This is my go to painting. When I’m downtown with any time to spare, I’m here. If I’m in the museum for any reason, I touch base here. This started twenty-three years ago, when I happened upon her while strolling through the AIC. I was then a visitor from Maine, but now I teach next door. She’s my good friend, my what-art-can-be-touchstone, my high bar.
I suppose I’ve spent hundreds of hours looking. So, join me for a stare down. Start with the eyes. No. Wait… not the actual eyes because that’s too obvious, start with the skin right below the eyes, that slightly puffy pocket that girls at cosmetic counters tell us to pat gently from the inside corner out (use moisturizer, then concealer), the fragile skin suspended between the top of the cheekbone and the bottom eyelid that tells the world we’re tired, we’re tense, we’re frightened, we’re old; that hammock of emotion that in Mary’s case here rocks us gently upward into the well of her red, raw, grief filled eyes.
Now… wait. Pull back. Let’s save that (like eating cake, frosting last).
Let’s revolve outward, slow this down, make some dutiful art history notations: the conventions of early Renaissance Northern European portraiture–exquisitely crafted, shallow depth, pure linear design, high detail, conventional symbolism, geometry, etc. This painting isn’t radical in its form, subject matter, symbolism or craft, so why is it extraordinary? The eyes you say… well… yes… but still, let’s wait.
Let’s talk tension. Contradiction. The stress created when opposites push and pull. This painting is compressed, squeezed between its scuffed gold backdrop and the picture plane, pressurized. She swells forward but is embedded in her background, held firm by linear precision and an allegiance to shape in its battle against volume. The rhythmic outer edge of her black robe is a perfect yin/yang figure/ground demo. Within the black, if we wait for it, we find color–dark light–a sense of suspended deep luminosity, like staring through night, through dark air, like falling into an Ad Reinhardt (more on that later). Eventually our eyes find the interior edge of the robe, a long curved zigzag that describes the entirety of Mary. Following this leads us in and out of folds, between cracks, over and around the volume of her head, to tuck behind Mary’s hidden left ear, then down to slide between her fingers, curve around her left wrist, skip a beat, then start over–a profoundly complicated path that works so well we think it’s simple.
An entire treatise can be found in this one edge. A class titled “why cracks matter” could be taught. If we attempted a meandering analysis of all the other edges we’d fall dizzy hours later and still not be done, as every inch of every edge is unique. I’m particularly fond of the scalloping at the bottom of her white “scarf” that melts into her thumb, and of the curved edge of translucent white fabric overlaying her skull, displaying both the pink of her forehead and the curve of her eyebrows, which rhythmically echo the bruised tender pads of fat folding over her upper eyelids, soft and sad, swinging us gently downward into the well of her red, raw, grief filled eyes.
Okay… wait. Not yet. I’m doing a little research now, comparing this painting to other versions from Bouts’s busy workshop, and I come upon a blog entry by James Elkins called “How Long Does It Take to Look at a Painting?” And he’s talking about our Bouts! How did I miss this? Not only is he looking long at our painting, he teaches here (At SAIC. He was probably that guy waiting for me to get out of the way.) Elkins writes about the unfolding experience of this painting as an act of reverie. I particularly like his detailing the state of her eyes, the physicality of their redness, the exact location of tears, and the relationship of her grief to time: “…this is a painting about a state of mind, a permanent low-level mourning.” Elkins’s blog entry is an excerpt from his book, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings. So you should know that when I first met this painting, I cried. I stood teary eyed in front of teary eyes–no movie-of-the-week sentimentality but a needle in the heart reaction. It hurt. This was my introduction to questions that have been tugging at me now almost half my life. How can a painting be so filled with both explicit emotion and exquisite poise? How does one paint unbearable balance? How does one paint real feeling?
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One of my favorite things to do with students is to visit our Bouts and then go see the Ad Reinhardt, Abstract Painting, 1960-65. We discuss painting as hypnosis. What it means to stand in front of a painting and let it expand around you, to allow it to refocus your mind, to transform you. We discuss the meaning of the two paintings, that they have in common a reverential experience that moves us, that although their subject matter, form, size, concept and context are quite different, they are akin. We discuss feeling a painting rather than simply seeing it, the actuality of emotion rather than the idea of it, that our Madonna doesn’t make us sad because she’s crying, or even because we too are sad that Jesus died, that the Reinhardt isn’t a depressing painting, despite being black, that feeling is created through a complexity of experience, and that experience is created through contradiction, through tension, through the myriad formal decisions a painter makes in order to slow us down.
Coincidentally, sadly, neither of these paintings is on display right now. I would run through that room full of Gerhard Richters to get to the one Ad Reinhardt. If I ruled the museum, Bouts, Reinhardt, and a number of other kindred spirits would occupy the same space and would never ever come down. If I were to proselytize using Bout’s Mary it wouldn’t be for Jesus, but for slowness. I want to convert young minds back to contemplation, that sitting in front of a painting can be like prayer, a moving prospect that involves the heart and gut, the fine tuning of awareness and an openness to perceived inexplicable experience.
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It’s worth talking a bit about our Mater’s demotion. When I first saw her she was displayed in a glass case, a wall label touting the coup of her acquisition, that she was the first Sorrowing Virgin, by Bouts himself, no workshop product, but the real deal. The proof was in her fingertips. The translucent shadows of earlier decisions revealed that the artist had changed his mind. At some point the AIC lost its certainty regarding attribution, but it doesn’t matter. Whoever painted her, the evidence still holds. She was discovered, not predetermined. The ghosting of the fingertips is a “tell.” The maker was dissatisfied. The exact pitch wasn’t achieved until he tweaked and stretched those fingers.
Throughout our painting, every decision displays this fine-tuned honing, from the slight chiseling of the tip of her nose to the sharp bend of her pinky, the specificity of each shadow, the intricate overlaps, the level of both particularity and abstraction, and the perfect balance between restraint and facility. The exact nameless colors that our minds translate to black and white, to her wan, mottled complexion, to the spiraling climax of puffy wet bruised tissue leading into the no-holds-barred shockingly, vividly, explicitly emotional pool of her red raw grief filled eyes. Yes… we’re here. Their stinging raggedness, the welling liquid along the tender, most slender platform that is the top of the lower lid, the swelling ball of each eye giving form to those abused lids, their asymmetry, the perfect tears spilling erratically, to the razor edge walk between the vulgarity of emoting and the conviction of raw emotion–this painter was on a quest to find transcendence through emotional pain. The others used this one as a template and did their best, but it’s no contest. I’ll call our maker The Master of The Mater Dolorosa–a great painter of a great painting. There’s no doubt.
So, yes, it’s the eyes. Are these not the saddest eyes in painting? But still, it’s not only them. Alone, they’re a dramatic display. It’s in their context that the catalyst for emotional energy is created. It’s the fundamental tension between pressurized stillness and climactic focal point. The only movement is in the eyes, a swirl of feeling that both spirals in and seeps out, plunging us, like dropped bricks of feeling, deep into the well of her red raw grief filled eyes.
James Elkins, How Long Does it Take to Look at a Painting?, Huffington Post
James Elkins, Pictures and Tears: A History of People Who Have Cried in Front of Paintings
Mater Dolorosa, Museum of the Art Institute of Chicago