Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

I love looking at paintings, but they don’t always console me

If I am ever overwhelmed, frightened or just terribly sad, the fastest, surest way for me to get back on my feet is to look at beautiful paintings. I’ve been known to practically run into museums.

For me, looking at paintings is less emotionally fraught than listening to music. Sometimes that can reach in too deeply. If music can rattle my heart cage, reading is the opposite. Reading when I’m in that state means the words bounce off the page and scatter on the floor like marbles, rolling away under the furniture. Pointless.

Paintings, with the tension of their flatness, held in the artifice of a frame, on a nice sturdy wall, in their utter silence, combine to hold my attention. I get lost in the colours, the shape of a shoulder, the texture of a sleeve, the curve of an apple. You can go in close, or pull back. I look at which shape, colour or object takes the most space in the painting and why. I look at where the weight of those colours lie and their juxtapositon. I study the range of the palette the painter used — surprisingly limited on first glance but usually more than on initial inspection.

And if the painting has a subject, that’s pretty engaging for me because unlike most media, I see myself in the rooms of museums. Museum walls are filled with images of middle-aged women, women with power, standing and elegance. It can feel so ennobling, except it often doesn’t, because so many women are naked.

Only when I went to an art show where all the women were clothed did I have any inkling of the effect all those nudes had on me.

In the spring of 2013 I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC to a show called Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity. The minute I entered, I grew calm. I lost the disquiet that is always there when I look at (even beautifully rendered) nudes.

It was like taking out a hairclip or an elastic band that is too tightly in your hair, giving you a headache you hadn’t noticed.

I’ve spent hours looking at beautiful nudes. Yet only when I stood in a show where the focus was on what women wore, did I realize how much more comfortable I am looking at portraits and sculpture where the women were dressed in even a cloth, but covered. I feel less vulnerable, less watched, less judged.

Exquisite technique can render almost any subject, but that day, in that show, I understood that when the subject is a nude woman, and I participate in that hungry gaze — a gaze that all women are familiar with, and has often preceded so much violence towards us — I am eating a part of myself.

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