Seeing as I spent my formative years in the company of two practicing engineers, I developed more than a little cynicism for the impractical. Over the years I’ve shed some of this snide attitude and added a little humanism to my utilitarian outlook, apparently possessing some shade of artistic inclinations.
Last week I was invited by a good friend to go to the Detroit Institute of Arts, to which their multiple van Goghs particularly drew me. I was so excited that, not unlike a child with a tooth under their pillow, the promise of a rewarding morning kept me up in my bed at night and roused me well before my alarm had a chance.
The van Goghs were as wonderful as I thought they would be, but did not turn out to be the most memorable parts of my visit to the DIA. For one, in the same room as Bank of the Oise at Auvres, there hung a painting by Renoir (who I had never heard of). In this piece sat a young woman with crossed arms whose soft features and softer brushstrokes commanded gently, but certainly, that I should fall immediately in love with the subject and painter alike. I obliged.
But the most surprising portion of my visit came when I found myself in the Modern and Contemporary Art sections of the DIA. The curators, I should note, ought to be commended for the careful layout of this exhibit. In the first room I entered, there were some of Picasso’s works from various stages in his life. Fairly uninitiated to his art, I was surprised to find that he had not in fact always been a cubist, as I had known him for. The first Picasso you see upon entering this room is an absolutely captivating painting.
This piece, Portrait of Manuel Pallares, is not a standard portrait for sure, but it is easily recognizable as a moustachioed man. The lines are bold, the strokes straight and the angles dramatic. My friend gestured to the rest of the (cubist) Picassos in the room, and commented that it was rather too bad that he had gone a bit off his rocker. Looking at the strange ensemble of shapes and curves, in comparison to the bold portrait beside me, I agreed with him entirely. We chatted briefly about modern art, exchanging quips I had heard many times from my engineering parents along the lines of “Anyone can put geometric shapes on a canvas,” “My little sister could do that,” and of course, “I don’t get it.” There is a strange sort of satisfaction that comes with dismissing famous art that I felt set comfortably back into my engineering-wrought psyche.
As I stood frowning in front of a large, slightly confusing, painting called Sylvette, my friend pointed out a small placard accompanying the piece. These excellent informative placards are scattered throughout the museum beside certain pieces, and this was one that described in brief how the model for Sylvette, Lydia Corbett, had met Picasso. As it turns out she was just a girl that he happened across in the street but requested she pose for him. Next to this blurb was a black and white photograph of her. I was shocked: seeing the picture in tandem with the painting it became immediately obvious how this was indeed a portrait of Lydia Corbett. In an intangible, bizarre way, it completely captured her.
While I stood staring, mouth unattractively agape, my previous notions towards the piece, and all contemporary art, fell away and I felt my mind revving up. Still reeling, I walked through the entire Contemporary section, taking in each and every piece carefully, reading all the placards I could find. I ended up spending what I later found out to be two hours in the exhibit, which I had considered skipping entirely when I initially saw it on the map. I now assumed that each piece held for me a moment of catharsis similar to Sylvette, I just had to look a little longer, think a little harder, empathize a little more. In the African-American area of the exhibit, there was a huge painting by Kehinde Wiley depicting a strong Black man wielding a samurai sword while riding on the back of a (visibly male) horse. The contrast between the grandiose scene and the vivid colour palate was enough to capture, at least for a moment, the attention of everyone who walked within view of it. The placard beside the painting explained that with this piece, Wiley was commenting on the dearth of African-Americans honoured in history classes, media and conversation. The composition of the piece was exactly that of any number of paintings depicting white men from American armies. The painting suddenly became so much more than its already impressive display of artistic talent. It was emotive, strong and clever.
Not every moment of – at least partial – understanding and appreciation came as easily as reading a placard, but with effort I was able to get more out of the work in the Contemporary exhibit than in the rest of my visits to other sections. That being said, there were certainly pieces that earned nothing more than a frustrated scoff or slow shake of the head, but only after putting in significant time and attention. And even some of these, though I was not able to appreciate emotionally or intellectually, I found compelling for their creativity, strangeness or, in the case of some sculptures, mastery of physics (the engineering in me was not completely gone after all).
After I had finally seen and at least attempted to understand everything that the Contemporary exhibit had displayed, I exited and walked into the historical American section. Now I say walked, but it felt oddly like stumbling. I didn’t realize until the third room why, but as I looked around this less colourful, less bizarre space, I realized that it was lacking the same energy I’d just left. I’d only realized upon exiting the Contemporary section how lively it had been for me, how engaging and strange and splendid.
I stood for a few minutes thinking about this, adjusting to it, before I spotted my friend for the first time since Sylvette. I didn’t know how to tell him that I’d changed my mind about Contemporary art, because it would have been untrue to generalize and say “I get it now!”
But damn if I didn’t try.