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What We Miss Without Museums

The other morning, I woke in the dark with terrifying visions. To quiet myself, I imagined walking into the great lobby of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—hundreds of miles away from my dark room in Chicago. There would be cherry blossoms in the huge vases, maybe dogwood. I ascended the stone stairs, turned to the right, and threw myself down before Nicolas Poussin’s “Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun,” from 1658. I wanted to watch mythic Orion, his eyes closed and hand outstretched, making his way along the soft dirt path toward the radiant, arriving day.

I went to the Met every Friday night for sixteen years, until I left New York in 2011. I visited “Blind Orion” over and over. In the painting, Orion is a giant. He has been blinded by an angry king and is being guided by Cedalion, a small figure on his shoulder, toward the light of the sun, which will bring back his sight. It’s a painting about vision and wonder: look at the beautiful world he is about to see again.

When I reluctantly left my inward vision to begin another day of sheltering in place with our two young children, I laughed a little, thinking that, of all the work at the Met, I’d chosen to remember this painting, in which damage is repaired, and everything that has been taken away will be restored in the morning.

I have almost nothing tangible here in Chicago to remind me of the years I sat with the Poussin and the other works I loved. At the Met, I never took a single photograph. If someone else did, especially with a flash, I hissed at them like a duenna: No photographs! If I wanted to write about a painting, I simply went back to the museum to look at it again. Consulting a reproduction—flat, glaring, reductive, intrusive—only let the air out of the feeling. I’ve noticed that even family photographs sometimes fail in this way; they first give back a moment, then seem to take it away.

In the years I spent visiting “Blind Orion,” I came to feel that the painting was also about touch. Orion’s hands have learned the world in their own way. I spent a lot of time looking at his large, bare foot, too, the heel lifted and about to step forward. The area of paint between his heel and the ground seems tender, the colors gently mingled.

Part of why I feel disoriented now, when I wake in the night, is the way the daylight hours have lacked touch. With the children in our house, my days, even in seclusion, are full of collision, but I am missing other experiences. I miss passing people in the street, brushing up against a hedge in the park or a shelf in the grocery store. I miss standing in a museum where you are able to immerse yourself in sensory worlds. I remember “Blind Orion” in my body: the painting’s quiet blue-green belief that the world is there and will be revealed to us.

There are so many ways to lose a painting. Paintings get stolen, destroyed, deaccessioned, sold into private collections from which they never reëmerge. The museums have been dark for weeks, and already a beautiful van Gogh—of a gray-green early spring day in his parents’ garden—has been stolen from a shuttered museum in the Netherlands. Often, you see a painting once, when you are in a foreign city, or when it travels for an exhibition, and you never see it again. Sometimes, you simply move away. The Met intended to celebrate its a hundred-and-fifty-year history with a building-wide exhibition beginning March 30th, but I won’t see “Blind Orion” in whatever new light they had planned for it.

After I left New York and my life changed, I stopped hissing at other people in museums. I started taking photographs. Over the past nine years, I have taken thousands. In recent weeks, while museum doors have been closed, I have been trying to make a personal, remembered museum. Every day, I use a few of my photos of artwork to write an entry for an online notebook. I’ve been keeping the notebook on and off for years, but now I do it urgently, sending messages in bottles to friends and strangers, trying to offer what I’ve stored, what I miss. I call these daily entries the Frederick Project, after the mouse in Leo Lionni’s story for children. All summer, while the other mice store grain, Frederick stores up impressions of colors. When winter comes, his friends are huddled and dull and waiting, and Frederick tries to share what he can of the colors he remembers.

The contents of my museum date back to 2011, when my husband and I settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Our family of two became three, became four. I was in museums for a few minutes every month or two, holding a baby, or with a child clinging at my legs. I noticed what they noticed—a watercolor boat, an elegant stone puma. I was never still. After years of refusing, I had acquired a smartphone. When I saw something that interested me, I took hurried pictures. “I’ll look at this later”: that’s how it began.

Gradually, a methodology emerged. First, a photo of the wall text, then of the work itself, in its frame or in its case or on its pedestal. Then, closer up, a sequence of six or seven details, following what drew my eye. In these seconds, my eye and the camera together were able to learn a painting almost as I used to do over many hours and repeated visits. Photography accelerated seeing, magnifying areas of paint, cutting away context and concentrating on details. When I stepped back to take a last shot, I found a different vantage point, the painting resolved, and the photograph improved.

All through these years, while we, like many parents, have been endlessly photographing our children, trying to capture the evanescent beauties of their growing up, I have also been endlessly taking pictures of the art I can never quite be still with anymore. More and more, I see through photographs, after the fact—a historian of my own experience. What’s most beautiful in the photos are the isolated details: the edge of a watercolor where blue filters down through calligraphic black trees; the join in a sculpture where angled nails enter fabric; the curve of fruit in a still-life, yellow-green against dove gray.

Shortly after we moved to Chicago, in 2016, I went to the Art Institute to see who my new companions would be. There was Berthe Morisot’s “Woman in a Garden,” from 1882-83.

“Woman in a Garden,” by Berthe Morisot, from 1882-83.

Morisot handled paint with extraordinary freedom. Her paint is thick; its texture can be celebratory or melancholy; her brushstrokes are bold and surprising. The qualities of paint she achieves in her work are among the most radical of all the radically textured Impressionist paintings.

The woman at the center of Morisot’s painting is not decorative: she is thinking. I knew what it was to be a woman like her, from the inside. In the painting, there is a figure behind the woman, whom I think of as a child, possibly Morisot’s daughter Julie, who appeared in nearly a third of her paintings, often in a garden. When I first saw the painting, my own children were four and one and a half. I was never out of touch with them, even when I went to the museum alone for an hour. We were looking for a house; I wanted a garden—someplace secluded but continuous with the world, a place that we could make with our hands but that would still reach toward the sky. “Woman in a Garden,” like “Blind Orion,” is a painting of tenderness and wonder, not on a grand, mythic scale but in an intimate, domestic way.

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