Look what beauty there is in the world!

While in NYC, Younger Son, his girlfriend, and I, visited the Museum of Modern Art. I had not visited, and it was high on the GF’s list, since she is an emerging photographer. The building itself, created to offer angles and perspectives and surprises and glimpses, as much a work of art as anything it houses.

I was only along for the ride, honestly. We had been on the go for several days by then, and I’d had a day of business conversations, plus the long trip out to Yankee Stadium for commencement (part 1). I trailed behind the young ones, admiring this, stopping to look at that. The Warhol soup cans are there, and delightful experiments with shadow and color and light where we lingered a long time, and GF took a thousand photos, especially of a little girl with curly hair who was enchanted by her shadow self dancing on the wall. It made me think of a fairy tale I loved in elementary school, Shadow Castle, by Marian Cockrell. (Anyone else love that book? It came in a Scholastic Edition, and I read it to tatters.)

The thing about a museum is that you never know what you’ll see. What will astonish or inspire or excite. The colors and shadows were somehow restful. Watching people watch themselves, seeing how much of a person is translated even in a shadow made me think of characters and how to make that into an exercise for students.

But when we got to the top floor, there was a surprise waiting. A lot of late 19th century-early 20th century French painters. There was a huge crowd against one wall, so we wandered over to see what it was. Miles vibrated next to me. “Starry Night!” he said in hushed awe.

He is much taller than I, so I wandered away, deciding to wait while the crowd thinned, taking in some other works along the same wall. The people around me ebbed and then washed away, like a tide, leaving me standing in front of a painting so astonishing that I felt it had reached out with strong ghostly fingers and captured me, freezing me where I stood. Stunned. Staring. So moved that tears sprang to my eyes. The reproductions I found on the web do it no justice, but I’ll put it here anyway:

The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau

It is a large painting, and drenched with light. The colors are both delicate and powerful. I could not stop staring, trying to eat it with my eyes. No words, just that huge swell of emotion, love and beauty and surprise–oh look what is in the world that I have never seen before! Miles came over and tugged my sleeve, urgently. “Mom. Starry NIGHT.” He was moved by it. As Steph was moved by the little girl dancing in the shifting violet and red and yellow lights.

I can’t remember the last time I felt so gobsmacked by a work of art. What a thrill it is! To come around a corner and see that, feel that.

As an artist myself, I most loved that there were so many different things in that building, and each of us were deeply moved by something different. Miles shot the architecture, the angles of the stairs and walls. He was snared by Van Gogh. Stephanie loved Warhol and the lights. That night, going to sleep in the tiny room in Chelsea, I closed my eyes and thought of Henri Rousseau in some Paris studio (maybe it wasn’t Paris, but in my mind, that night, it was) with fresh paint on his brush, bringing to life a painting that demolished me a century later, and I whispered up to the heavens, “thank you.”

Have you had that experience of being knocked out by a painting or a photo or other work of art? Where was it and what did you love? Tell me. Maybe I (or someone else here) will love it, too.

9 thoughts on “Look what beauty there is in the world!

  1. I had a powerful Rousseau moment, too. I was twenty at the Tate Gallery in London. I’d been through several rooms of Turners and Gainsboroughs and Reynolds which were nice but didn’t *touch* me, and I turned around and there it was. A still life of flowers in a vase.

    My eyes filled with tears and I was just taken aback. I could *feel* how he felt painting it. I don’t know how or why, but it was a HUGE moment for me.

    I had another Rousseau moment–the Sleeping Gypsy at MOMA. I was there to see a Matisse retrospective and I had my boy (the one who is traveling Europe solo right now) in a stroller. I was going to have to manipulate him up an escalator so one of the guards pulled me out of line. I thought they were going to tell me I couldn’t take the stroller (which would have been a problem because the boy was falling asleep). Instead they sent me to an elevator. Right next to the elevator was Starry Night and The Sleeping Gypsy. I couldn’t believe it! What an extra bonus. I would have missed them completely.

    The other most wonderful part about that trip was that the boy stayed asleep through the entire exhibit (which was enormous)–so I was able to enjoy it all–but woke when we got to the room with the cutouts. Such joyful, colorful shapes.

  2. Alice B

    Yeah, gobsmacked. That’s how I felt at the Art Institute of Chicago when I came across Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion. I was cutting through a gallery when I saw this painting. It stopped me cold. Glory, humanity and inhumanity laid out on canvas. Even though I moved on to other parts of the museum, I came back three times. Each time I was moved to tears. Isn’t it amazing how art can set your heart on fire when you least expect it?

  3. Carol

    Barbara, I spent the most wonderful morning at MOMA last fall, and I too was gobsmacked by that entire floor. Just beautiful thing after beautiful thing.

    My absolute gobsmack memory, however, is from 1984, when there was a French Impressionist exhibit in Los Angeles in conjunction with the Olympics. They had 11 (eleven!) of Monet’s Grainstacks, installed in a circular room. I just stood in the middle and kept turning. One of my life’s goals is to see all the rest of them – slowly, it’s happening!

  4. Tapsi

    Leonardo Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi at the Uffizi in Florence was totally my stunned, sudden tears, breathless ‘oh!’ moment. It immediately drew your eyes as you entered the room. I tried to make my way to it gradually, building up the anticipation, but was still unable to resist looking at it surreptitiously from time to time. A conveniently placed bench in front of it ensured that I sat there staring at it for a good, long time. Was he a genius or what?

  5. Dali’s Last Supper at the National Gallery in Washington. It was huge and full of light and I wanted to just fall into it. Not sure if this link will work, but here’s trying:


  6. There’s a painting at the Musée Carnavalet of a man named Armand Carrell (a writer/lawyer/militant killed in a duel when he was only 36) that just floors me. I don’t even know who it’s by but everytime I go to the Carnavalet I rush to that section (it’s not always open) and stand in front of this painting for several minutes. There’s a burning in this man’s eyes that I’ve never seen on canvas before.

    I’ve also spent a great deal of time sitting on the floor in the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe–she takes my breath away. Then there’s Chagall’s fresco on the ceiling of the Opéra Garnier, so much joy and light.

    And though I can’t say it’s a favorite work of art, David’s Coronation of Napoléon always leaves me awestruck by its sense of proportion.

    I’m heading for Giverny next weekend. I’m pretty sure I’m going to have a few moments then 🙂

  7. I love Frida Kahlo’s self portraits–but my most vivid memory of being really moved down to my toes by one of her works was “My Dress Hangs There (New York)” — I ordered a print from Mexico so now her “dress” hangs here–in my writing room.

  8. These moments are all so fantastic. I have new ones to put on my list.

    Giverny and Florence are definitely high on my list of places to visit.

    And Cindy, Kahlo. Yeah.

  9. Yvonne Erwin

    This might be a little different. Here in Springfield, our regional Art Museum, just opened their 2008 Watercolor collection. It opened on Friday and as I didn’t get to go on Friday, I decided I’d go this afternoon.

    Normally, watercolor doesn’t do much for me as I find it just too one dimensional. However, I found the journey through each wing quite delightful today and even found a favorite, painted by an artist in Ballwin, Mo – light, color, rocks, ravines, it was amazing.

    Two other works really appealed – one was called “the Optimist” and it held a long-haired man in a rain slicker, shorts and boots jaunting along on the street, looking up at the sky in the rain while everyone else in their suits and good shoes had their umbrellas open. I loved it. Even the stance of his feet shouted “optomist” to me.

    The other one appealed maybe only for sentimental reasons. It was of a city street, any city, and held a burg of open shops; a guitar shop, a travel agency, a karate studio, and a bar and grill called “Michael’s Bar and Grill.” My oldest son is named Michael and so I enjoyed it very much. Also enjoyed the winter scenes there today.

    Well, the exhibit will be here until August 3 and I suspect I will go again between now and then. As I left, I thought if I had a purse full of money, I would have brought home a print or two…

    It makes me want to take up painting…

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