“I once cried at a print ad:” Emotional Reactions to Art (part 1)

My long time friend and roommate Liz is notorious for having the most easily elicited emotional reactions of all time.  This becomes especially apparent during movies (any of them, really) or commercials, namely the ones featuring Sarah McLaughlin music and sad-looking animals.  You know the commercials I’m talking about…they’re like drive-by shootings while you’re watching your favorite TV show.  You were sitting on the couch watching the newest installment of House, and now you’re sobbing…not cool.  But I digress.

After copping to actually bursting into tears at the sight of a print ad in a magazine, Liz started an interesting conversation between another Art Historian friend, Alex, and myself.  He asked me: Has any piece of artwork ever elicited an unexpected emotional reaction from you?  To be honest, I have never gone to see a piece of art and expected to fall to my knees or burst into tears.  And very, very rarely has anything like this happened…but there are a few exceptions.  From my “first love” painting to turning a corner in a London museum and bumping into a Botticelli piece that I wrote a 16-pager on my sophomore year of college…sometimes, you just can’t help it.

The First Love Painting
 The following painting is my artistic equivalent of a high school boyfriend.  As a kid, you hear all of these things about love and relationships from your parents and your friends, and you hear mushy love songs on the radio, and all you can think is “what in the hell are they talking about!?” and then BAM!  It happens!  Mark Rothko’s No. 14, 1960 (1960) was the first piece of art that swept me off of my feet.  Seeing as I did not grow up in a culturally diverse city, nor did my interests lie in art and art history as a kid, my knowledge of visual culture was limited until college.  In a series of 3 undergraduate survey Art History courses, each building upon the last, the 3rd course involved discussions of modern art from Rococo through present day.  For some reason, during this course, the era right around WWII struck me.  Art had become a form of expression, as opposed to a means to political and social ends.  (I spoke a little bit about this in a previous blog)

No. 14, 1960 by Mark Rothko, 1960

While I spent quite a bit of my undergraduate art history career studying the effects of war on art, when I first encountered this painting during the Spring of my freshman year in college, I hadn’t really seen any modern art up close.  I hadn’t traveled abroad, nor had I been to many art museums.  I enjoyed the ideology behind these pieces, but didn’t quite understand how that ideology translated within the actual art viewing experience.  During our mandatory museum visit for this last survey course, I was with two of my best friends Aaron and Meri, and after stumbling across a few pieces that we had studied in class, we turned the corner to find this Mark Rothko piece.  Instantly, I understood.  So many of the other pieces that I had studied required so much prior knowledge, or references to politics or Christianity.  Instead, you can simply gaze at Rothko’s painting without much knowledge of its place or time, and still have some kind of emotional or intellectual reaction to it.  In essence, expressionism is a power shift.  The power leaves the hands of the patron, and enters the hands of the artist, who then empowers his/her audience to see and question what the artist presents to them.  I feel like my knowledge of the context surrounding the piece amplified my response to it, but even if you had never seen a piece of art in your life, you could look at this painting and feel something (overwhelmed, calm, confusion or disdain).

No. 14, 1960 in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

The huge canvas sits at the end of a long corridor of masterpieces at the SF MOMA, quietly maintaining its regal presence, almost literally embodying the “light at the end of the tunnel.”  The lighting in the museum makes the orange pop amidst its dark blue counterpart, and the eggplant background.  There it sits, uncomplicated and brilliant.  All that we have to focus are two of visual art’s most simple elements: shape and color.  You can think about why Rothko chose those certain colors, what their relationships are to each other, why the ratios of each colors are the way that they are…and the thing is, when I just say these things, it sounds elementary and almost stupid.  But essentially,  we are getting back to the basics, which was extremely important to artists who had just witnessed a complicated, messy and devastating war.   Expressionist art was used to regroup and emote, not to propagate.   Shortly after seeing this painting, I declared my Art History major.  Even during my senior year of college, after a rough day during an art gallery internship, I went back to the SF MOMA, sat in front of this painting, and reminded myself why I fell in love with art: it’s ability to communicate so much, so powerfully.

Bumping into an Old Friend
During my time studying abroad in Barcelona, I visited one of my aforementioned Art History pals, Meri, for a weekend while she was studying in London.  Being total geeks, we went to at least 3 or 4 art museums and galleries in a matter of days, not to mention all of the other classic London sites, pubs, clubs and the like.  In the Tate Britain, amongst seeing various masterpieces that we had talked about in class or had discovered on research journeys and giggling about overly ornate hats in Uccello paintings, I turned a corner and *GASP*…a totally random, totally weird Botticelli painting that I had studied for months, and written a 16-page paper about.  Why is it such an odd painting, you may ask?

For those of you who are unfamiliar with my good friend Botticelli, let me give you a little sampler of some of his more popular, well-known work.  Please notice the ethereal female figures and the absurdly gorgeous and intricate hairstyles:

Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, by Sandro Botticelli

Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli, 1495

And now, take a look at the Mystic Nativity…

Mystic Nativity, Sandro Botticelli, 1500

The phrase “WTF?” may come to mind.  That, or “what kind of drugs were discovered around the year 1500?”  Both valid questions, if by “drugs” you mean “the cult-like religious dogma of Savonarola.”  I’m sure that’s what you meant, smarty pants!  Where are the beautiful ladies? The stunning hairstyles? Why is there a ring of angels above a gloomy manger scene?  Wasn’t Christ’s birth supposed to be spectacular, or at the very least…not surrounded by creepy angels doing the “ass out” hug and sobbing?

Right before the end of the 15th century, artistic culture in Florence flourished.  Lorenzo de Medici had assumed the de facto throne, and he was certainly a leader that enjoyed the finer things in life.  Scholars still refer to the years during his rule as the Golden Age, both to signify the peace among the Italian citystates and to denote Lorenzo’s expensive taste.  The church’s role in government took a backseat to Lorenzo’s interest in poetry, philosophy and art, and pagan culture in general.  Meanwhile, a totally pissed off Dominican monk by the name of Girolamo Savonarola was biding his time, and plotting his rise to power.  When Lorenzo died in 1492, Savonarola began preaching and recruiting young kids to do his bidding.  His gospel was this: the Medicis have brought you into a sinful, pagan nightmare of an existence, and unless you repent, give up all of your earthly positions and re-dedicate your lives to God, you are going to hell in a handbasket.  Savonarola even held (the famous) “Bonfire of the Vanities,” where countless paintings, books, scripts, etc. were thrown into a large bonfire in the middle of Piazza della Signoria (ironically, in the exact piazza where Savonarola would be executed years later).  Included in the items to be burned were a few of Botticelli paintings.  It is rumored that the famous Birth of Venus was in the pile to be burned, and a bystander stole the painting and hid it from Savonarola’s henchmen (henchboys really…some of them were as young as 7!  Hitler youth-esque, anybody?).

Botticelli’s artistic style changed drastically as soon as Savonarola came to power.  He went from painting the fanciful pagan nude scenes shown above, to creating dark apocaplyptic religious scenes.  We no longer have any intimacy with the figures.  Instead, they become small pieces of a larger, more unsettling picture.  After months of researching and writing about the correlation between Botticelli and Savonarola, and his Mystic Nativity as the pinnacle of this ideological union, and staring at its image in countless books and articles, I just happen to bump into it in a museum in London?!?  My knees went week, my hands covered my mouth, and I whispered “OH MY GOD!” like I had just seen Leonardo DiCaprio or something.  But this was better than seeing Leo.  It was like running into someone I hadn’t seen for a really long time, but with whom I used to spend hours and hours with.  Totally dorky, and totally fulfilling.

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4 thoughts on ““I once cried at a print ad:” Emotional Reactions to Art (part 1)

  1. That’s a great piece of writing! I saw a Rothko reproduction in a window of Christie’s recently, and it didn’t ‘grab me’; but when you put his work in context like that it makes a lot more sense.

  2. I grew up in an art household…Dad taught art, knew all these weird guys form New York, Chicago and LA. Our house was a Neutra-esque SoCal house, with Bertoia chairs.

    So I was jaded from age 5 on. Hated the ‘big squares’. Bored with them.

    Then one day, being dragged through LACMA for the billionth time, I turned a corner and there was a huge Rothko. Blue and deep purple. I felt as though I was falling into it, and peacefully, willingly so. The painting seemed physically deep, as if I could reach into it, or, it could absorb me.
    Perhaps I missed the point completely. Perhaps my reaction was a simplistic one. But in my mind, any art that evokes ANY kind of powerful emotion is a success.

    just a layman’s thoughts….I enjoy your blog

    1. I love this! And that’s exactly what I love so much about Rothko’s pieces. Regardless of whether you know a lot or a little, you can still have a totally valid reaction to his work. Thanks for reading!

    2. About 45 years ago I was surprised by a huge Jackson Pollack. It was hidden from sight until you walked around an almost ceiling high screen. I immediately began forcing back tears and the need to begin worshiping this powerful image placed high on the wall. Oddly enough, there was a middle aged man explaining to his elderly mother why this painting should be taken seriously…mass,form,structure etc. This intellectual attempt while I was having a unique, visceral experience provided a counterbalance to the moment I was in.
      Just stumbled on your blog after a day with my nose in an art history textbook. Works of art can be explained in a non-pompous direct manner. Who would ever have known? Peter

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