Géricault, Bonheur, and Cod Liver Oil

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My primary struggle on this journey has been, for me, an unexpected one. Periodically, and as early on in our itinerary as London, I have been nearly paralyzed by homesickness. I’m not isolated. I’m surrounded by friends. I adore the cities that have welcomed me. But, in a truly horrific throwback to middle school, I have felt shapeless and ungrounded.  I crave a context to recognize myself in, an identity formed by participating in a familiar environment, and not just looking on. I have grown sick to my stomach of “hanging out”.

This feeling struck me especially hard in Paris, on the day we visited the Louvre. I remember walking through golden rooms filled with masterpieces from the Romantic Era. The passionate images surrounding me seemed to mirror my feelings. No matter their stories, the characters seemed dreadfully homesick to me. The Gypsies in Leopold Robert’s “L’Arrivée des Moissonneurs dans les marais Pontins” ceased to be wayfarers- I was certain that they had loaded their carts and harnessed their determined looking oxen with an ocean voyage in mind- New Brunswick bound!!  Girodet’s “The Entombment of Atala” was not bereaving the death of his lover, but the loss of a family farm. Gericault’s gaunt survivors on the Raft of the Medusa stared longingly for home, imagining in the distance the poplar trees that line the driveway of my parents’ home. What incredible strength of feeling these artists transcribed with their brushes and oils! The wretched faces surrounding me were not comforting, though. Our shared misery did not relieve our suffering at all.

What was incredible about the torture of the Romantic paintings, was that we fell short of communion. Atala and I suffered in relative silence, validating each others’ pain without subduing or healing it. This is not a critique of the art. The expressions and emotions on the canvases were exquisite. But it is a common human pitfall that in recognizing our pain, we all too often venerate it, and give it a home in us. I have nothing against feeling strong feelings, but it is important for home sicknesses,  heartbreak and weariness to remember where they belong on the food chain. The priest at the hostel in Paris knew this, and spoke in his homily of how we should not always pray, “God, I have such a big problem,” but “Problem, I have such a big God!” I can’t spend my whole life commiserating with Delacroix.

Praying that prayer, I moved on from the Louvre to the Musée d’Orsay- where there hangs the most realistic portrayal of a cow in the known universe- by Rosa Bonheur. And that was home. Cows are not great sympathizers. But there is something about rural living, and livestock, that can snap you out of a reverie as if to say “Get back to work!” I walked out of Musée d’Orsay feeling ready to really live, to engage with the city, and ended up spending the afternoon making a new friend. I made a temporary little home in Paris.

So, I would like to thank the Romantics for helping me to feel and process, and the Realists for giving me courage and for kicking me in the butt. As far as art is concerned, I am gaining a valuable lesson in the importance of its movements. One perspective is never enough. Just as the needs, desires, and responsibilities of people change, our art needs to change as well. Try not to brush off a period in art as “too sentimental”, “to rigid”, “too absract”. Enjoy your favourites, of course, but art can be like cod liver oil. You might need what you don’t enjoy.

We Are The Grateful Living

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I have been struggling for weeks trying to think about how I can summarize my two month trip into 250(ish) words. Do I only write on an event that happened after the last blogs were posted (ensuring I won’t write on the same topic)? Do I write on my favourite thing I’ve seen or something funny that has happened? Or what about the most beautiful thing I’ve seen?
None of those things touch on the topic that has impacted me the most this trip. That’s because none of those questions look at the ugly topic of death.
Jokingly, I have become the resident vampire on this trip because of my strange fascination with graves, tombs, and crypts. I have literally started “punch dancing” at times because of my excitement.
The two events that have impacted me the most, though, were not due to excitement, but to sorrow. These two events were visiting Mauthausen and Vimy Ridge.
Mauthausen was the hardest. This was my first time seeing a concentration camp and really understanding the depth of what happened in World War II. The hardest part for me was walking into a room about the size of the Red Room, hearing that around 200 people slept there every night, and, at the same time, being hit by a scent that reminded me of happiness and summer vacation with my family.
Vimy was also very hard for me, but in a very different way. We were standing on Canadian soil learning about how catastrophic World War I was. It felt a bit like home, and I started to feel a connection to the Canadians who died there. This connection was then amplified when I saw (for the first time as far as I can remember) my mother’s maiden name twice in the list of Canadians who died there. I did not expect to be as impacted as I was, but for the rest of my time at that colossal monument I could feel my heart racing. Questioning if I was related to these two soldiers, if I had other family I didn’t know about, or even what the soldiers were like.
Over all, these two events really opened my eyes to the sorrows, and to the hopes that these tragedies will someday end.

Nymphéas Bleus – Monet

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What is it like to be entering the unknown, spending time with uncertainty. Your hands are where your feet should be, your eyes are where your ears should be and your heart is not even inside of you, instead it is on the other side of the room beating on the floor. You cannot be certain of your senses, just as you cannot be certain that your idea of God is the right one because the person sitting beside you probably has a slightly different idea of God. Or we cannot be certain of why Monet painted water lilies, why he chose the colours he did.  However, we need to think we can have certainty: up is up, down is down and blue is a colour and that colour is sadness. We need this to feel grounded, to have meaning. But really all it takes for us to be certain of something is if two or more people can agree upon it. So what makes it more concrete than our brothers and sisters who think differently? It is the people who spend the most time with uncertainty who end up finding their own truth but even then they are uncertain.

Nymphéas Bleus - Monet

View from the trenches

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I’m standing there, in the trenches at Vimy, in the place that many have stood before me, fighting. I close my eyes and try to put myself in their shoes but it’s hard. I try to block out the sound of people talking and laughing and the birds singing all around me. I really try to imagine it from where they were. It’s hard to picture myself in their place; I’m not a soldier, but neither were they really. They were boys, many of them younger than me. They would be standing there with water up to their knees and bugs and rats running all around them. The sound of birds and people would be replaced with gunshots and bombs going off all around them, the sounds of people yelling, and screaming in pain. The enemy is a stone’s throw away and could kill them at any moment. You can never get any sleep no matter how hard you try and the realization that you never will again. Even when you get home the nightmares will keep you awake or you’ll jump at the sound of a car backfiring or hearing some kids playing video games will take you right back to that trench. I open my eyes and it all goes away. I’m still there in the trench but it is far different. I’m there with my friends talking, there’s grass and trees and flowers and birds singing and flying above. I open my eyes and I know I never have to do that, I never have to experience what they went through. There is a peace and calmness in knowing that but at the same time I am saddened by the realization that while I never have to go through that, they can never get out of it. Even after they are back home and safe they are haunted by it day and night and I realize how lucky I really am.

metamorphosis

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The countless trees surrounding me take the shape of men, the flowers warp into bloody mud covered shrapnel, and the song of the birds turn into the horrific numbing sound of gun shots as I kneel deep in a trench, eyes closed and allowing my imagination to consume me. My hands cusp my ears while I tap on the back of my head trying to grasp an inch of the reality in which millions have bared before me. My heart becomes heavy, tears welling in my eyes, and for the first time in my life I realize that the life I know is nothing in comparison to the millions of people who bore witness to such an atrocity. Within seconds I feel as though I could not bear to stay there a moment longer, but I feel the need to push through the heart-wrenching illusion with the fear that I will forget everything as soon as I open my eyes. This is not a joy filled moment, nor is it hopeful, but it is real and through it I feel as though I have been able to break the boundaries of time to connect with my brothers before me on the most simple of levels and that is something I would never take back.

listening

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I’ve been thinking a lot about my future recently. The me that will be. I would give anything to speak to him. My ear is ever so delicately positioned in the cup and string we used to use to tell each other things. Back when the future was a place no further away then the next house over. I can’t hear him as well as I used to. He’s the only one that can hear me now. Time is cruel that way. Standing in the place where thousands of my fore-bearers embraced their ineffectual deaths, I feel a new cup being pressed into my hand. Its cold aluminum is covered in mud and rusting away. I feel like it could turn to dust at any moment. Ever so delicately, I press my ear into the cavern. The voice there is speaking a language I don’t understand. Rattling through the half a dozen languages we’ve encountered on this trip I still can’t even place it. Confused and frustrated I begin to weep. I know I’m here for a reason. But I don’t understand the past and the future is foggy. So instead I held the two cups together. I’m merely an operator. “Please wait one moment while I connect your call”. I know he’s broken and needs their experienced voices. Today is the day I will look back on. Today is the day I will listen for, as I walk forward into absurdity.

Visit at the d’Orsay

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Before today picking favourites was always a struggle of mine. Even in the most trivial way of picking my favourite colour, meal, artist, movie, anything really. Because in my mind picking favourites discredited all of the others that I also adored. However today I was able to not only pick a favourite style of painting but a favourite artist. Maybe this was so easily decided because of the distant relationship I had with art. Before today art was always something of a mystery to me. I enjoyed art but I never felt drawn to it or connected with it in ways that others around me seemed to. But today that all changed, I fell in love with Monet’s paintings. Every time I walked into a room I was awestruck by these beautiful paintings that felt soft. I know that may sound silly but it did. It was portrayed soft by the colours that were used to depict the scene and in the way Monet abandoned the rigidity of sharp lines. Room after room I walked in and would be drawn to these paintings so much so that by the end of it I knew the paintings I was staring at were his without the information card on the side. It amazed me to be able to connect with a man I will never meet, a man that was before my time, a man that knew a different world than I, but a man who saw the world as I.

framing life

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In our many visits to galleries, museums and historical sights I have been perpetually frustrated by the generalizing of a history that is deeply nuanced and specific.
The pedagogy of history is notorious for its forgetfulness, but something dishonest is communicated in the absence of life’s little regularities in our history lessons. In naming what is significant it trivializes, makes lost, what it considers unimportant. It says: You are redundant. Your little garden is redundant, the way green looks on pink is redundant, feeding your children is redundant and kindness and caring are redundant. It starts to make you feel a little inadequate after a while. Indifferent and perhaps ashamed.
For this reason I am happy to have visited the art history museum in Vienna to see what the northern renaissance artists chose to frame. The drunks. The peasants. The dances. The cold.
Hunters in the Snow, by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel, struck me as grounding and honest. A striking depiction of a winter scene, a group of men return from the hunt with little to show for it, nearby a fire is being tended and clung to and down below, in a frozen valley the dark silhouettes of little children play on the ice.
Here is the history I’m looking to know: the story of what it is to live in the hours that make up the days. To feed and be fed. To keep warm. To mourn and to play. To laugh and to cry.
To frame this story, to name it worthy of paint and canvas and space, is to venerate living for its own sake, for its fullness and roundness even in the smallness of time and space. Especially in the smallness of time and space that none of us ever have or ever can escape. Bruegel makes me feel acknowledged and at home in the world.

The Language of Art

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Over a dozen museums and hundreds (probably thousands) works of art later, I finally found a piece of art that I somewhat connected with.

Hi, my name is Lucinda Kollenhoven and I am here to tell all you left brained, logistically programmed, realistic thinkers out there that there is hope for you. There is hope for you to experience a piece of art emotionally and for a moment, perhaps a very brief moment, put aside your analytical tendencies and get wrapped up in the story.

My connection to a piece of art came through a statue by Giambologna, an artist I had never heard of previous to my travels to Florence. The statue depicted a story of the ‘Rape of the Sabines’, the abduction of Sabine women from their neighbours (the Romans). Giambologna’s statue showed an old man defeated by a younger man who grasps a young woman with quite the forceful gesture. The young man’s hands on the woman’s thigh and shoulders were clenched and his muscles were strong.  The characters were positioned in a way that made it impossible to see their expressions from one angle, causing me to walk around the darn thing over 10 times just to be able to examine it.

Now I’ve given you an idea of what the statue looked like, the piece of art that finally made me have an emotional connection, but I cannot describe to you what that connection was. Where did this intrigue come from? I don’t know. Why did I feel curiosity, pain, confusion and joy simultaneously? I don’t know. How do I express these thoughts? Maybe I can’t. Maybe art is so difficult for me to understand because it is its own language and I barely know the basics. Maybe.

My apologies to my fellow left brained folks out there for a lack of conclusion to this story. Keep hoping. Persevere. You too may soon experience the difficulties of expressing yourself after interacting with the language of art.

Inspiration

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Most of us dream of creating or doing something that will be original, inspiring, or change the world. Sadly, not all of us will get that chance. However, that makes it all the more special when you encounter someone or something that has accomplished the unimaginable.
For me, this happened when we experienced the architecture of Antoni Gaudi. Especially la Sagrada Familia. This structure was unlike anything I have ever seen. It was architecture inspired by nature, formed in a way that causes onlookers to question the beauty of buildings they have considered breathtaking in the past. Your gaze is drawn upwards, and curiosity, wonder, and awe are brought to the forefront of your mind. And, in its own way, it inspires others to wonder about a God that could give such a talent to one person.
Encounters such as these are few and far between. Whether it be with art, music, or what have you, it makes you realize that the things we consider “normal” need to be challenged. As well, it causes you to question where true inspiration and creativity come from. I do not have the answers to these, for that is up to you. But I will leave you with this: “God inspires, we only need to let ourselves be guided.” (Gaudi)