March 7, 2014
At the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia a room is hung salon-style with 19th Century British
and European paintings. The display is immense, covering two facing walls hung floor-to-ceiling with the works of Delacroix, Ingres, Daumier, Henner, Meissonier, Millet and their contemporaries. The paintings are depictions of bucolic charm, the everyday realities of 19th Century pastoral life: farmers and their animals, their meadows and icons, and families - holy and otherwise - are seen in portraiture, picnic and tragedy. Sentimental human and natural condition stacked to the rafters.
In the middle of this room are back-to-back settees. These are what you bump into while picking up your jaw. Once seated, there's a laminated placard illustrated with a legend and list. "What am I looking at?" I mumbled the rainy afternoon of my discovery. I scanned the faces in front of me - of the birds and beasts, widows, farmers, virgins and workers - reviewing the breadth of what was revealed there. In all the drama and pathos and elegance, I felt a wistful longing to hold onto them - a panicked admiration for the subjects and for the artists' hands that delivered them to me.
A few months later, my big brother Dave took me to the performance of a personal hero of his - the master of industrial rock Trent Reznor and his project Nine Inch Nails. Amidst an otherworldly light display and a five-course meal of song, electro and guitar-craft, I once again let a peak aesthetic experience overtake me, and after the last encore I let it spit me out like a rack of well-gnawed bones.
Dave sighed, pocketing my earplugs. "I don't know whether to be completely inspired and get back to work, or to give up music altogether," he said. I told him I was familiar with this sensation. It's called doomspiration.
"Got it!" said Dave.
Here are the signs:
Pounding heart, shortness of breath, sweaty.
A feeling of unexplained longing.
Simultaneous melancholy for making things, and joy at the meaning of life.
Willingness to work, plus temporary unpleasant realism.
Emptiness and fullness.
Ecstasy, laughter, fantasy and fanaticism.
Urgency, lethargy, confusion, clarity.
How to move forward:
Try to make something you deem equally great, if only for a few moments, and remember you were moved and that's what art is for.
PS: "When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too." (Paulo Coelho)
"I was never really insane except upon occasions when my heart was touched." (Edgar Allan Poe)
Esoterica: The style of display known as a "Salon Hang" is named after the biannual student exhibitions held from the 18th Century onward at the Louvre's Salon Carré and the British Royal Academy. These exhibitions gained some notoriety for the visual impact of tightly packed works of similar academic conventions. Salon Hang made things so competitive that Turner retouched his paintings after they'd been installed. Artists complained that their pictures had been "skied" - hung at the top and out of view - and Gainsborough was so offended he dropped out of Academy exhibitions in 1784.