by Leanne Ogasawara
Have you ever been moved to tears by a painting?
There is a wonderful letter, in James Elkins' Pictures and Tears, about museum goers looking at a landscape painting in Japan. The lady who wrote the letter to Elkins was in Tokyo as part of an Andy Warhol exhibition. Unable to speak the language and perhaps not all that knowledgeable about the culture, it had to be based on some kind of misunderstanding that she came to believe that the painting of a waterfall on rare display at the Nezu Museum, called Nachi Waterfall, was “a picture of God.”
This painting is a National Treasure of Japan and is not displayed so often (I never managed to see it in 22 years there). So, not surprisingly, the exhibition was jam-packed full of people there to see it.
In the letter, she described how beautifully dressed the people were, many in formal kimono and some looked to be college professors. She said it was like going to the Met, except that when she finally got near the picture, she found the people around her to all be silently standing there crying.
It is an extraordinary story in an extraordinary book.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been overcome to tears by a painting? (It has to be a painting and it has to be tears).
James Elkin (my new favorite writer) is obsessed by Stendhal Syndrome–and since I am obsessed by Jerusalem Syndrome, I couldn't help but find myself increasingly intrigued. I never knew that– unlike Mark Twain (who has a malaise named after himself too)– that Stendhal, like so many others at that time period, had become so utterly enraptured by the art he saw in Florence that he became dizzy and had heart palpitations. In fact, apparently, he had to seek medical help. Elkins says that in the old days, it was much more common to be moved to tears by art.
In fact, as far as emotional response to paintings, we are living in a bit of a dry age, he insists.
I doubt this will surprise many people, but Elkin says that Rothko is the modern painter most famous for causing viewers to cry. Exploring Art's connection to time and to God, Elkins goes through quite a lot of effort to try and figure out why exactly Rothko makes people cry (even reading over all the entries in the guestbook at the Houston Chapel), but in the end, he doesn't ever nail the reason.
The artist himself explained it simply thus:
I'm interested only in expressing basic human emotions. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate these basic human emotions. (Mark Rothko)
Interestingly, Elkin himself has never broken down in front of a painting–nor has the great Gombrich.
I think he is right, that crying in front of pictures is simply a rarity in today's world of disenchantment and the commodification of all our experiences. Speaking for myself, I have been deeply touched and experienced a tremendous emotional response from the art I saw as part of my Piero Pilgrimage, as well as when I finally made it to Belgium to see van Eyck's Mystic Lamb in Ghent. Piero's frescoes in Arezzo in particular were reminiscent of emotional reactions I have had to Buddhist statues (butsuzo) in Japan–which is that of feeling drawn in and immediately calmed.
In 2007 (or 2008?), NHK Broadcasting in Japan aired an amazing documentary on their Highvision channel, called the “Best Loved Buddhist Sculpture in Japan”（book version: にっぽん 心の仏像100選). To prepare for the show viewers were invited to write the station to tell stories of their most beloved Buddhist statue. NHK received 1400 letters and from those letters, they compiled a top 100 list. In a country full of tremendous sculpture, I wasn't surprised how moving the letters were. But, as they went through the list , working their way up to the #1 most popular, I was struck by the way these statues were embedded into the lives of the people who loved them. Especially elderly people interviewed, said something along these lines:
“The statue has just always been there. When I was a girl, I would come and help polish the temple floors or come here with my mom and aunties to pray. Of course my beloved mother and my beloved aunties are now long gone, but the statue remains, and nowadays when I come here, it's like I am back here again with my loved ones.”
Something real– something eternal, the butsuzo for the people interviewed seemed to be an interwoven part of their lives. Rather than works of art or treasures of the nation, the statues were viewed as being members of the community. The program showed one butsuzo that needed repair and filmed as one of the village men wrapped it up in a huge long piece of cloth and strapping it on his back carried it down the mountain like he was hauling a bale of hay (or in Asia, the way women carry babies and small children). The scholars and guests were stunned. One sputtered, “Why, I have never seen anything like that.”
In another scene, a group of parishioners gathered around their village butsuzo and took a group picture. The Butsuzo was in the middle, like one of the gang.
In yet another scene, a very elderly woman had gone to Osaka to live with her son's family. She had wanted desperately to come and visit the Butsuzo of the village; for it was always there in her heart. Finally, her son agreed to make the long trip back to the village and drove her up the mountain and helped her into the temple, where she sat on the tatami matted floor in front of the statue of Kannon-sama. Putting her hands together in prayer, she smiled as if she was in the company of a long-lost friend.
Toward the end of the program a scholar in religious studies, came on and commented how in the same way that infants respond seamlessly to the expression on their mother's faces, so too are we effected by what we see. He said, psychology and science can prove that looking at something that calms us is by definition good for us. It's true on two accounts, I think. One, that these butsuzo have a tremendous power to calm us or effect certain positive emotions. Even on the TV screen, to be honest I found myself feeling increasingly calm– and yes, happy.
That one of the ladies, with crippling arthritis, chose to gather flowers from her garden and hike up a mountain road to the top where the temple was located at first seemed overkill. But, actually, I imagine her slow methodical pace up the hill got her blood really moving, and then at the top– the reward. Sitting on the sweet-smelling tatami mats, she put her hands to pray and a look of great peace swept over her face. I imagine, if she is like me, that moment of calm– spreading out from her belly up toward her face, pupils dilating, she gently closes her eyes and lets a feeling close to bliss– but quieter– sweep over her.
Truly, I just stood there sighing.
Still, that feeling of being utterly drawn in and held in awe is quite different from being floored, or as Elkins calls, it punched in the stomach.
This is something that has only happened to me once and it was so totally unexpected that I simply feel embarrassed by it. First of all, it happened in front of a picture that is so over-reproduced that it is a wonder that anyone can feel anything about it. Like the Mona Lisa, Leonardo's Last Supper is perhaps one of the most over-copied works of art in the world. Umberto Eco, for example, found something like seven wax copies just on a trip from LA to San Francisco. I had absolutely no expectation of feeling anything. In fact, were it not for my astronomer and his devotion to Leonardo, I would have just as soon skipped it. I also am not a fan of Last Supper iconography–and of the three possible Last Supper subjects, my least favorite is the one Leonardo chose: that of the betrayal.
So, I just could not believe it when I cried!
Elkin captured what happened to me as I stood there in that room looking at the Last Supper as my eyes were swimming with very hot tears:
“Pow! They are responses to the painting's sheer unexpected overwhelming presence. In each case the painting is suddenly there, exerting a real force on the viewer, knocking the wind out of him or shoving him down.”
That was indeed, exactly how it felt, as a very very sudden and unexpected density and presence. And I was almost overcome by love. Elkin likens this to a religious experience (“Crying at God”) and says,
If you love a painting, and are overwhelmed by it–perhaps even to tears– then you may be aware of a certain presence, an immediacy or even a nameless pushing. Those words, like the word “God,” some from a place that cannot be reached by language. Most of the time they can be called by any number of names, but there are also occasions when they need to be named directly.
The painting of the waterfall I mentioned at the top, by the way, perhaps moved the people at the exhibition in the same way. This same work also greatly intrigued Andre Malroux. Actually to say “intrigued” is to put it mildly; for it was standing in front of the painting that Malroux experienced a spiritual epiphany– what he called the “transmission of the sacred.” Malroux considered all works of art to be “signs” that illuminate the questions of our inner reality–not the answers, but the questions. And it was standing in front of this picture in which he discovered what he called “primordial forms.” Whoever painted the picture would have liked that interpretation since the painting has not traditionally been considered to be a mere landscape. It is rather viewed as an example of religious art, or suijaku-ga (paintings based on Shinto-Buddhist unity). Suijaku are “traces” of Buddhist nature as pictured in the guise of a Shinto deity (ie, in the case, the waterfall). So, in a sense, the picture is of “God;” though maybe better is to say it serves to capture our attention as a mandala does, embodying Buddhist cosmology or truth.
I've written here about the plague of our disposable society (also definitely see Jalees Rehman's piece here), and wondered if then, there is really no escape from “man the eternal consumer?” Not only are the neo-liberal practices of production and consumption ruining the planet, but they are ruining our lives. I really believe that. As I wrote last June, my astronomer is more optimistic. He thinks that erotic love is the last frontier by which a person can access the numinous. Beyond pure efficient instrumentalism, love is–as Badiou and Zizek write–all about madness and yes even violence. My beloved believes that purely practical people can still fall madly in love and that this experience is something –in today's world more than ever– that is deeply hungered after. As always, I guess I am more pessimistic and agree with Zizek that it is gradually disappearing as well (as Badiou says, “Love is not a contract between two narcissists”). For in a truly disposable culture what things or experiences will have the power to move us beyond what Carl Sagan called the prison of the self? It's no surprise, I guess, that this dead-end in the search for meaning is where all roads end in ruins in Continental philosophy today….
Highly recommend: -THE THING ITSELF, On The Search For Authenticity By Richard Todd (see this great excerpt on a more enlightened materialism here)
Nachi Waterfall and Suijaku-ga (top picture)
Koryuji's Miroku Bosatsu Statue (above)