It was a weekend without much in the way of photo documentation. That tends to happen when you’ve planned a long weekend south of the border following the election of a technicolor nightmare. These are all the Instagram hits.
We stopped briefly in Olympia on the way down to Portland. The briefness of that stop was somewhat diminished by the protests in the streets that blocked us from getting back to the car. (Happy to wait.)
Riots in downtown Portland kept us out of the downtown after dark. We humble Canadians don’t want any trouble, you hear? We had a motel north of the City and across the street from a retro tiki bar and an Izakaya, so that kept us fed and watered for Friday and Saturday. Besides that, all we really came for was, let’s face it, Powell’s. My friends, our library grew three sizes that day.
Sunday Funday was back in Seattle, wandering the usual haunts: Pike Place, Space Needle, traffic on the I-5. Brief, beautiful, and something of a farewell tour, it seems….
This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.
I can’t remember how it was I found out that the bus had broken down. What I definitely remember is that it was extremely cold.
The bus breaking down did come several hours into a long bus trip from London. From there, we went across on a ferry from Dover to France and into Belgium. From here, the intent was to pass into Germany and then head all the way down to Munich.
And those several hours came after a morning of scrambling to check out of hostel in London, have my wallet stolen, cancel my credit cards, call home to have them get a new debit card from my bank and have it forwarded to a future hotel, and then get to Victoria Station to meet our bus.
If I recall, we barely made it.
Once on the bus, we got our rundown on the Oktoberfest tour from the over-enthusiastic tour guide. All of it can be summarized by the cheekily declared: “There’s a fifty quid penalty for anyone who chunders on the bus.”
It was in the first hour that we met our (as the kids call it these days) squad for the week, Sally and Tess from Australia. They too were up for binge-drinking and risque behaviour but also appreciated the value of quiet-time and slumber.
Many others on the bus did not. Many brought milk crates of beer on board.
Look how horribly tired I am.
The day presumably passed on with strained social behaviour and blurred views of cows in fields.
And I must have fallen asleep. And that must have been when the bus broke down somewhere in the middle of Belgium.
We were in the middle of a truck stop and the bus was so utterly fucked that the heating didn’t even work. We dug out our sleeping bags and huddled up inside of them for warmth. It was all very tragic and miserable. In our privileged naivete, we probably thought this was what it was like during the war.
This was the entirety of our Belgian impressions. Aside from the cows, of course.
After a while, dawn broke and the diner above the service station opened.
We ambled into there to try to get some sleep.
I recall a stiff neck from diner booths maladapted to sleeping. As the day outside warmed up, we moved outside, legs stiff and wobbly. The other displaced bus partiers were lingering around, splayed across the narrow patch of grass between bus stalls.
Eventually a new bus arrived. Whether it came all the way from England, I have no idea. But that might account for the Greek epic-style wait.
All I remember is it was night by the time we got to the camp site and all Bri and I did was climb into a flimsy little tent with all the clothes we had layered up over top of each other like Michelin Men, and shivered.
As it turns out, camping in Munich in late September can be a blissfully chilly experience….
This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.
I was supposed to take the train from Paris to Madrid. It was one of those things that I had planned out well in advance like the responsible adult I had thought I was. I bought my Eurail pass and everything.
If I remember correctly, it was an overnight train. In the planning stages, this was a good thing because it meant a night I didn’t have to pay for a hostel.
But then, as Paris wound to a close, all the ephemeral friends I had made in my hostel there were starting to drift away… some back to their everyday lives, some onto their next adventure. The loneliness was creeping back in. The tide was coming in again.
Suddenly, an overnight train journey was starting to feel a bit too much like claustrophobia. As if the train would trap me with myself and the bleak possibility of unwanted social interaction. Loneliness is strange sometimes in that you know social interaction should be good for you, but you fear it ever-the-more intensely.
This was the beginning of a pattern that would repeat over and over while I travelled, in one of those unearthly hybrids of art and mathematics.
So I looked up Ryanair. It was something absolutely absurd (like only 20 Euros) to fly from Paris to Madrid. So I booked it. I get irresponsible with money when faced with potentially anxiety-ridden situations. Anything to avoid it. Take my money. I booked a flight leaving that night. It would get into Madrid at about midnight.
I took the Metro to the dying embers of central Paris where I had to catch a coach to this tiny little airport, the name of which eludes me. It was one big room lined with vending machines on one side, and windows on the other. You could watch the rickety planes come in and airport staff push the staircases up to them. For someone who grew up in a city with a major airport, this felt like time travel. As it I would see The Beatles descend at any moment. A pretentious, privileged thought, but one I had all the same.
Ryanair doesn’t book seats. It’s a free-for-all. I would come to learn the best entrance strategy (always go for the back set of stairs; most people rush the first), but at this point, I just went with the crowd.
I had my Lonely Planet travel guide and I spent the flight plotting my route from the airport to the hostel in Madrid. Easy peasy, it looked. Just one metro line, with one change. Doneskis.
But by about one in the morning, I discovered that part of the Madrid Metro was down for maintenance. I had to find the surface and find a shuttle bus. I got on the wrong one.
When I realized something was wrong (which took an embarrassingly long time), I got off the bus, and hailed a cab. I handed the address to a hostel over to the driver and he took one look at it and gave me a long, tired look. Without a word, he started driving.
Madrid in the middle of the night is an odd place. It is funny to compare it to other cities, especially my own, Vancouver, which shuts down at about one-thirty am, just after the last Skytrain pulls out of downtown.
Madrid is one of those cities that goes all night. Sure, it’s quieter than during the day. But there’s still stuff going on. It feels like an underground of sorts. Like you’re somehow complicit in this secret world.
By two-thirty am, the cab pulled up at the end of a long alley. It was wide enough to know that it was a viable walkway, but narrow enough that the cab driver silently said no fucking way.
I gave the cab driver a look as if to ask where the hell am I supposed to go?
He pointed down this Spanish Knockturn Alley and said, “Down. Just little. On left.”
He looked solemn. By now, I had assumed this was his natural state of being, solemnity, but as I opened the cab door, he said, “Careful. Bad town. Very bad.”
I had sincerely wished he’d not said that. How could this have helped? Like now I could watched out for maniacs but before I would have embraced them with open arms? Did he think I was expecting the residents of Spanish Knockturn Alley to break out into a rendition of the Lollipop Guild at my arrival?
I side-stepped a few leering types, but I made it to the hostel unscathed. I managed to get a room and snuck up to it quietly, tiptoeing amongst the already asleep. So as not to cause unnecessary noise, I slipped off my shoes and slid into the bed fully clothed.
As tired as I was after such a long day, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and stared at the underside of the bunk above me. My heart was pounding. I could feel my pulse in my ears.
Holy shit! How had I taken the events of the evening in such stride? I had been stranded in the middle of the night in a foreign city I had not even seen in the daylight. And I had been alone. Completely alone. No one had known I was even in the country.
How stupid could I have been?
Once I replayed everything over in my mind, it was impossible to calm myself down. I had to repeat over and over: You’re safe now. Calm the hell down. It’s over.
It was a strange day, but an important one. I realized I could handle it. Things would be thrown at me and I only had myself to rely on. But I could handle it.
And maybe I needed to be a little bit more responsible with myself… and my money. But I wouldn’t learn that lesson until years later.
This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.
A few days into Paris—before the Australians, the honeymooners, the college kids, and the life-traveller; after the three asshole partiers, Matthieu from Montreal, and the nameless guy from Newport Beach—I decided to check out the Palace of Versailles. It was outside of the city and I was told to set aside a whole day. I took an RER train, nervously, I might add. This was still my first experience in navigating a non-English speaking public transit system that wasn’t as easily colour-coded as the Métro. I had been nervous about following the map from the train station to the palace, even if it was only a few blocks.
I didn’t have to be.
The crowds were a swarm moving down the streets. It was like going on a school trip with a bunch of strangers. The wait to get in was at about two hours but what else was I going to do?
It was almost over-whelming, the sheer volume of human bodies surrounding me. I pressed on until I ended up around the back of the palace, watching the grounds stretch out before me. Long manicured pools ran on for so long they practically disappeared over the horizon. Marble statues carved the way down. Sculpted hedges ran off into the distance. Lines of chalky pink gravel were stuffed with tourists who were oddly quiet. There was such serenity to the place that it amazed me it was so peaceful and quiet even with as many people as there were.
Perhaps is this was a natural landscape, it would surely meet all these ample qualifiers—peaceful, quiet, serene—but something about the symmetry of the artifice was even more relaxing. It was like math meets nature. I can’t help but think of the idea of a beautiful face being a symmetrical one. Perhaps something like that was at work here.
But the sheer effect of it all was… breath-taking. Breath-taking is such an overused word; all hyperbole rendered it meaningless, just like what is swiftly happening to literally.
But it was literally breath-taking.
My cold, critical intellectual side had been prepared to imagine the palace splashed with red paint, so something just as rebellious and angry. But that fell away. I found it impossible to overcome my cognitive dissonace, so I chose to momentarily ignore it.
The only time up until that where I had experienced anything as breath-taking was visiting the Grand Canyon when I was sixteen. But that was purely nature. I did not know it yet at the time, but a week or two later, I would experience it again seeing Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid. And that would be pure, noble art.
But the Palace of Versailles was something else entirely. It was the most quintessential example of the disgusting excess of the wealthy; it preceded a revolution. Preceded and/or provoked.
Starting out at the grounds, I lost all desire to see the inside of the palace. Could they, in all their simple beauty, be in any way divorced from the absurdity of the gilded palace?
I walked down the steps out past the carved hedges lined with marble statues. I think of the neoclassical movement and how hilariously wrong it all was. There is a definite beauty in the white marble, perhaps one reminiscent of our own uncomfortable ideas of (im)mortality. But in reality, those classical statues were painted with bright and gaudy colours. They probably looked more like Dogma’s Buddy Jesus than Michelangelo’s David.
People lined the rectangle ponds. A concession stand was even there, but if I remember correctly, it wasn’t open. Perhaps it wasn’t even a concession stand. Perhaps it was something else entirely, but only looked like one. Perhaps that is just something the cynic in me wanted to see.
Past the people and the concession stands were wooded areas. I followed a path through one, curious what I might see. There were people walking in and out, but the crowds were significantly thinner.
What I found was Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. The Queen’s Hamlet, as it has been labelled, was essentially a fake rustic village she built herself, for when she was “seeking to flee the Court of Versailles.” Perhaps this is just a poor choice of words for the official Palace of Versailles website, as this is not only where she went for relaxation and comfort, but where she actually ended up fleeing to escape the revolutionaries. There was a small grotto in the hamlet, allegedly where she hid. I won’t go into any more details about the history of the place. You can read the website or just Google it.
I spent most of the day there wandering through what I would have believed was the set of Beauty and the Beast had it been live action. It was still a working farm, with animals, crops, the whole le-bang.
There was something so ironic, symbolic and tragic about that place. Especially after being so awed by the… (there’s no other word for it) majesty of the palace and grounds. For all the splendour and excess of the palace, the queen required a simulacrum of a modest village. It was like Walt Disney building Main Street, U.S.A. It’s so easy to inject the Citizen Kane narrative, as if this rustic little farm was her Rosebud.
When I finally felt ready to leave, I made my way back up to the palace. I tagged along with one of the guided tours, really only out of a sense of obligation.
Unlike the grounds, it proved to be exactly what I had expected.
This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.
I was exhausted and burnt out. For short trips, you rally. But backpacking is a marathon.
I dyed my hair from blonde to brown before I left Vancouver because I knew I was going to Morocco, and I’d heard warnings—mostly I’d ignored them, but my mother also heard those warnings. If she felt better, I could deal. However, it faded back into a dark blonde by the time I arrived in North Africa.
In a perfect example of a tremendous oversight, I arrived on the first day of Ramadan. I had a hotel room all to myself. A hotel on the beach, where I took the closure of everything as a chance to relax. I slept all day, wandered the beach, and then ate candy and drank mango juice for dinner.
But I got to watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean from Africa.
The world started to feel small.
I wanted to explore, but I was feeling what I hadn’t yet realized was culture shock. I realized I had been incredibly naïve. I took short walks through this little part of town, sneaking photographs as if I were a cultural thief somehow. Most of my experience with the actual city was on the taxi ride from my hotel to the train station.
I cannot even remember how I called the taxi. Did my hotel call it for me? Did I flag someone down? I seem to recall few cars on the streets on the outskirts where my hotel was. I attributed that to Ramadan, I remember.
I feel slightly ashamed that my memory has failed me on this one little detail. I cannot even recall much about the taxi or the driver. I have vaguely blurred recollection of a typical cityscape passing by once we entered Casablanca proper.
I remember thinking, comically aware of my own absurdity, how absolutely nothing looked like the movie. I had expected this; I wasn’t an idiot. I harboured no false expectations on that front. I even knew that somewhere downtown, some enterprising restaurateur had opened a “Rick’s” and that it too was nothing like the movie.
So it goes.
This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.
the five types of travellers
My first week in Paris was a crash course in backpacking. The first day, wandering from my hostel along Rue Moufftard down to Place St. Michel, took me onto the Ile de la Cite, towards Notre Dame.
I’d been expecting a cathedral, damn it.
And that’s what I got.
Only the intervening centuries did their best to make themselves known. Across the river was a Subway sandwich shop. A long queue fed into the building from the square outside. Perhaps I was expecting a sign, like in Disneyland: 30 minutes from this point. But Notre Dame is a working church. Inside, people were praying. They were praying as if five hundred years had not passed by since I thought this place was relevant.
I realized with a start that the problem is me.
I grew up on the edge of the world. In a sense. Vancouver, Canada: the last frontier. Even the islands west of the Georgia Straight were colonized first. Incorrectly, our culture says that history started when the white people got here. The earliest thing we have that gets championed is from the late 1800s: the gaslight era. Something we seem really proud of, a friend of mine from England once pointed out, but is a barely remembered blip back in the Old World.
Thus: Notre Dame made me realize what a disconnect I felt between anything “old” and anything “relevant.”
When I said I was staying for a week, it seemed like a universal consensus amongst the other hostel mates that a week was too long. “Three days tops,” suggested Matthieu from Montreal. He should know, I thought.
As it seemed that this was what most people thought, I was able to bear witness to the whole gamut of travellers coming in and out of that hostel room. They set a template that was only reinforced the more time I drifted from hostel to hostel. There are certain types of travellers.
The college kids doing their backpacking thing (or, if they were British, the gap year traveller). I liked to assume many of them were trust-fund babies, but I don’t want to judge. I will just say that I ran into quite a few of them that seemed to not really know the value of a dollar. Hostels were not a necessity; they were cool. It was like Coachella applied to travel. A couple of the kids in my hostel were fresh off to Stanford when they got back to the States in September.
The budget honeymooners. In the Paris hostel, there was a young couple who had just married after eight years together. They had a six-month-old baby girl and money was tight. They had a small, cheap wedding and didn’t think they were going to get a honeymoon until their family surprised them with this. I never got much chance to get to know them, as – naturally – they spent most of their time alone together, outside the hostel. But they seemed like the sweetest, most genuine couple I had met. I respected the hell out of them.
The Australians. I met many, many, many Australians. They were often living and working in London for two years on a visa, and travelling as much as they can while doing it. There was little else to define them as a group other than their nationality and something of a happy thousand-yard-stare. They could party, to be sure, but something about their experience so far had rendered them wide-eyed but a little world-weary. It was an odd combination. It was like they’d seen some shit but couldn’t wait to see some more.
The partiers. These were the worst. The absolute worst. I’m sure they’re nice in other contexts, in much the same way the guy who is really letting loose at the bar one night is usually nice in his daily life. I found they were often rich kids from around Europe or Britain, taking advantage of budget flights to spend the weekend somewhere else getting drunk and/or laid. They didn’t care that you weren’t. They treated the hostel as an extension of the party. Even when it was four in the morning. Those fuckers.
And then, most impressively, there are the life-travellers, those for whom the nomadic nature of travel is a way of life. These are the people we all secretly wish we could be. So much romance is tied into their way of life; doesn’t it just sound so grand?! Travelling all. the. time. All you own is strapped to your back and off you go, picking grapes in Italy in the summer, wintering on a beach in Thailand. These people float around, volunteering in exchange for meal, surfing couches, making friends (upon whose couch they might one day surf), and filling out ice-breaker bingo cards like nobody’s business. There is a whole sub-culture that exists for life-travellers. I love these people. They’ve got the best stories. I’m also incredibly jealous because they have a stamina that I just can’t live up to.
Because travel is exhausting.
Travel is life magnified.
Especially when you are travelling alone. Travel is an endless series of intense days where you are always required to be mentally present. This is equally exhilarating and exhausting. Where life is shades of grey, travel is black and white. Life normally passes with an emotional range that wavers slightly day-to-day just above and just below “normal.” Travel is all kinds of extremes. Moments of joy are thrilling in a way that life rarely is. Everything feels magic and unique and special. It’s like falling in love. When you’re alone, you’re truly allowed to be yourself or even just some imagined version of yourself. Because no one knows you, no one has any expectations from you. No one is going to say “that’s a weird thing for you to say,” they will just think “wow, that chick’s weird.” And—you know what?—who cares if they do? You’re onto a whole new city tomorrow, so fuck those haters.
But on the flip side, moments of sadness are ever-the-more excruciating. At some point during my first few days in Paris, I cried at night. You’re never truly alone, but you feel it. All the anxieties of everyday life are rendered all the more desperate and extreme. If you lose your keys, there’s no one to call. Hell, you might not even find someone who speaks your language. You’re all on your own, baby.
I wondered if this was all some horrible mistake. Had the Great Adventure all of life culture had promised really been some big, fat lie? That romance of running of into the sunset was total bullshit. Travel is hard.
But the next morning you wake up. And it is… in every possible way… a new day.
You’re kinda over the jet lag at long last.
There’s a new group of people in the hostel and they’re all kinda friendly. One of them asks you if you want to go check out the Catacombs, and since she’s a radiologist and you took one university course on osteology, this is going to be really fucking good.
This is the introduction of what I hope will become a series / retrospective project / diary-after-the-fact / examination of memory-and-place-and-all-that-jazz. All the links to other posts about specific adventures and places are/will be below.
Whenever you get back from a long bout of travelling, the world always feels different (at least for a little while, until reality sets in again). For me, however, the world really was different. I was gone from August to November 2008. I have always meant to write more meaningfully about this trip. I’ve touched on bits and pieces here and there, but alas… I’ve never put together something huge.
I imagined that one day it would all be complete, as if I was filling in the pieces on a puzzle that would one day reveal the big picture. It seemed so easy, when I thought of it. That I would be able to simply sit and write. I would start at day one and then it would unfurl from there like a pulling the thread on a sweater.
But memory works in funny ways. Events are not always best discussed in sequence. Not when they are connected to ideas. Below is my itinerary, not as it was planned, but how it turned out when all was said and done. I will fill in links when I get around to writing them. And probably not in order. Although, that’s probably how it will start.
Less than an hour after touching down in Paris, I was sitting in a street café, eating a kebab with a guy from Newport Beach whose name I forgot as soon as I heard it.
It was August 10, 2008, and I would spend the next four months rolling through the epicenters of several western European cultures. At some point, my sister joined me and things got messier. The impact of those four months on the world were enormous and the whole time I was in a bubble lit by my own navel.
One Forrest Gump moment stood out: I happened up the financial district of London on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse. I recall men in suits carrying boxes of office supplies and dazed looks. In retrospect, it made everything seem so much more important than it did at the time.
In fall 2001, I began university. Everything that followed was easily characterized by the phrase Post-9/11 and a campus perpetually peopled by anti-war protestors. It was here I met the boyfriend I would later break up with and have to run away to Europe to start over.
This was something of a theme for me, I realize now. I went to Europe for the same reasons a lot of people do in movies, if not in reality: I was freshly freed from seven years in university, five years of which were in a just-ended relationship, and I desperately needed to see something beyond my own milieu. It was simple: I needed to escape.
In summer 2002, I’d done something similar. I went to stay with family in England in lieu of summer classes to get over my high school boyfriend and my fear of the real world. The change of scenery provides a perspective easily lost when you’re stuck in the day to day.
Five years later, my husband and I would do the same.
But in 2008, armed with meagre savings, a line-of-credit, and poor financial decisions, I went backpacking. The entire thing reeks of middle-class white privilege.
Which brings me back to that kebab in Paris with a guy from Newport Beach…
III. La Alberca
VI. Some where in the the foothills of the Atlas Mountains
XII. Munich proper
XV. Paris Again
XVI. Disneyland Paris
XVII. Madrid Again
XVIII. La Alberca Again
XXIV. London Again
XXVI. Doncaster, Thurnscoe
the last spike of the railway
when clickbait happens in real life
Royal Tyrrell Museum
Amanda & Jessica, August 23, 2014
Grand Forks (the old train station where my great-grandfather worked as a telegrapher for the Canadian Pacific Railway)
Lake Tuc-el-Nuit, Oliver
The Hope Slide
Sometime in the late summer of 2008 – right before the crash – I was in Madrid. Madrid is home to one of my bucket list items (if I actually had a bucket list): Picasso’s Guernica.
Housed in the Museo Reina Sofia, Guernica is an absolutely astonishing sight to behold. The impact of such a piece comes not only from its imagery – rendered starkly in monochrome – but also in its sheer size.
I truly thought no other work of art would ever provoke such an emotional and visceral reaction from me. I actually gasped, my breath catching in my throat the moment I stepped into the gallery space. “Nothing will top this,” I thought, “Ever.”
But Madrid had a lesson in wait: checking items off a bucket list is one thing, but the moments that truly take us by surprise are often far more rare, and far more valuable.
Perhaps the next day or even a week later – my memory has grown hazy – I visited the Museo del Prado. I wandered room after room of classic paintings by the Old Masters: Titian, Rubens, and on and on. At this point in my travels, I had recently been through the National Gallery in London and the Louvre in Paris. If you’ve been to any major national museum, you know the drill. I remember thinking to myself, “Okay, I get it. Biblical allusions, yada yada. Greek and/or Roman myth, I know I know. Portrait of someone I recognize from the money, OLD HAT.” It’s not to say that I didn’t appreciate the artistic value of each piece, but it gets a bit samey after a while.
I was adamant that Guernica surpassed them all. Guernica was, as Lawrence L. Langer asserted, the first true art of atrocity. I cannot even begin to summarize the importance – artistically, culturally, politically – of Guernica. So I won’t. Because, really, that’s not what I sat down to write about today.
At the Museo del Prado, I found a Dali to break the monotony*, then it was back to the usual vanilla brilliance of pictures-you-really-wish-were-of-Dorian-Gray. I began to fancy myself a burgeoning proclaimer of been there, done that, bought the souvenir snow globe. I was 24 and arrogant.
But art has a way of knocking you down a peg or off a cliff.
I wandered into what seemed at first like a tiny wing of the museum. I had learned that sometimes they keep art films in secret compartments such as this. (It was an alcove like this where I saw Un Chien Andalou, at the Tate Modern, I think.)
Yet in this tiny wing were an arrangement of fourteen paintings that I ended up a long time with. No one else came in while I was there. Must have been a Tuesday morning.
My morning with Francisco Goya’s Black Paintings easily remains the most deeply moving and profound experience I have ever had with art. There is just something at once so fantastic and so essentially human at work in these pieces. They are once both surreal and real; both intensely personal and terrifyingly universal.
I’m about to borrow heavily from Wikipedia for some background here, but Goya was “regarded both as the last of the Old Masters and the first of the moderns.” It’s a fascination I’ve since realized I’ve had my entire life: people overwhelmed by an era of transition. It’s why I love Mad Men, the Lost Generation, and the whole saga of Richard II and Henry IV (or, if you prefer, Aerys II and Robert Baratheon).
After an early career of patronage by the Spanish crown, the Peninsular War of 1808-1814, “the internal turmoil of the changing Spanish government,” and a late gotta-pay-the-bills stint of painting commissioned portraits, Goya, at the age of 72 and going deaf, took a country house “with the idea of isolating himself.”
It was there that he created his Black Paintings:
Goya developed an embittered attitude toward mankind. He had a first-hand and acute awareness of panic, terror, fear and hysteria. He had survived two near-fatal illnesses, and grew increasingly anxious and impatient in fear of relapse. The combination of these factors is thought to have led to his production of the fourteen works known collectively as the Black Paintings. Using oil paints and working directly on the walls of his dining and sitting rooms, Goya created works with dark, disturbing themes. The paintings were not commissioned and were not meant to leave his home. It is likely that the artist never intended the works for public exhibition: “…these paintings are as close to being hermetically private as any that have ever been produced in the history of Western art.”**
This is all from Wikipedia, but I read the same in essence upon a museum placard and in the little booklet I immediately purchased from a vending machine just outside the wing. Surely, I realized afterwards, these paintings must have a remarkable effect on the daily gallery visitors if the Prado thought to provide €3 information booklets right there. I could not be the only one fraught with the impulse to immediately claims these works, unable to wait until the gift shop to somehow make a part of them mine.
The titles given them are essentially basic descriptions. To me, they lack the impact. Above, is that two old men? Or Cronus with death whispering in his ear? Or was Goya, now going deaf, reflecting on the frustrations of his old age? And Saturn Devouring his Child shows such contrast with a glorified work of an Old Master it’s as if some late-Romantic debate ended in flipped over tables, smashed glasses and a bar-room brawl.
As much as knowing the context of the Black Paintings seems to add to my appreciation of them, it is by no means essential. The paintings captured me the moment I saw them. As with Guernica’s sheer size, presentation is the key. The paintings’ arrangement as a collection is a significant part of the impact. Each painting alone is haunting in a way that the word has become too over-used to do justice, but together they just… wow.
Guernica might have been literally breath-taking, but the Black Paintings stunned me… and almost shamed me. Where Guernica stood as testament to the horrors other people are capable of, the Black Paintings point to something deeper.
Perhaps they were so slyly asserting that I, too, am capable of horrific things. They capture atrocity, but in a far more indefinable and deeply rooted sense. Picasso created Guernica so as many people as possible could see it and learn from it. I like to imagine Goya created the Black Paintings in contemplation of the atrocities within himself, whether in his soul, his potential, or his memories.
Something about that connected with me and I’ve never been able to forget it. Perhaps this is all too difficult to put into words because that is the way of truly great art. Art is an abstraction of things too real and too powerful to properly comprehend. It cannot be expressed in simple or clear terms. It cannot be quantified or explained away. It cannot be expressed in numbers or facts. It cannot be delineated into mere names or places or even into language. To do so is to miss its core purpose, its je ne sais quoi… its duende… its element of the sublime.
That was something I understood intellectually but could never truly appreciate. And the realization came so unexpectedly, too. It came in a moment inside an art gallery, I know. I should have been expecting this. But I wasn’t. This made me realize that for all my life up to that moment I had approached art as a vessel of history or place: as a bucket-list item.
And Art cares not for your bucket list.
*Possibly the douchiest phrase I have ever written. Apologies.
**as cited from Wikipedia (I am now citing citations cited on Wikipedia. Through the looking-glass, people, RIGHT THROUGH IT.): Licht, Fred. Goya: The Origins of the Modern Temper in Art. Universe Books, 1979. p 179.