Thursday, July 5, 2012

Nature Up Close

Veronica and I have been in Ottawa for two and a half days now.  Because we're staying downtown and getting the train to Montreal tomorrow, we didn't rent a car.  So we've walked miles in the heat.  We've trolled the Byward Market for culinary lavender, soap from Provence, and tea.  We've found a fan in China town and rose water in an Indian grocery store.  We found the one downtown yarn shop, but exercised some restraint.  We've walked the canal and Veronica has taken some remarkable pictures, but mostly of alleys.  Somehow the Ottawa streetscape--too polite, perhaps?--doesn't quite lend itself to the kind of photography she does.  She has a wonderful photograph of three women in  head scarves and long robes walking confidently down a very dark alley talking to one another animatedly; this will be part of the book of photographs and poems we're working on, though I've got a harder imaginative job than she has.  Or perhaps I can take my cue from her and not make anything in particular of their accents or their dress, but only notice their modernity, their liveliness, their at-homeness with one another.

The highlight of the trip has been the reason we're in Ottawa:  the National Gallery of Canada has put together a blockbuster show of Van Gogh's paintings entitled "Van Gogh up Close," focussing on work from the last four years of his life.  The paintings come from all over the world, from Amsterdam, Chicago, and Tokyo.  The minute you walk into the exhibit, Van Gogh is indeed very close:  in fact, it's entirely surrounding you, his magical brushwork translated into the walls of the entryway.  This becomes implicit advice in how to see Van Gogh.  We were at the end of the group allowed in at 11, which was actually fortuitous.  We felt no need to hurry, and every opportunity to stand in front of each painting, soaking in his brave, vibrant sense of colour, first; then comparing his composition of a group of fruit to what might be expected of a less adventurous painter, and then getting up as close as the security would allow to look at the brush strokes. 

We think there's a "typical" vigorous Van Gogh brush stroke, but these paintings--none of which I'd ever seen before--belie that assumption.  What they do suggest is that every stroke of his brush is purposeful, and that he pays particular attention to the backgrounds of his still lifes.  We stood before the painting above (photographed here from the catalogue) and Veronica quoted Yeats to me:  "..the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, /  the blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned."  (If I've got that wrong, blame my memory.  I'm guessing at the line breaks.)  The hurried brush strokes of the background evoke this sense that everything is about to spin away from the centre.   Then she pointed out that the centre does hold, and it's the everyday, the domestic. 

His brush stroke is sculptural.  You can almost feel his body's energy in the canvas, and this is conveyed to your body, so that your reaction is almost as physical as it is mental or visual.  His work makes you an embodied viewer.  You want to dance with the almost anthropomorphic wheat sheaves in his paintings of fields.   In some of the landscapes from this period, the brush strokes in the foreground are particularly intense as if to urge us to pay attention to what is before us.  Sometimes the horizon line is absent from the painting, so we can't get oriented and can only depend on what's right in front of us.  There are forests with undergrowth that pull you right in and fields of poppies without end that embody joy.  

Once you leave the exhibition, you can't get back in, so Veronica and I paused before the exit doors and then turned around and went back through the crowd to our favourites.  One of the things that struck me then was how polite we all were, crowded as we were into the rooms of paintings.  One woman was viewing them from a wheel chair, and we were all very careful not to cut her off or crowd in front of her.  When we caught someone's eyes, there were smiles of knowing delight.

Upstairs in the galleries that normally hold photographs and prints  was an exhibition that meshed perfectly with the Van Gogh entitled "Flora and Fauna."  Here up close and beautifully lit black and white photographs taught us about the architecture and physiology of leaves or watercolours created urban gardens.  I found one of the most affecting pieces to be what looked like a small sarcophagus lined with butterflies.  The title of the work was "Pavane pour une enfante defunte" by Laurie Walker, with references to Ravel's music of the same title.  This explained the small sarcophagus and suddenly shifted the meaning of the exotic butterflies--each of them a small soul.

When we felt that we were nothing more than eyes, we went to the Rideau Chapel to hear Janet Cardiff's sound installation "Forty Part Motet," a recording of the forty voices it takes to sing sixteenth-century composer Thomas Tallis's "Spem in Alium," translated "I have never put my hope in any other but You."  She recorded the voices individually, and has positioned them around the chapel in groups of five.  We came in at the end of a performance, the full voices of the choir surrounding us as we walked toward the chapel, goose bumps on my arm.  We then stayed for two more performances, once simply sitting to feel the celestial music surround us, once to walk around and become acquainted with the individual voices.  The recording actually starts before the performance, so you can hear people humming bits of their parts, or a young choir boy explaining to the bass sitting next to him where the difficult bits come for him.  Each voice has its very own point, yet all forty make a rich and orderly sound tapestry  to surround the listener.  Hearing the pre-performance conversations and practice makes the musicians very human, very individual.  And then they become part of something far bigger than each of them to create something quite divine.  Listening is a humbling yet transcendent experience.

The national gallery didn't say anything to us about the environment.  It didn't chastise us for our failure to recycle or the effects of our plane trip here.  But it taught us how to see, and it showed us the marvels, the miracles of the natural world--miracles we would be loath to do without.  Van Gogh's paintings and his words on the walls spoke to the way nature made little points of sanity in the otherwise difficult last five years of his life--thus of the way our relationships with nature might be one of the most sane and humane things about us. And then it let us hear what we can accomplish when we put our voices and our energies together.  Don't tell me art is a frill, a little pretty decoration for bored lives.  It's clearly integral to thinking about what we value while giving us the freedom to think our own thoughts and to imagine our world viewed a little differently.

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