I recently attended the Milwaukee Art Museum’s exhibition, “Summer of China.” The museum’s most important loan acquisitions include pieces from Qianlong Garden, a former imperial palace during the Qing Dynasty. It is a beautiful exhibit.

When it comes to Chinese culture, my brain is a catalogue of ancient martial arts history and the Hong Kong film industry. This makes me good for a fairly broad sketch of a surprising number of topics, given how China’s various martial arts are deeply threaded into its culture, and otherwise helpful for a Bruce Lee reference. Basically: I know just enough to get me into trouble, but not enough to get me out of trouble. Western art is far, far more familiar to me. It looms all across my dissertation.

So I rode my bike down to the art museum, eager for an opportunity to learn more. To experience art that Hans Urs von Balthasar, my dissertation topic, knew but never touched. (It is very hard to escape a man like him.)

The exhibit does a nice job of giving a vivid sense of the garden complex, and I walked past pieces of its ornate furniture and art, able to imagine what it might be like to exist there. I moved mutely among the high reaches of murals and cordoned-off panels, headphones firmly in place. I did not listen to the audio tour, as those things are too rigid and distracting for me. I am always busy wanting to be able to imagine. So I played a familiar song and moved carefully by the art.

And I imagined. Drew myself back to China in the 18th century. Tried to remember what I have read about the era, and piece together what the explanatory boxes said along the wall. I was a History major once, long ago. Graduated with the degree. That person still lives somewhere in me. History is a fragile web, spun together only partially.

It’s an odd thing, going to a museum alone. It makes one freer to observe the people who occupy the space, the others who stare and mill about and read. Museums are artificial places, and the feeling is more radically felt when alone. I became aware of my isolation, and the isolation of the human beings moving past without glancing my way, and the isolation of the museum pieces – each from the other, and variously.

I don’t know why I started thinking about that. But I did, until I became distracted by the odd, sculpted movement of the emperor’s furniture. Some made of pine, some of plum tree, some of bamboo. The three trees are called the “Three Friends of Winter,” and they represent virtue in the face of hardship. In Qianlong Garden, the furniture was shaped to look as if the wood still lived and moved.

All the designs evoked movement, despite being motionless. It reminded me of a line from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets:

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence. Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.

It is a genius demonstration of the link between time and eternity, and it always inevitably reminds me of a section from Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn. In it, the poet speaks to a young man etched into the urn who strives after a young woman on the other side. He perpetually strives, and perpetually never moves:

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal – yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

If in Eliot eternity triumphs in time, then in Keats the outcome is more ambiguous. They are eternally young, the lovers on the urn, and eternally apart. Their love is frozen in a sort of triumphant failure. I thought of this, staring now at an antique Chinese vase, and mourned.

In something of a dark mood now, I emerged out of the exhibit and wandered into the museum’s other collections. I walked into their sections of Western art, running from the ancient Greek to the very modern. Silent, I walked by broken Greek sculptures and felt the weight of Western art creep onto my shoulders. This, all of this, was what Hans Urs von Balthasar spent his life trying to love and understand. And I love it, too, but with the sad knowledge that I can never hope to do it justice. There is too much, and art escapes our attempts to comprehend it wholly.

I am used to that in theology. We begin our projects knowing with certainty that we will finish with only partial understanding. Theology is in the rare position of comprehending that it does not comprehend – and what it does comprehend was given to it anyway. It is a discipline that requires humility, or else megalomania, to attempt.

Sometimes I think of my dissertation as touched by a double failure: the failure of theology, which can never fully know its source, and the failure of art, which speaks more than it knows. But that’s too dramatic. All I want to do is try and understand Balthasar a little better, especially the young man who loved art and whose heart was broken by art.

I walked through the ages of Western art: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque… Watching the ages pass by. I made sure to pause for a long time at Francisco Zurbarán’s “St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb,” a favorite. Then the Baroque melted into more modern techniques, such as Impressionism, Abstract Expressionism, Surrealism.

I wandered into the most modern wings of the museum. The sections that set my teeth on edge. I never know why. For some reason, wandering past contortions of color and shape, wildly distorted figures, has a harrowing effect on me. Always has. I try, for long minutes, to embrace the art in front of me. But it screams at me. As if the canvas were in agony. And secretly, I scream back.

Is this where the modern heart is? I asked myself the question yet again, as if I could know. I wondered vaguely if this is why Balthasar was so interested in the Christ’s Cry of Dereliction, as if His scream were somehow an answer to ours. But I don’t know. I stared at a mess of broad paint strokes, black and red and blue, and felt the silent scream rise in my throat.

Muscles tight, I moved on. A wide window caught my eye, and I moved past a spikey sculpture of gray metal to look out the museum’s window. At Lake Michigan, a wide expanse of blue that faded into the horizon.

Everything in me went silent.

Some children pushed past the tortured metal without a glance, and stood with me by the window. They pointed outside and stared. At least we all agreed on what was more interesting. Including the funny people walking by below us along the shore.

Paul Claudel, a French poet and dramatist, saw the ocean as a symbol of God’s grace. It rises over us, powerful and everywhere – overwhelming, to our destruction or our delight.

I thought of this as I wandered back to my favorite painting, the one of St. Francis in His Tomb. I paused there one last time, observing Francis as he stared downward at a skull. A sign of his own death. (Art and death, strange and intimate friends.) I closed my eyes for a moment and felt myself pass through a kind of judgment. As if art could judge us.

Perhaps in some ways it does.

I left the museum with Zurbarán’s painting still vivid in my mind. I thought of St. Francis, surrounded by deep dark – an ocean of dark. An ocean, like Claudel’s, which would make even the darkness grace.

Francisco Zubarán, "St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb"

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