Artwork Alone

I never stop to smell the flowers. According to an article in The New York Times from this past fall, “The Art of Slowing Down” is something we take for granted at a museum. To be honest, being surrounded by beautiful artwork seems like a task itself. We wander through, looking for the coolest painting or sculpture, maybe a piece to pose next to in hopes of a hilarious Snapchat. We check off a box on our “to-do” lists, and the heart and soul someone poured into this work is quickly forgotten.

Four years ago I was wandering the streets of Barcelona with a couple of my high school friends, wondering how to spend our last day in Europe. We decided to go to the Museu Picasso – easily a must-see in Barcelona. I expected to exit the museum inspired and persuaded to take my love of art to another level.

Instead I came out tired, hungry, and frustrated.

Crazy lines and crowds surrounded each piece. I wandered the museum looking for a slight break in the crowds to stare at even an incomplete piece of artwork done by one of the greatest artists of the 20th century.

So when I read what University of Pennsylvania professor James Pawelski tells his students to do, I knew I had to try it out.

From the article in The New York Times: “Professor Pawelski takes his students to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, home to some of the most important Post Impressionist and early modern paintings, and asks them to spend at least 20 minutes in front of a single painting that speaks to them in some way. Twenty minutes these days is what three hours used to be, he noted. ‘But what happens, of course, is you actually begin to be able to see what you’re looking at,’ he said.”

My instructions were to wander, find something to stare at, and let it sink in. Simple enough. In the article a woman describes her experience—stating that after she spent 20 minutes in front of a painting, she started to see herself in it.

I honestly thought that was shit. Really? You see yourself in a 19th century painting of a French prostitute?

Now don’t get me wrong, I have a great respect for art and artists. My heart lies with music and graffiti, but I can always appreciate the contemporary art that adorns the walls of museums. I decided, however, to expand my horizons and spend 20 minutes in front of a European painting from the late 19th or early 20th centuries—when Modernism first took its steps towards glory.

I went to the Museum of Fine Arts at 10:35 a.m. on a warm Monday morning, planning to spend an hour there before having to dash to class. I was running late as always–a trait I picked up from my mother. I tried to avoid the majority of the first floor, as it was infested with small children and proud iPhone 6 wielding parents that couldn’t help but take just one more picture of their child doodling in one of Boston’s best museums. I walked with my headphones in and my face down, looking for anywhere that wasn’t filled with tourists and school groups.

I eventually found myself towards the back of the museum and in the Art of Europe section. I climbed up the stairs, proud that I was exactly where I wanted to be without trying. I spent what felt like hours walking through gallery after gallery, searching for something that really spoke to me, like a light beckoning for wanderers lost in a dark night.

Just when I was about to give up and pick a painting in a room with a bench—just so I could sit and observe— a small group of tourists waddled in, talking with sharp voices and questioning a tour guide to no end. I walked away knowing I wanted to be able to take in a painting without distraction. I found myself in a hallway that emulated emerald marble. I did a time check: 11:03 a.m. I turned into the first room on my left and my eyes opened wide.

The Lorna and Robert Rosenberg gallery features European pieces from the mid 19th to late 20th centuries. There are centuries-old furniture, sculptures, and paintings that range from the Head of Medusa frozen in time, to a woman, Hope, chained to a wall and begging her God to release her.

Tucked away in a corner, next to a cabinet and behind a table and lamp, Woman in an Interior hangs on a wall. I took out my headphones and started to fall deep into the oil on canvas painting from the early 1900s, by Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi.

The woman in the painting sits alone by a window, facing a wall. The lighting suggests it’s early morning, and that the woman is just waking up from restless night’s sleep. She’s dressed in dark colors from head to toe, her hair neatly tied back with her head bowed down. The painting resembles a grainy photograph.

After staring at the painting for a few minutes, I started to imagine further into the woman’s life. I began wondering who she was, why she was awake so early, and what she was doing. The questions rolled out of my brain, causing me to look deeper and deeper into this undefined scene.

Then, suddenly, my imagination switched gears. I thought about my mother and grandmother and how they both don’t sleep. They spend their early mornings alone, dressed in dark colors with their heads bowed down. That’s the time when they must think to themselves about all the tragedy that they’ve gone through in their lives. Losing sons and brothers, close friends and distant family. I thought about what my life might be like if I had to go through as much tragedy as them, and how I could become as strong as they are while dealing with everything they’ve dealt with.

A pair of women walked in and started talking, snapping me back into reality. I checked my phone for the first time since stumbling upon Woman in an Interior: 11:27 a.m. I knew I had to run in order to make it to class on time, but I felt a strange connection to the woman. As I turned to leave through the emerald hallway, invisible strings tried to pull me back.

But I left the woman, alone to her thoughts.

I was so happy to be wrong about this experience. Though I didn’t come out a changed woman, I felt more appreciative of art from outside my comfort zone. That 20 minutes I spent with Woman in an Interior became something so much more than standing alone in front of a painting.