Try Going Home Unchanged by This Painting
Ivan taught me how to look at paintings. We met in line at the Louvre. It was my final day in Paris, my final city, concluding thirty days traveling alone. When the man who turned out to be Ivan touched my shoulder I softened, relieved by an unthreatening hand, expecting to turn and find someone I knew. But there was Ivan, a stranger, chubby and balding, his olive shirt unbuttoned to the fur on his chest. “I need to get in front of you,” he said, his English knotted by a Romanian accent. “I have someone important to see.”
I let him cut. The people before me did not. Ivan and I spoke to each other, hasty and vacant at first, until he asked what I had come to the museum to see. Titian. “Give me,” he said, meaning my map. He penned a route right to the Salle des Etats, the room Titian shared with that “most overrated attraction,” the Mona Lisa. He advised me to give it a glance—only a glance. Then he flashed a card at the ticket window and dashed into a crowd of flashbulbs and faces.
A motley, silent congestion dammed the entrance of the Salle des Etats. Inside, the Mona Lisa hung on an island, roped off and defended by gray-eyed guards cleaning their nails and shaming photographers. I advanced to the back of the room, to Titian’s The Entombment of Christ, where I stood for thirty-five minutes, my arms dutifully crossed.
I had spent the last month in museums, in front of Velásquez, Bosch, Goya, Vermeer, in a state of awe and confusion, but I could not say that I learned more than how to be silent, awaiting aesthetic vibrations. I was twenty-two, working through a thousand dollars of savings, tracing some nebulous path toward becoming an artist. The day I left, my mother wrote and advised me to not be shy. Her message startled me. We were never that close and reading her message I felt humiliated, exposed. Abroad, I did not heed her warnings. And now, near the end of my trip, I saw my shyness as an uncorrectable artistic flaw. How could I create if I could not even talk?
As I stood before The Entombment, a French voice sliced through the reverent hush. Across the room, Ivan discussed Tintoretto with a man in a suit. He led the man into an adjacent room but abandoned him and returned to me, already complaining about the idiocy of his client. “I am the best,” he said, “but sometimes they cannot see, whatever I do, they just cannot see.” Ivan spoke with the confident, knowing rapport of a sibling. His tone comforted me. This was the closest to intimacy I had gotten in months.
“Museum directors pay me to show them their museums,” he boasted. “The director at the Met never knew how to look at her paintings.” He pointed at The Entombment. “Do you see this?” He hovered his finger over Christ’s knee and slid it up to the corner, then the same to Christ’s arm, exposing the obvious parallel. “No, no,” he said, interrupting himself, and dragged me to Tintoretto’s The Coronation of the Virgin, which we studied for two prompt minutes before returning to The Entombment. “Now do you see?” Ivan asked. Color flooded the painting. How had I missed it? The blue glimmer of Mary’s shawl bridged to Nicodemus’s orange tunic by the bone-colored shroud carrying Christ.
Ivan believed one only saw art by returning to art, refreshing the eyes. Docents, historians, the quacks who stood stiff as boards, they tried to gaze their way into paintings, thinking the work might reveal itself with the extra-dimensional flare of a stereogram. He chattered before the paintings, distracting me, guiding my eyes away from the canvas so that I could view it anew. Finally, he led me to “Titian’s finest,” The Crowning with Thorns. The color astounded me. In the painting, Christ stands weak-legged on darkened stone steps, four men binding the crown of thorns to his head. Christ wears a robe cherry in color; the others in golds, sumptuous greens, chainmail armor so finely depicted it practically chings.
“Devastating,” said Ivan. Great art, he proposed, devastates. It destroys the world you thought you knew. “Titian devastates,” he said. He pointed over his shoulder, toward the crowd leaning against a rope, squinting at the Mona Lisa. “That you can look at and return to your life. But try,” he pleaded, “try going home unchanged by this painting.”
We must have stood there for two hours, our voices increasingly animated. Soon there was no one to bother but guards. Ivan gave me his card. He lived in San Francisco—a modest drive from Oregon, where I lived—and suggested I visit for an upcoming Van Gogh exhibit. I promised I would. Ivan departed abruptly.
Back in Oregon, my story of Ivan was met with unflinching cynicism. He was a kook, I was told. An aging romantic. A scam artist. I Googled his name and learned that he typically charged three hundred dollars an hour to lead someone through a museum. For some time, this hurt me. I felt exploited, manipulated. But let’s say Ivan had wanted nothing but money. So what? With him, I learned how to let art manipulate me. If Ivan preyed on my lonely, vulnerable nature, he did what any great work must do. To be affected by art requires we enter the work vulnerable, pliable, ready to let it absorb and change who we are.
This, I think, is what Ivan meant by devastation. The work alone doesn’t devastate. We must approach the work ready to be devastated, the way I finally did that evening in Paris, a young man fragile and quiet, awaiting a hand on my shoulder.
Alex McElroy’s writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, the Kenyon Review Online, Georgia Review, Tin House, Gulf Coast, and Music & Literature. More work can be found at alexmcelroy.org. He currently lives in Bulgaria.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.