Longing & Nostalgia

It’s been a (delightfully) hectic couple of weeks for me, as I’ve been completing several freelance projects. In the moments that I’ve allowed myself to come up for air, I have read several arts-related news stories that I had hoped to discuss here. There was the recent news that ISIS deliberately destroyed works of art at the Mosul Museum in Iraq. Then, last week, there was the death of Leonard Nimoy, who was—in addition to everything else—a well-regarded photographer. Also, this week is the big Armory Show in New York. So many different arts-related things to discuss! But time got away from me, and I wasn’t able to write about any of these topics. Still I wanted to at least mention these pieces of news and provide relevant links, so you can read up on them if you’re interested. (Also, I’ve added several new items to my Resources, so you might want to take a look.)

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Having returned to the land of the living this week, I saw an article that caught my attention: The oldest woman in the world celebrates her birthday today. Misao Okawa of Osaka, Japan turns 117 on March 5. 117! Of course, this set my mind to thinking about mortality and the specific slice of time unique to this woman’s life. It also made me a bit sad, because I got to thinking about what it would be like to be the oldest person on Earth. To have been a young, flirtatious teenager 100 years ago. For virtually everyone you knew as a young person to be dead—every last one of your elders and most of your peers. In sum, it made me sad, because Ms. Okawa is something of a living anachronism. She lives outside of her time.[1]

This, unsurprisingly, led me to think about the wealth of art that has, in one way or another, dealt with longing and absence and loss. So much of art is about memory and nostalgia. I might go so far as to say that theme is one of the things that got me hooked on the field as an undergraduate. The works that first come to mind as I consider these issues are John Constable’s The Haywain (1821) and the still life paintings of Barouqe painter Willem Claesz. Heda.

John_Constable_-_The_Hay_Wain_(1821)
John Constable, The Haywain, 1821 (National Gallery, London)

First, to Constable. The Haywain is a large-scale, idealized view of Constable’s father’s farm. The details are described precisely and lovingly, giving the scene a quiet dignity. Constable’s focus on the clouds in the sky and the atmospheric effects on the landscape suffuse the painting with a moodiness that verges on melancholy. The historical context is key to understanding this mood; The Haywain was painted during the Industrial Revolution, when more and more people were moving to crowded, dirty cities, and when the bucolic lifestyle Constable depicted seemed to be fading away. I have felt what Constable is getting at in my own life. I suspect that few of us will be able to avoid feeling that something in our environment or our culture that we value is slipping out of our grasp. That impermanence is the essence of life, and Constable’s painting is a meditation on the subject.

Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with Oysters, 1635 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Willem Claesz. Heda, Still Life with Oysters, 1635 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Willem Claesz. Heda is another artist whose work moves me for similar reasons. When I lived in New York, I would spend embarrassing amounts of time during my frequent visits to the Met staring at his Still Life with Oysters (1635). The stillness and light and texture that is intrinsic to Dutch Baroque art is no doubt part of what continues to draw me to this painting. But so is the subject matter, which is, for all intents and purposes, absence. Several beautiful objects are laid out before us, and it is a pleasure to look at them. There is a water glass with an intriguing reflection, another glass that has broken, various pieces of silver tableware, oyster shells, a knife—all in a seeming state of careless disarray. Heda depicts what appear to be the remnants of a meal. But these objects are not shown to us for their sake. They are merely the discarded props from some event. The person or people who used them have come and gone. The party is over, so to speak.

I imagine that Ms. Okawa might look back on her long life in the same way that we look at this painting by Heda. It is beautiful, but the main event has come and gone, and that knowledge leaves us with an unavoidable twinge of longing. We long to right the silver on the table, to un-break the glass, to un-peel the lemon, and re-close the oyster shells. We want to sit at this table, drinking in its beauty and its present-ness. At least, I know I do.


[1] As an aside, I want to make it clear that I don’t intend to suggest that old age is the equivalent of your time being over. Quite the contrary! I am only considering here what it would be like to be so completely left behind by your generational cohort.

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