31 March 2010
My friend H___ and I met at Victoria Station for the short commuter train ride to the Village of Dulwich for our visit to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. In the summer of 1988 I had interned at the Gallery for about 3 months doing research for an exhibition on 18th century portraits of the Linley family by Thomas Gainsborough alluringly entitled, “A Nest of Nightingales.”
The Gallery is basically the same- a wonderful collection of mainly 17th and 18th century paintings put together between 1790-1795. The collection is housed in an architectural gem specifically designed by John Soane in 1811 to exhibit these works of art. Yet, these paintings were never intended to remain in England. At the end of the 18th century, a pair of art dealers, Noël Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, were commissioned by the King of Poland, Stanislaw II Augustus, to find and purchase a royal collection/national gallery for Poland. However, by 1795 Poland ceased to exist after having been dismantled by Prussia, Russia and Austria. The King was forced to abdicate and the two dealers were left with the paintings.
At first Desenfans and Bourgeois sought to sell the paintings, but could not find a buyer. They then decided to bequeath the collection to a suitable institution. Since there was no British National Gallery until 1824, they offered the works to the British Museum. However, Bourgeois thought that the museum trustees were “too arbitrary” and “aristocratic,” so the dealers left the paintings to Dulwich College insuring that the works would be put on public display. John Soane designed the gallery to exhibit the collection in 1811 and the museum opened to the public in 1817.
My friend H___ bought our tickets at the desk and as I walked into the gallery surrounded by paintings from eye level to the ceiling, I began to cry. Having struggled through years of depression, I never imagined that I would be able to return to this incredibly exquisite and magical space. Regaining my composure, I was again struck by the quality and beauty of the works on display. The Gallery is a visual extravaganza.
There are many portraits in the Gallery looking out silently at visitors since 1817. I wondered if they remembered a New Wave/punky kid of 20 who wore black clothes exclusively, sported big black shoes and dyed black hair with a rockin’ cut from a salon on King’s Road. Did they notice the utter bliss I felt working in their museum? Did they notice me strolling through the closed, silent galleries during the lunch hour when I would savor every moment and every picture without the distraction of gallery visitors? Do they recognize me now 22 years later? Is some of my past emotion embedded in them?
Spending time at Dulwich in 1988 I came to realize that some works of art have a soul; they breathe and I think this is especially true of certain portraits that look directly at the viewer. For example, in Van Dyck’s masterful painting of George, Lord Digby, later 2nd Earl of Bristol, the subject stands in an elegant and mannered pose wearing a white shirt and a sumptuous orange, salmon velvet dressing gown that is jauntily draped around his body. I can almost feel the soft, smooth fabric of the gown; I lose myself in its luxurious folds. Yet, it is George’s eyes that truly command my attention. He looks at me and I meet his gaze. He is in a sense conscious and the painting breathes as if the subject is alive. Van Dyck has captured more than just a likeness of the subject. He has rendered in paint an essence, a conscious being.
Looking at the portraits at Dulwich, I am reminded of a story told to me by a wonderful art history professor of mine from Trinity College named Thomas Baird who died too young at the age of 66. During World War II he was attached to a contingent of soldiers who were stationed in the newly liberated Paris and charged with watching over works of art including the famous Mona Lisa. One day, Baird saw a fellow soldier standing with his back to the Mona Lisa and then turning around quickly to look at the painting. Baird asked him what he was doing and he said, “I’m trying to look at her before she looks at me.”
Without any art historical training, this soldier realized a profound truth about art. His action acknowledges that the Mona Lisa and other paintings of that caliber are in some sense alive, conscious and replete with feeling. They fix us in their gaze before we can ever apprehend them visually. As spectators, we in a sense become the object of their eternal and unrelenting gaze.
And so do the eternally staring eyes of Dulwich remember me? Do they see me in their eyes as I see them in mine? We each stare at the other across the centuries wondering who is that, what is he or she all about? And although I don’t know and can never know the real secrets of these individuals nor can they know mine, we stare out at each other through time and realize that we are all magnificent and mysterious creatures.