Reflections on Experiencing Art in Person

Isabelle Sakelaris-

There’s an old story: Jacapo Tintoretto, a Venetian painter, sat in the Scuola di San Marco for hours watching the light pass over the wall. He structured his painting based on his observations, so that light would hit crucial points in the painting at certain times of the day. In order to save time in the creation of later works, Tintoretto began sculpting his figures and shining lanterns on them from different angles to perfect his treatment of light, which is now the most admired quality of his work.

The Miracle of St. Mark is normally housed in the Gallerie della Academia in Venice, but it is currently undergoing restoration and will not likely be displayed again for a number of years (the restoration process is slow-going, especially for old and beloved works such as this one). But on tour in Italy with the Davidson Chorale earlier this month, after having dragged some friends across Venice to see the one specific painting that I had been chattering about for weeks, we were faced with a sheet of paper saying that Miracle wouldn’t be on view until at least 2019 (my apologies to my friends!). I’m glad it’s being restored, but in the moment I was disappointed. It was like making plans with an old friend only for them to fall through last minute.

The Miracle of the Slave (The Miracle of St. Mark), Jacopo Tintoretto (1548: Gallerie dell’Academie).

Tintoretto’s Miracle was the painting that confirmed in me the desire to study Art History in college. I still remember walking into the exhibition room in the Academia the first time I saw the painting in 2012. I was immediately drawn to the light reflecting off of the helmet of the figure in the right foreground. Just as he is symbolically enlightened, I was too; I felt that I could hear a murmur ripple through the crowd as we witnessed the event, though the gallery was silent and the miracle long past. Even so, I can’t help but to imagine how affecting the piece would be hanging on the wall it was made for, in the Scuola named after St. Mark where the artist sat for hours.

In his essay Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin describes each work of art as having a particular aura that colors the viewer’s experience of interacting with that artwork. In my opinion, this aura has much to do with the physical presence of a made object and how we reckon with its autonomy, which is tied to its aura.

There are some artworks that we like because we have studied them and appreciate their technical merit. There are some artworks that we like because they are beautiful. There are some artworks that we like because they are true. Fra Angelico’s Annunciatory Angel belongs, for me, to the last category. One day in the spring of my first year here at Davidson, I woke up to a phone call from my mother saying I had to fly back to Michigan to see my grandfather who had just been admitted to the ICU. Before I returned to school, I insisted on going to the Detroit Institute of Arts to visit Fra Angelico’s Annunciatory Angel.

Annunciatory Angel (detail), Fra Angelico (1455: Detroit Institute of Arts).

There is such softness in Fra Angelico’s artwork. Not just in color or gesture, but truly in its presence. The artist treats his figures with a sense of reverence that shows through specifically in their hands. I remember looking at the angel and feeling frustrated that he would not meet my eyes, instead gazing off somewhere to my right. I looked, instead, at his hands: one steady in front of him and the other gesturing upward. The hands aren’t particularly naturalistic, but they have a sense of warmth and weight to them that is hard to describe otherwise. As I stood before the angel and looked at his hands, I felt a profound sense of calm wash over me. I knew that I had seen my grandfather for the last time, but I also knew, just by looking at the fresco, that he would be taken care of. 

Maybe I had such an intense emotional reaction to the Annunciatory Angel because I happen to know that Fra Angelico himself was a pious man. Maybe it was because I was beginning to grieve. I don’t know, but all Fra Angelico’s artworks still affect me deeply. I am comfortable around them, in their softness. If I happen to pass by one of the frescoes in a museum, I always feel the need to stop and spend some time with it.

These are not experiences I’ve had looking at works of art in reproduction. This is not to say that I think online images or textbook reproductions aren’t good or useful—they certainly are. Yet I do think that there’s a difference between a mediated encounter with an artwork and one that happens in person.

When I was abroad this past semester in England, I was tasked with writing an essay that compared Impressionism and Expressionism. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Impressionism at the time except that it had to do with light and material and the passage of time. In order to learn as much as I could about the movement in a short amount of time, I visited the Musee D’Orsay, which is known for its extensive and well-curated collection of Impressionist art. I stood in front of various paintings, from Monet’s Cathedral series to Gaugin’s island scenes, scribbling madly in my notebook for hours. While a museum visit may often be considered a leisurely activity, it can be mentally exhausting to study so many artworks–in person–at one time. By the end of my visit I was tired, dazed, and more than a little overwhelmed.

As I was walking out into the main corridor toward the exit, I came face to face with an old friend of mine, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, Jean d’Aire. Of course, the bronze cast is housed in the VAC, but even the encounter with the plaster version was renewing, and reminded me why I was there. Even now, back at Davidson, when I’m in need of inspiration, I like to sit before the Jean d’Aire and watch the light trace its path across his face. It is the presence of this work of art, its aura that brings me back time after time.

Isabelle Sakelaris ‘19 is a junior Art History major from Detroit, MI. She can be reached for comment at issakelaris@davidson.edu.

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