Sometimes, when I visit an art exhibition, it is enough to spend an hour or so getting lost in the paintings.
Sometimes, the paintings are not to my taste and rather than getting lost in the art, it loses me and I leave feeling that I have walked through a sweetshop and failed to eat any of the sweets.
I have been to art exhibitions where every picture is a wow - Turner, Lowry, the 2017 BP portrait award - and to some where none is - Rauschenberg at Tate Modern. And I have been to some unexpected gems - Ernest Shepherd's illustrations at the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A and a marine art exhibition in 2016, in a small maritime gallery in Mystic, USA.
Special exhibitions or event exhibitions are expensive and I have devised a private, retrospective is-it-worth-it score. If there is one picture that makes me stop and stare. And stare again. That pauses time. And takes my breath away. If there is one of these - there only needs to be one - then the is-it-worth-it worthiness is confirmed. A good exhibition might have several wow pictures but it takes only one for me to consider my money well spent.
Of course, what is a moment of art-appreciating bliss for me might leave others non-plussed; cold even.
For example, Littlest doesn't get Rothko. I do.
Gerhard Richter (look him up) paints sublime abstract interpretations of music like a woven watery landscape of colourful threads - I love them but I know others who don't.
Van Gogh's iconic blurry, swirling yellow moon in the inky dark, star-pocked sky, of The Starry Night 1889, is all the more astonishing when you understand that it was painted while he was within the Saint-Remy asylum and probably suffering the side effects of digitalis treatment. This perhaps explains the almost child-like brilliance of the painting but it's that garish naivety and the troubled addled mind behind it that half turn me away. It gets a half-wow from me (though The Whitney, NY, where this Van Gogh is housed, was worth it - the self-portrait of Hopper a big, big wow).
Paintings tell stories. And I love stories. The picture an artist produces has a narrative, intrinsic to what he or she is seeing or trying to say. We see what the artist painted. But not necessarily what he or she saw. There is a difference.
Edgar Degas (he of the ballet dancers) said, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."
We might understand the artist's picture but each of us will interpret it with our own ideas; our own stories. We bring all our previous experiences and beliefs and sometimes prejudices to formulate what we see. And what I see is not necessarily what you see. Or what Mrs Blogs, recently widowed and on holiday alone from deepest darkest countryside, sees. Or Jenyfyr, whose parents didn't know how to spell and were puzzled by her decision to leave their drafty yurt and become a legal secretary, sees. Or retired Frank, who wrote the definitive guide to sixteenth century artists' pigments and still receives invitations to speak at universities, sees. Or Poppy, who sits on the floor and twiddles with the volume on the black box dangling round her neck and has to hold the too-big head phones with her other hand, sees (when she can see past all the knees). We're all different and no interpretation is right - except perhaps one might argue because it makes no sense otherwise, the artist's. Ultimately, the artist's picture is a gift for us to take and do with what we like.
Here are some pictures and their stories that I have recently marvelled at. At risk of being boring - because I'm not sure if I can legally insert images here - I could say shut your eyes and listen and see in your mind's eye but as you're hopefully still reading this and need your eyes for that, it might be better to say 'let me tell you a story' but bear in mind it's my story and if you do see these paintings one day, you might see something entirely different.
1) Modigliani - on at Tate Modern until 2nd April. If you visit, look for The Cellist, painted in 1909. I see a man in a collarless shirt, in a tired apartment and bathed in a warming glow probably from a single candle, with the room behind him in partial shadow. The cello looks a little battered, it's wood slightly mottled, almost bruised in places. But while these observations are pretty and have a weak narrative, the story comes alive in his face. His head is slightly bowed; his face expressionless, unlined, framed by thick dark hair on his head, chin and across his upper lip. Still just a picture. But ... but, but ... Modigliani shuts the cellist's eyes and suddenly the narrative is there - so strong that you almost hear the music. Who is he? What is he thinking? Why does he look so alone? Absolutely intriguing.
2) The Turners at Tate Britain, now and at any time you want to visit. And free. Saunter and dream and marvel at them all. All are incredible. I could lose myself among them for hours; days. However, for this purpose here take one - the one that Littlest flopped down in front of and sat staring at until I dragged her away. My work at encouraging her to enjoy art - well and truly done. A wow moment for me in itself. All the exhibition fees that went before, worth it. Worth it with bells on. The painting? The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, 1817. Huge, striking, dramatic - yes, all of those things but also storytelling at it's very best. Imagine: a doomed, soon to be ruined stone city, stragglers of it's population who failed to flee on the ships that left the port earlier that eventful day, scattered broken belongings on the quayside, a calm estuary reaching out to a distant golden sea and the sun glowing ever nearer to the horizon illuminating the now impassible path to salvation. Look at the huddles of people clinging to each other. Look at the despair on their faces. Imagine the impending, inevitable sacking of their city, their lost hopes and smashed dreams. The sun is setting. Setting like it always does but this setting sun is magnificent and terrible; the last rays of searing light sealing the fate of an abandoned people. Beyond lies darkness and in half-shadow in the right foreground sits a woman, crumpled and clinging to a wall, with her head in her hands. See what I mean by great storytelling? That one hopeless woman in the shadows, beyond the thinning light of the dying sun says to me all that Turner distills into the whole picture. Brilliant.
3) Tissot, at the magnificent Impressionists in London exhibition, at Tate Britain until 7th May. I had not come across Tissot until this exhibition - another that Littlest and I visited at half term (after I had dragged her away from the Turners). The Impressionists were remarkable. This was an exhibition of many wows. Definitely worthy on my is-it-worth-it score. But it introduced me to Tissot and to the finer points (excuse the pun) of dry-point and etchings. And this lifted it high in my worthiness rankings and encouraged me to visit the Desboutin's (more etchings) at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge last week (also very good).
Back to Tissot and specifically Emigrants, drawn in 1878. Littlest had to drag me away from this picture. Imagine a drawing of a mother carrying her infant child; steadying herself because the load she carries is heavy. She is in an elevated position in the centre of the picture because she is about to step down onto the deck of a ship. A weathered old man, perhaps a sailor, reaches up to help her, his face slightly hidden beneath the brim of hat. His clawed hand gripping the ladder hints, in my head, at desperation and neediness - what are his motivations in helping the young woman and is he entirely to be trusted? Above her is a forest of masts and flags and gathering clouds. It's dark and brooding; quite Victor Hugo-esque in it's bleakness. And - here the story stirs - behind the woman, still on land, is an older man and the face of a wondering, curious, confused child. Just the face. From the picture's title, she is an emigrant, as Tissot was, and is leaving somewhere with her baby and small bag of belongings. Is she also leaving the wondering child? What is she fleeing from? Where is she going? Tissot teases us with questions and sends our imaginations spinning off into myriad narratives; little stories that answer some questions and sprout more. Wonderful.
If you have got this far, you either think I'm mad and living in a fantasy world or you agree that flat static pictures are capable of telling incredible stories. Am I alone in thinking that they would lose something if they moved; if the figures were animated, as in the world of Harry Potter?
artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection - The Emigrants