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Before Photography

Giovanni Agostino da Lodi (active ca. 1467–ca. 1524), Head of a Bearded Man in Profile to the Right, ca. 1500, red chalk on paper. The Morgan Library & Museum, 1973.35:1, Gift of János Scholz. Photography by Janny Chiu, 2018.
 
 

I went to the Morgan to see an exhibition of  early Italian drawings by Botticelli, Da Vinci, Raphael and others. The Morgan gallery is small, which is one reason I like it. I meander slowly, digesting  the art in small doses. I take notes. I might write down the name of an artist and the title of a work I like, or I might write a sentence that has nothing to do with the work at all. I am not gathering any data, or conducting interviews, or acquiring knowledge in preparation for a test. I am totally free, drifting in and out of the galleries. I prefer to go alone and only rarely make a date with a friend. By the time I leave, I am not only relaxed, I am restored.

 

Before photography. I kept thinking of that as I wandered through the Morgan. These drawings, mostly portraits, were drawn from real life. And the people who sat for the portraits were once alive. I was a bit spooked by that notion, but transported also. The features were vivid, palpable—cheeks and lips and eyes. I began to imagine their lives—how they lived and what they said to their loved ones first thing in the morning. These drawings are not only artistic renderings created for pleasure and decoration, they are a document of past lives. I am curious about those lives, or the life of the artist, or the artist's process, which is so analogous to a writer's process, and often do some reading after an exhibtion to supplement the visit. The experience of the exhibition and the reading may get folded into a piece of writing, or not.

 

Art has always been my second love next to writing. I think the reason is that my father dragged me to art galleries all over New York City from a very young age. We would stand in front of the painting and he would try to describe how it was made—the medium, for example—or how it made him feel. Sometimes he was at a loss for words and would just sigh or stand quietly for a long time. I was never restles; I felt safe, engaged. My father was a surgeon, and like many surgeons, had dexterous hands and drew well himself. Once I found a stash of his sketch books and wanted to keep them. He wouldn't let me, so I put them back on the shelf, reluctantly. He gave me my own sketchbook and I tried to draw  but did not have the gift. I took classes and even applied to Music & Art High School, and failed. I wonder if my father was disappointed. I never had a chance to ask him.  I became a writer instead and try to draw well with words.

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