It was early Saturday afternoon, and we were making our way uptown to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My friend and I were each absorbed in our own paperwork as we sat on the subway. She, a high school teacher, was intent on grading tests and quizzes from weeks previous, and I was lost in some short story or another—a privilege I may indulge in only when I am not in the throes of busy student life. For the most part we were silent.
In months previous, I hoped to make it to the Met in time to view “The Steins Collect,” an exhibition of works by Matisse, Picasso, and the Parisian Avant-Garde. It was on display from February 28 to June 3rd, 2012, and the day before the exhibition closed, we were finally going to see some of the most renowned work of the twentieth century. What I had not anticipated, however, was that the select pieces of art would bring us far beyond artistic sensibilities of a particular century. To be sure, we left the Met with a greater understanding of the Parisian salons, cultural sensibilities, and distinct milieu wherein modern art flourished. But the art pieces themselves brought us to a place difficult to mark in time; it brought us to the threshold of the eternal.
Though the section of the Met we spent time in differed markedly from some of the museum’s more famous exhibitions (the Medieval and Renaissance galleries are perpetual draws, and there’s no avoiding the religious imagery in them), this modernist experience was still something akin to what Sr. Wendy Beckett has called an experience resulting from sacred art. The beauty and depth of reality depicted was iconic—which is to say, it depicted something far beyond itself, bringing its viewers into the realm of universal experience. The distinct artistic style of the Parisian Avant-Garde, in all of its simple dimension and burst of colors, invited rest and contemplation, and a place of quiet for the soul to encounter its creator. In her book Art and the Sacred, Sr. Wendy writes, sacred art is art that enables us to know, not by faith but by felt experience, that we are continually there, in Paradise.
The idyllic innocence of Paul Cezanne’s “Bathers,” contemplative character of “Man with Arms Crossed,” and tender portrayal of “Portrait of the Artist’s Son” were contrasted by the vibrant works by Henri Matisse, such as “Woman Wearing a Hat,” and the notoriously controversial “Blue Nude.” Among other controversial works, Matisse’s “Blue Nude” invites viewers to ask how one ought to evaluate the beauty of a modern art. Given the radically new symbolic language the Avante-Garde period ushered in (esp. in contrast to periods such as the High Renaissance), how does one decode this language and make a judgment on its beauty and worth beyond the artistic movement’s formal principles? Further, does the moral character of the artist have any impact on the intrinsic beauty of the particular piece in view? Should the moral character dissuade one from engaging their work?
While the broad spectrum of questions raised by our visit cannot be answered here, a brief quote from John Paul IIs Letter to Artists is illuminating. The entire letter spoke in various ways to the questions raised by our visit to the Met, but this particular quote directly addressed the fundamental issue of modern art and the mystery of God. John Paul II writes:
Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith, so that, even in situations where culture and the Church are far apart, art remains a kind of bridge to religious experience. In so far as it seeks the beautiful, fruit of an imagination which rises above the everyday, art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery. Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.
Needless to say, we were silent on the ride home that evening, but not for the same reasons as before. We had experienced beauty, something which elevated us above the everyday.