I recently read somewhere that teens spend something like “almost all of their time” on the Internet. For all of the obvious reasons, this disturbs me. Which is not to say that I have figured out how to keep the Internet at a healthy distance myself. Far from it.
I’m guilty of overexposing myself to media on a regular basis. For example, a couple of weeks ago, I had some mindless work to finish up after putting my son to bed. I plopped on the couch with my laptop, and turned on PBS. There was an interesting documentary about Kehinde Wiley, which made it hard for me to concentrate on my work. (As an aside, I first saw one of Wiley’s paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, anachronistically hung in a Baroque gallery. It was striking, and his stuff is very cool. It’s worth taking the time to read up on him if you’re not familiar with his work.) As I wrapped up my mindless work and transitioned to mindless Internet browsing, a documentary on Misty Copeland came on. I stayed in this quasi-working, quasi-internet-surfing, quasi-TV-watching state until it was late and I was bleary-eyed. I stumbled to bed feeling bad and bad about myself.
This kind of overstimulation, which allows you to give only a fraction of your attention to anything, is awful. I hate it. And I can’t seem to avoid it. The effects of this new way of (dis)engaging with our world have been analyzed ad nauseam, but since we’re still getting used to this new way of living, we haven’t figured it out yet. I know I haven’t, and it leaves me uneasy.
Fortunately, we still have physical lives and can get away from technology. But when stuck at a computer, I’ve found that looking at art can be surprisingly helpful in calming the noise.
Seriously, it works. As I was fighting my way through the storm of information swirling around me this week, I stumbled upon a work of art that put the brakes on all of life’s chaos and static. It was Abraham Mignon’s A Hanging Bouquet of Flowers (1665/70), a quintessential Baroque flower painting. The simple (but so not simple!) arrangement of vibrant flowers against a crisp black background is everything that media overstimulation is not. It is tangible and evocative and still and profound and quiet. It is something that you can sit with a while and hold onto.
What is it about this painting?
More than the flowers themselves, I am struck by the power of the lush, dark background. All we can discern is that it is likely indoors and in shadow. We don’t need to know too much about it because it is only the stage. But that darkness is enveloping, comforting, and powerful. To me it feels like a force that permeates the painting. In my mind, it is a damp, cool space. I imagine a dank, but not unpleasant smell. Earthy.
The soft light that stands out against the darkness is almost as striking. It is a natural, soft light that plays across the surfaces of the flowers. It seems to be animated, spotlighting the flowers, one imagines, with deliberate care. There is nothing accidental here.
Finally, the flowers themselves emerge from all of this light and dark with an overpowering fecundity. Not only are their colors and forms lovely to look at, but they evoke so many other tangible sensations. It’s impossible to look at these flowers and not imagine the softness of their petals and the differences in their softnesses—papery, fuzzy, silky, velvety. Likewise, I can all but smell the bouquet. It is grassy and sweet.
The ultimate withering and decay of these flowers is there too, if you let your mind continue. That was, after all, half the point of a Baroque still life. But, wonderful Mignon gave us this painting of fabulously real flowers at the peak of their beauty, and whatever may become of them, we have them to ourselves for the time being. It is lovely and oh so real to behold.