Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Life Lessons from Katherine Watson and Jenny Curran

I watched two movies I haven't seen in a while this week: Mona Lisa Smile and Forrest Gump. I picked up an ongoing lesson running through both, about not being judgmental.

Do you remember this painting, from Mona Lisa Smile?

Carcass,  1925. Chaim Soutine. Albright-Knox Museum.
It's the first off-the-syllabus painting that Katherine Watson, played by Julia Roberts, introduces to her students in attempt to provoke them into an actual, personal, critical engagement with an unknown artwork. (Here's the scene, thanks youtube):

I remember being slightly annoyed the first time I watched this show (2003ish). Whyyyy did she have to pick the most grotesque and darkly modern canvas possible to rouse her students? It's like, half a degree away from Francis Bacon's triptychs (the only art that has ever made me physically ill)! Stuff like this is exactly what scares people away from modern art!

Fast forward ten years to this week, however, when I watched Mona Lisa Smile from my informed vantage point on the flip side of a master's degree in art history. Surprisingly, I saw the Soutine's value, shock and otherwise. I even see its beauty. Colorifically, it's magnificent. The sparkling, crystallic blues makes the blood red shimmer, the yellows and skeins of white throw it even further into relief. The twisted usage of the primary colors gives the painting a rawness, and life-force. Even the sinewy, almost melting movement downwards from the carcass' two hooked legs puts one in mind of bigger forces: hunger, anger, death, murder, innocence, etc. Yes, Maggie Gyllenhal, it can even be erotic.

No one who has ever purchased a fresh cut of steak fails to see something alluring, entrancing even, in the curling swathes of muscle, and I think that was the mindframe Soutine started out with when he selected this strange but arresting subject.

I get it! I'm growing up! Withhold judgment for two minutes and you learn a lot of things!

Can't get over the blues. Yum.
Withhold judgment, and ask a few questions, and you learn even more!  I dug around a little bit this morning and learned that Chaim Soutine was a Jew who grew up in Minsk then moved to Paris in 1913. Throughout the teens and 20s, he befriended early modernists and expressionists like Modigliani and Marc Chagall, sharing many of their same dealers and patrons. Unlike Chagall, however, his career and life were cut short by the Nazi regime. Soutine was forced into hiding in Paris to escape the Gestapo and died of a perforated ulcer in 1943. After researching his history, even Soutine's most offensive and seemingly grotesque painting suddenly took on a haunting contextual depth.

His 1925 Carcass canvas was actually modeled after a Rembrandt van Rijn painting from three centuries earlier, which he studied in the Louvre:

Carcass of Beef (Flayed Ox), 1655. Rembrandt. The Louvre, Paris. 
Now how the shape Soutine chose-- the two splayed legs suspended above a gaping ribcage-- seems less diabolical, more scholarly, when you realize it has a historical source. It makes me want to see both paintings in person, and then stop by a butcher shop and bring home a little crimson, dead something-something to inspire a still life (and possibly a barbeque).

Thank goodness I have movies, and life, to teach me, year by year, the art of slowing down and withholding judgment for just a second so that I might discover some history, motive, or beauty in the actions of others that I would have passed by in earlier years.

This morning I burned through my snowday by watching Forrest Gump on TV. Now, I know this movie is 19 years old (1994!!!), and my thoughts on it are a little late, but I had a totally different experience watching this movie as an adult that I wanted to share. I got a bunch of its historical jokes that flew over my head as a nine year old, and found myself in more sympathy with Jenny Curran than I ever have before.

I remember being incensed at the movie's portrayal of drugs and nudity throughout Jenny's story. I was raised, as most of you know, in a Mormon home, with loving parents, surrounded by a firm, all-encompassing moral code. I did NOT think most of her story was appropriate to show in a movie. I thought her story was just Hollywood doing what it does best; tantalizing.

Today, though, I was blown away by the illustration of principles such as forgiveness, repentance  courage, and love that mark the end of Jenny's journey through every major mistake possible in the 1960s and 70s. These were all the principles that I thought I knew everything about at 9 years old, but really had yet to experience or understand.

In my 20s, I have learned that promiscuity, drugs and alcohol, physical abuse, and manipulation are not just things I see on TV. I have had to make choices regarding my encounters with most of these things myself, and many of them have entered the lives of those I love. They are an inescapable part of reality, but, like Jenny learns, they can be overcome and resisted, through soul-searching, repentance  forgiveness, and most importantly, love. True, there will be inescapable consequences to wrong choices, and it takes bravery to face one's demons, but that doesn't mean one should stop making choices or withhold love. I liked that the movie ended with a focus on family, and love, which is what Jenny, and everyone, deserves. I'm thankful for the Forrest Gumps of the world who will boldly state, "I'm a simple man, but I know what love is," "He should not be hurting you, Jenny," and "I will take care of you," to their Jennys.


Camille said...

This is beautiful- the writing, the message, all of it.

MOM said...

You sure know how to swing us from one emotion to another. You and your "art" finds. Thank you. And how nice it feels to look back and observe how we've grown up, and can see and feel and love more.

Jayci said...

Oh Lindsey! I love your thoughts, and how well you can get them down into words. I'm trying to think back to seeing Mona Lisa Smile in high school with Jessica and I want to remember you being there too, but the only clear memory I have of it is this: defending the movie on its honor for displaying life as it is. Life is imperfect, and people are far from perfect as well. Making the best of what we can with the choices we can make is the miracle of it all. ha! I love these movies and I love that you love these movies. I love that you love the art you do and can explain it in ways that brings it to life. Are you single? haha!! I want to set you up with our very good doctor friend up here. ; ) AH! I just love you. (and no pressure on the doctor... but JUST so you know... he's LDS, 34, handsome, an iron-man doer, a traveler, and air force!) Dang it, I miss you Lindsey. Hope you're doing well. : )