…”arguably the least love-struck woman in all Western painting.” – Michael Fried
In his book Pictures and Tears, James Elkins explores the act of crying in front of painting—an act that if one is to believe him (and I do) strikes most academics to be as shameful as farting during an inopportune moment at the opera. Before writing, Elkins wrote to colleagues, friends who love art, and also posted inquiries in newspapers and journals. Everyone was asked the same, basic question: have you ever cried in front of a painting and if so, please share your story. His book is divided into “crying categories”: one chapter is about the weepy reactions in 18th century France to the paintings of Greuze, one chapter is based on the experience of an art historian in front of a series of Rothko paintings, and one marvelously zany chapter is about “the Stendhal syndrome,” named after the writer Stendhal who lost his marbles for a short time during his first visit to Italy, so moved was he by the art and architecture he saw.
Elkins comes to the conclusion that historical knowledge and emotion make for very strange bedfellows: “In most cases, history kills. Luckily it kills slowly, over many years. During the long interval between the first poison pill and the death of all feeling, history can give a great deal of pleasure. […] Art history continues to deepen my experience of images, and I keep buying, reading, and writing books of art history, even though I know I am slowly corroding my ability to address paintings with full emotions and an open heart.” In short, knowing kills our ability to feel; there is no emotion where there is knowledge. Darn. I learned a lot over the course of reading this book. James, what are you doing trafficking the pills of detached wisdom? Thanks a lot!
Despite the trenchant thesis, Elkins knows that measuring tears is not a clear-cut science and says as much: “Learning did kill emotion for me, but I also have letters from people who know a great deal about paintings and still cry.” Second, one would be hard put to argue that an un-wet yet jarring experience in front of a painting is somehow qualitatively less “emotional” than a similiar experience with tears. Finally, one’s own affective experience with art can differ from day to day: looking at something after personal tragedy is different from looking at something after a day at the office is different from looking at something after you’ve been dropped by your boyfriend, etc. and this instability constitutes one of the miracles of art: each act of beholding is a unique creation in time, a singular creation between the viewer and object.
It turns out that I am a happy exception to Elkin’s conclusion: I’ve read loads of serious art history, the kind that revels in words like “ontological, teleological, metonymy” and have come out unscathed. I do occasionally cry in front of paintings (I also tear up while reading, the last time was in the bathtub while reading Rimbaud’s correspondence). In fact, my crying episodes in front of paintings have always been thanks to what I know, not the contrary. The last time I cried was in the Musée d’Orsay in front of Edouard Manet’s Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase. At first I was simply entranced by the painting, by the brush strokes and colors. I looked at the painting for a few minutes, kind of “sinking into it” so that I was no longer looking at flowers or a vase per se but rather seeing how the shapes and colors echoed back and forth, as if calling each other into existence. Next, I pulled myself out and looked at the painting again as a compositional whole. Then my learning took hold: I remembered that many of Manet’s still lives (like this one) were painted at the end of his life when he was seriously ill and unable to work on large canvases. Méry Laurent, a good friend and former model (perhaps former lover too) would buy outrageous bouquets and take them to Manet when she visited him. I thought about how Manet had married his plain, portly wife Susanne out of a sense of duty, had agreed to pretend his son was his brother out of his mother’s bourgeois priggishness (so that no one would know Manet had had a child out of wedlock), and all of a sudden the painting, bearing no trace of self-pity or pain, serenely beautiful, seemed itself like an outrageous gift from the painter to me. My eyes welled up with tears.
Last week I met another weepy scholar, a former art student named Casey. Casey told me about her experience in the Musée d’Orsay in front of Manet’s Olympia. She had spent years studying 19th century French painting and Manet was a personal favorite. Yet, when she finally had a chance to see the painting in Paris it wasn’t just an academic pleasure: “I felt tears in my eyes, had chills, and somehow felt the painting all over my body.” The connection was at the same time so intellectual and physical that she had a hard time leaving the room.
I was happy to have found another educated crier and I asked her if she had ever seen Fantin-Latour’s painting of Manet in the Art Institute (for, I have to admit that in addition to knowing a fair amount about Manet and loving his painting, I also happen to think that he was quite a stud and this painting does my opinion justice). We got up from the bench, in my excitement I may have taken her by the arm (I don’t remember), led her to the painting, and then left her alone there, so that she could have a quiet moment with Ed.