell. Though much of his work was considered light themes, he had a tremendous talent for making you feel what the characters were feeling. His more serious work is rarely mentioned, but there are few paintings more powerfully effective than the "The Problem We All Live With" for making you want to jump right into the painting and take that little girl's hand.

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  19. Hello Pamela~

    I have not had a chance to read the book by Nobel Prize winner Eric R. Kandel, The Age of Insight, but loved listening to him and Charlie Rose have a fabulous discussion about art, the artists and the one seeing the art. His research of the brain led him to look into how the brain reacts to art. Fascinating! Art and Science have always belonged together and are so inter-related. Wouldn't it be wonderful to have it taught that way again?

    Should we expect anyone who would put their dog on top of their car in a crate for a 12 hour journey to be concerned about the very poor either? Now, do you think a brain like that reacts the same to art as yours? Hmmmmmmm...... ask Edward. :)

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  20. i remember going to a fine art museum as a child. i can't remember why, but there was a group of us. i stood before a painting of velvets and lace and pearls... folds of material... eyes that almost blinked back at my own... the luminosity of the round pearl... even as a child i knew i stood before greatness. i do remember the sounds all around me receding until only the painting and i were in a little quiet space. amazing to remember that! thank you for the reminder.
    and thank you also to donna above for reminding about the cruelty of that man. i know this blog is not political. but politics don't even enter into it for me. whenever i see or hear of cruelty, it is important to point it out so that it is not repeated or ignored.
    your blog is like fine wine!

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  21. Hello Pamela:
    There is something truly wonderful and, indeed, elemental,about the process when one is moved by a work of art. We can see how you have a very special relationship with O'Keefe's work and can fully understand this.

    For us, we cannot help but be moved to tears when looking at the Tintoretto 'Crucifixion' in the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice. It is a monumental work and never fails to make us feel very small and very human!

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  22. There is a painting by the Artist George de la Torre of a Woman with a Candle. I cannot recall at this time at what museum it resides. However, the face of the woman who is sitting down has the illumination of a candle shining on her face. To see it would only do it justice. My words are not enough. The candle is exquisite, and it has remained in my heart since the first time I laid my eyes and heart upon it.

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