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Thought for the Fortnight
When I was a young girl, ten or eleven or so, my parents began to take me to see paintings in the local art gallery. We lived in New York City, so this was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Such visits were seen as part of my introduction to culture.
I was a diligent little person and felt that there must be some point to all this art, but I couldn’t quite work out how to begin. We would walk through rooms and rooms full of pictures, with me becoming overwhelmed and increasingly doubtful as to whether I would ever be able to cope with them all. What I lacked, as is now obvious, was any tool for working out how to look at them or why I should like them.
Trying to like art
I had never displayed any artistic talent nor did I have any instinctive feeling for art. And having no confidence (then) in my own ability to ‘get’ something simply by looking, art seemed one of those things that grown-ups liked for reasons of their own. Yes, my father liked El Greco – especially the swirls in the sky of the view of Toledo – so I engaged with his enthusiasm and decided I liked El Greco, too. But this didn’t take me very far, as there were few other paintings of the same ilk.
As I grew into a teenager and young adult and occasionally went to galleries with friends, I learned to like Picasso and a few others – more because everybody else did than because I knew what I was seeing.
Much, much later, I talked to people who would enthuse about a particular colour achieved by a painter, but this seemed odd as one could equally enthuse over a paint chart if that was all there was.
I met others who systematically gained very specific knowledge relevant to art appreciation, such as the ‘attributes’ attached to saints – St Catherine and her wheel for instance. But this didn’t seem deeply satisfying nor, indeed, helpful in appreciating art in general.
And then I discovered Annunciations.
Although most readers undoubtedly know what I mean, for the uninitiated, Annunciations are paintings depicting the moment when the Virgin Mary is told by the Angel Gabriel that she is going to have a baby, the son of God (the announcement). The story goes that she was alone in her bedroom reading and most pictures try to re-create this scene.
I can’t remember the very first Annunciation I ever saw – there must have been many. But I do remember very clearly the first one where I had a definite ‘Aha!’ experience –and it remains one of my favourites to this day. It was in the Botticelli room of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence some forty or fifty years ago. This room had the famous painting of The Birth of Venus at one end and the equally famous Primavera on the middle wall and some others of much less fame scattered around. (I write ‘had’ because the room seems to have been reorganised in the meantime, but I don’t know how).
Both famous paintings had enormous crowds of tourists around them when we were there (and probably always), blocking any reasonable view. In order to find something I could actually look at, I walked around the room to see what else was there. And it was then that I came upon the beautiful Botticelli Annunciation (see https://www.virtualuffizi.com/the-cestello-annunciation-by-sandro-botticelli.html). I immediately responded to the distinctive grace of the painting – and I looked at it for some while. I liked the line of the figures, the emotion of the Virgin and, most of all, the sense of drama depicted.
I had found my way in.
And over time, I became aware of the tendency for Annunciations across the centuries to have some of these same qualities. The Angel might be shown as an actual angel or a dove or simply beams of light but the Virgin Mary is very rarely static. She is clearly startled or bashful or humbled, but she is definitely gripped by some emotion. Indeed, I think there was one where she looked completely horrified – not an unreasonable response to the unexpected information – but I can’t remember which. There is usually a lot of movement, almost a sense of dance.
These make Annunciations quite different from the more static Madonna and Child paintings by which they are often surrounded.
And there is, of course, another very important reason for any woman to respond to paintings of the Annunciation. There is an inevitable emotional resonance with the situation they depict. Learning that you are pregnant – starting a new life – is one of the most special moments in a woman’s life. Whether it is wanted or unwanted, you know your own life will never be the same again. While the experience of us ‘normal’ women is much more prosaic than that of the Virgin Mary, it is nonetheless very easy to identify with that moment.
Indeed, one could go further. Although Annunciations ostensibly depict the moment when the Virgin is told of her future role, they also tend to incorporate some indication of the process of insemination. What, after all, are all those beams of light up to, moving toward the Virgin’s body, especially in her bedroom? I have not read what proper art experts say in this matter, but I would argue that all life is there.
The book I will never write
Years later, I began to wonder whether there might be others equally at sea when wandering through art galleries. I played with the idea of writing a book about Annunciations, expressly as a ‘way in’ to looking at art. My USP would not be art expertise (I have none, but could pick up a bit), but my understanding of what it was like to not know what to look for. Annunciations do provide a good place to begin, with a small enough focus to get a reasonable familiarity with them and yet a sufficiently wide variety to see how different artists approached the same story.
I got as far as making a list of the Annunciations I would want to cover across the centuries, from a French Gothic statue from the 13th century, through a number of Renaissance artists and beyond to one pre-Raphaelite painting in the mid 19th century. These would cover different countries, different artistic styles and expressions of different emotional states – and thereby represent a reasonable overview of the history of some Western art.
I wondered whether there would be any interest in such a book and even got so far as writing to a publisher with the idea and a synopsis. Among other selling points, I suggested that it would make a wonderful up-market baby shower present for intellectually oriented mothers-to-be. I received a note of encouragement, but no commitment at all.
Alas, dear reader, I dropped the project. I don’t have the appetite for the hours of library research that would be required, not to mention approvals to use the pictures (copyright law is a minefield). And it might be difficult to market – there probably aren’t enough intellectually oriented mothers-to-be to pay off my costs.
And most of all, I want to do other things with my time.
But do go look at Annunciations. They are almost always wonderful.