The Story in Art

I admit I don’t have an eye for art.

Not that I don’t appreciate it…or love it…or do it, really.  I was a fine arts minor in college, so art has always been a hobby and joy of mine.

But when it comes to interpreting art, I fail miserably.

My mom and I recently went to an art museum where we got to see pieces from throughout history.  My favorite pieces were (and always have been) Italian Renaissance and 18th Century.  I even got giddy when I saw the old Benjamin West painting I did a report on as a junior.  Pieces from this time period often reflected common themes or stories from literature or mythology.  There was a painting of Cleopatra in Renaissance-style dress.  There was a scene from the Book of Judith.  There was a portrait of a member of the Medici family and her son.  For me, these pieces offered a simple interpretation.  It’s a picture of a person, it’s a specific scene from a story.  It’s plain and simple.  It’s a picture-nice and pretty and incredibly painted.  I don’t really see much of else.

But then there’s my mom.  She has this uncanny way of looking at a painting and being able to create this huge, mega-philosophical meaning to it.  You could show her a picture of an empty cardboard box and somehow she’d come up with a phrase that would be the inspiration for a Hallmark movie.

As we were going through this gallery of old paintings, she stopped in front of a Flemish piece from the 17th century.  There was a picture of a book, a skull, a quill of ink, an hourglass, a flower vase, and a few other items that I can’t remember.  She waved at me to join her at this painting, saying, “Wow-look at this!  This one’s really detailed!  There’s so much meaning to it.”

I looked at it for a moment in silence at this brilliant Flemish piece that depicted one of the common themes from that time period.  And being the knowledgeable fine arts minor that I am, I spoke my educated opinion to my mother.

“I don’t get it.”

My mom gave a chuckle as I asked for her explanation.  “It tells a story.” She said, pointing out the different objects.  “Look at the hourglass.  It’s telling a story that we have a certain time on this earth-birth to death.  Now look at the ink and book.  That’s the story of your life being written down-and you’re the writer!  It can be anything you want it to be.  Now look at the skull.  That’s a symbol of death.  But look at the flower vase near it.  It’s telling a story that even though there’s death, life can still be beautiful just like those flowers.”

I nodded, it all starting to make sense.

It was only a few minutes later that she looked at an abstract piece full of squiggles and circles and told how the painting represented life and chaos and sunlight.  (I still thought the painting looked like a stop light with a bunch of squiggles, but I’ll stick with her interpretation over mine.)

But even though my limited, art-interpretation-deficient mind can’t seem to find the story in a simple picture, I think my mom is right.  A picture-whether it’s a painting or photograph or drawing or print-tells a story.  But just like a story we read or watch, it’s interpretation is up to us.  One person can look at a piece of art and find it to be just a pretty picture, but to another person, it can take a whole new meaning.  It can be a source of hope, joy, or despair.  It can bring laughter or sorrow.  It can connect us to the past or give us a glimpse of the future.

Just like a book, a picture can tell a story.  But the meaning is up to you.

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