In 1985 I was sitting on a bench at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam staring at his View of Auvers. There were tears in my eyes, causing the young woman seated next to me to remark, “It’s wonderful to see a man so moved by art that he weeps.” I sighed. Did not respond. I was crying not because I admired it, but because I did not experience what other people apparently experienced. I was unmoved by what was in front of me. I did not think it was beautiful. I felt like an atheist in a chapel watching the faithful pray to a God who seems to talk just to them.
As part of my Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts-Music in the late 1960s, I had taken courses in art history, figure painting, water painting, sculpture. I had been taught how to look at art, how to recognize the formal organization of a painting, recognize the development and use of perspective, as well as such things as brush strokes, chiaroscuro, nationalistic styles. My BFA attested to the fact that I was certified able to seek out and understand art. But no matter how many museums I visited in Europe, Africa, the United States, Mexico and elsewhere, I came away wondering what was wrong with me. I was a classical pianist and composer who both performed and taught examples of exquisite music, but when it came to art…meh.
A few months after Amsterdam, I was living in Copenhagen, and my new Danish girlfriend was happily reminiscing about the month she lived across from the Tate Gallery in London.
“Every day, Michael, I went to the Tate and spent the whole day in one room!”
“Annemette,” I replied, “I went through the Louvre in an hour and half.”
“That is because you are a brute!” she replied, kissing me on the nose. Our relationship didn’t last, but her comment continued to resonate in my mind.
Two years after I found out I was a brute, I discovered a museum that fascinated and confused me, made me curious, made me laugh at the irreverence, mourn the sadness of one work after another. I not only spent one full day in it, but came back for a second day, anxious to revisit what was around the next corner. It was the Dalí Theatre-Museum in Spain.
Dalí’s work had appealed to me even as an undergraduate student. I had been drawn particularly to his work The Persistence of Memory (also referred to as “The Melting Clocks”). Dalí remarked that he was inspired to paint this by the surrealist idea of what Camembert would look it if it melted. To me it looked like Time was melting, and as a young musician I had a lot of questions about the nature of Time. Music had been described as “sound organized in time.” However, I was not sure that Time really existed. Rather, I thought humans live in a perpetual Now. Time seemed to be that thing we measure with grandchildren and sunsets and grief and clocks that can melt.
What happened to me in Spain stayed in Spain, however. I continued to be a brute. In the three decades following my visit to the Dalí Museum, I attended COBRA exhibits in Amsterdam, the Uffizi in Florence, the Matisse Museum in Nice, a Gauguin retrospective at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art outside of Copenhagen, other museums in Denmark, New Zealand, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, England, Ireland. I managed to tour the entire Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in eighty minutes, spending about a quarter of that time enjoying the peace and symmetry of the Chinese Garden Court. My response to the rest of the museum was barely a casual glance as I hurried through the galleries, unmoved.
In November 2017 I revisited the National Gallery in Washington, DC. I hurried through a new exhibit featuring Vermeer, and a variety of rooms dedicated to early sacred iconic arts. I stopped to look at a painting showing Daniel in the lions’den. “Ironic,” I thought. “All these paintings devoted to Daniel and David and Jesus and other figures from biblical mythology. None of them had ever existed, but I’m sure some view this painting with religious as well as artistic fervor.” I moved on to a variety of other rooms that inspired me to shake my head and quickly hurry on.
Finally, both foot- and mind-weary, I sat down on a bench facing an eight-foot by six-foot 1756 painting by François-Hubert Drouais, Family Portrait. It features the handsome and rich papa bending over the smiling and beautiful mama in her white shawl, and their little enchanting daughter dressed in the same color as the drapes. I looked away for a moment, but something in the picture had caught my eye. It was a clock on the wall. It looked like it had a pendulum mechanism. Rather than use my BFA certificate in art appreciation to ponder the statement the painting was making about 18th-century affluence, the rise of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason, the fact that the color of the man’s clothing, the woman’s dress, and that some kind of display over the window were complementary colors, I instead immediately thought of Christiaan Huygens.
In sharp contrast to François-Hubert Drouais, about whom I knew nothing before and cared little after, Huygens had been a hero to me since my days in graduate school. Mathematician, astronomer, physicist, inventor, Huygens epitomized the definition of a polymath. He was so fascinated with Time that he invented the pendulum clock, which was the most precise time-keeper of his era. The inventor of the pendulum clock on the wall in that painting had died during the previous century. Before I knew it, I had spent an hour on my iPhone on that bench Googling clocks and Huygens and Time and Dalí and Daniel and David and Jesus, enthralled by a journey that had begun simply by my seeing a clock on a wall in a painting that held no interest for me otherwise.
When a guard announced that the museum was closing, I reluctantly turned off my phone and looked at the painting one more time. I realized that there were at least two stories in that painting. One about the family, and one about a wall clock. I had a kind of eureka moment about decades of visits to art museums. I should have paid more attention to the stories in artworks. I still would not look for brush strokes or blank space or intricate forms. Instead, I would look for stories in the faces and rooms portrayed in the art. I would focus on portraits to begin with, trying to see if there were some kind of story that could speak directly to me, especially some story told hundreds of years before the invention of photography.
I looked forward to future visits to art museums, looking for stories. If I were lucky, the story might even have a clock in it.
Michael Coolen is a pianist, composer, actor, performance artist, and writer living in Oregon. In addition to three Fulbright Fellowships and four National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowships, he has won awards from the Oregon Poetry Association and the Oregon Writers Colony. His essay “Let Me Tell You How My Father Died” was awarded first prize in the 2017 national “Ageless Authors” competition.