I haven’t even started telling this story and I’ve already cheated. It’s supposed to be about recall, details, seeing what’s there and what’s not there. My intent was to write it all from memory and make that part of the story. But its focus is one work of art, which I knew I could find online, and when I sat down to write, temptation surged straight to my fingertips. In five minutes, I found myself staring at a reproduction of the painting on my screen.
Good? Yes: because now I’m going to read more about the artist and the picture and learn things I didn’t know. Bad? Yes, bad, too, because I just blew a great opportunity to give my brain a workout by recalling all the details I could before I went to the Internet for help.
This all started a month or so ago, on a stormy day in Chicago. It was an all-weather kind of a day, a late-winter specialty of the Midwest: snow, sleet, rain, a few minutes of sun, temperatures careening down then up then down again. The perfect day to spend wandering the great maze that is the Art Institute of Chicago.
I lived in Chicago for two years after college, so the Art Institute is like an old friend. But there are many rooms I haven’t been back to in a long, long time. English painting of the 19th century, for example.
“Oh hello, Turner,” I said to myself as I walked into the gallery. There in front of me was a roiling seascape by the English master of landscape, J.M.W. Turner: billowing clouds over three quarters of the canvas, waves like foaming mountains, ships tossing about like bundles of matchsticks. Turner’s paintings were never what you’d call placid, which is why I liked them when I was young: they resembled the landscapes of my mind.
A guard appeared next to me. “Let me be your audio guide,” she said.
I thought I didn’t hear her right. “Oh no, I don’t have one, I already turned it in,” I said.
“No, no. I’m your audio guide.” She pointed to herself, her gray dreadlocks bobbing. “Just look at the painting and you’ll understand.”
I nodded, still confused, and turned my eyes back to Turner as she cupped her hands around her mouth and proceeded to blow, loudly, like the wind at sea.
I laughed. “That’s great! Thank you!”
She smiled. “Now. Close your eyes.” I obeyed.
“Tell me: how many boats are there in the painting?”
“Nope. 21. Open your eyes and I’ll show you.”
I watched, amazed, as she pointed and counted. In the foreground, there was one big sailing ship and a handful of smaller ones. But tucked into the background and around the edges were tiny boats flailing in the swells, looking barely able to hold on. Turner’s subject was not the beauty of a stormy sky and sea, but a whole world of dramatic danger: the crowded waters of the commercial fishing industry of his day.
The painting, dated 1837-8, is titled “Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish.”
THAT gave me a start. I thought the title might be something more like, “Fishing Boats Going Down in Deadly Storm.” But if you look closely, you can see two boats in the foreground, doing some kind of business in the midst of the maelstrom.
If you look closely: Hard to do, if your goal is to see as many works of art as you can in one afternoon. I was lucky. I got stopped by a guard who knew how to make me see a painting: by listening to the wind and then closing my eyes. What a gift. I think Turner would have been pleased.