Friday, September 29, 2006
The Blue Boy
I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but I love to read the obituaries. In a large city like this there are some really interesting dead people. The daughter of the guy who wrote "Happy Days Are Here Again", another person who did such great things that the fact that he also invented the BIC pen was a footnote, a fellow who was arrested during Watergate by the same man who saved his life during the Battle of the Bulge.
Today it was Martha Holmes' turn. She was the first woman photgrapher for "Life" magazine. I actually didn't finish reading the story because I was stopped in my tracks by one of her pictures. It was a photograph of the artist Jackson Pollock at work, a cigarette dangling from his lips, paint drizzling from his brush. The Postal Service used the same picture when they made the Jackson Pollock commemorative stamp. They airbrushed the cigarette out so as not to influence the children or very wishy washy people.
But that's not what stopped me. In the background of the photograph is one of Pollack's works resting against the wall. As nearly as I can tell, the thing he is working on is about to look just like that thing against the wall, but with less red in it.
I have never had a satisfactory answer to why his splattered paint is art. I doubt anyone has. Not even Sister Wendy has helped.
Contrary to what you might think, I am not an old fuddy duddy who writes off as nonsense things I don't understand. If I was, I wouldn't be a Catholic, now would I? I am willing to be open minded to the idea that art is simply about illuminating the human condition. Pollock's paint splatters are no less illuminating than a painting of a bowl of fruit, really.
I was zapped back to a visit I had to the Huntington Library in Pasdena. The Huntington is the home of the famous "Blue Boy". In fact, they have a whole roomful of Gainsborough's paintings, portraits all. Before you go look at the "Blue Boy", you can watch a little educational film about it. I did that.
It ruined my day.
The art expert in the film begins with the question "why THIS painting?" Why is this one so famous, so renowned? Why is this painting a higher level of art than others, even by the same painter? Fascinating.
He goes on to explain that the painting itself is of the neighbor boy. The blue suit is a suit Ganisborough would put on YOUR child and paint him in it if you wanted to have your child's portrait painted by Gainsborough. He put the blue suit on the neighbor's kid and had a 'calling card' to showcase his work. A demo tape, a spec script, a sample.
At the end of the film the expert asks the question again: Why this painting? And his answer?
WE DON'T KNOW.
I about blew my top. I wanted to take my head off and rest it in my lap so I didn't have to think anymore. We don't know??!!!???
Mr. Expert, that's your WHOLE JOB to know the answer to that question!!!!
Look, as a nun, I am willing to admit there's a lot we don't understand about God and Jesus and what it all means. That doesn't mean we don't have an answer! We may not understand the answer but we have one. At the very least we can explain to you that it's a "sacred mystery". "Sacred Mystery" is Catholic for, "just let it go."
I do know the answer, by the way, to the Blue Boy question. I only found out about it last month while reading the same section of the paper, this time an editorial commentary. It has nothing to do with art and everything to do with commerce. Once someone wants something and the art dealers get going on it and the price gets driven up and the rich guy wants it even more and the art dealer can keep the painting hot and keep rich people wanting the painting in their collection, we're off to the races. By the time some one's paid millions for a piece it has become famous and renowned.
It's not a mystery.