While in Paris, I did something I have not done lo these many years: I bought a wall calendar. Between Google Calendar and the ubiquity of wall calendars as tools for soliciting charitable donations, my calendar needs have been largely met for at least the last decade. The Middlebury College annual calendar always features some really lovely shots of Old Chapel in winter and other such iconic seasonal landscapes. It makes a nice office-wall adornment, though I often forget to turn the page when the new month arrives.
This calendar, on the other hand, is a Joan Miró calendar from the Grand Palais in Paris, an impulse purchase at the end of a meander through the exhibit halls that had been both too short and too long. Before I could think it through, my hands were on it, my credit card was out of my wallet, and I was signing here. The visit to the Miró exhibit had begun with my too-young-for-an-art-museum child screaming her head off out of total indignation and being invited to leave, an invitation which her father graciously accepted on her behalf. He picked her up in his arms and whisked her back out the exhibit entrance (part of the problem was that strollers were not permitted in the exhibit, which we did not know during the planning phase), but her unending wails of “mooommmmmyyyyy” echoing in the stairwell were earning me some pointed glances from the other museum patrons. I took the hint and went off to help settle things down. Though I did get to return to the exhibit child-free after an agreement involving hot chocolate was reached, I knew that the clock was ticking and I proceeded to tackle Joan Miró with surgical efficiency.
I say that as if I could have spent all day in there but for my family obligations, but that is not true in the slightest. The funny thing about me and art museums is that I both wish I could stay forever and immediately want to get out. If the museum is crowded, I am already counting down the galleries until the exit the second I walk in there. I grow both drowsy and agitated. I ache from too much standing and not enough walking. In the background, simultaneously, I am consumed with a weird kind of performance anxiety. Am I patronizing the art correctly? Am I going too fast? Too slow? Have I stopped in front of the correct canvases, and have the correct things piqued my attention? This is utter nonsense, but art museums always tend to make me dehydrated, which will make anyone take leave of at least some of their senses.
It’s a testament to Joan Miró, then, that my art-museum-panic was temporarily arrested by the presence of his paintings all around me. Miró is a Spanish-born artist who worked in Paris for much of his long career. He lived to the age of 90, unlike many of this early-20th-century contemporaries, and he identified from fairly early on as a Surrealist painter. If you’ve ever walked through a modern art collection at one of the big-city museum in the U.S. (Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, etc) you’ve probably seen at least something of his. He’s not one of the top three names that comes to your mind when you think of 20th-century art, probably, but you’ve probably seen him displayed next to Picasso or Kandinsky. Actually, that’s when I first noticed him; at the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice during my semester in Italy. One of his Dutch Interiors was hanging next to a big dramatic Kandinsky (something to do with the apocalypse) and I was immediately drawn to the Mirò. I hadn’t ever heard of him, but I would start to notice him everywhere. Maybe one or two paintings total on display in a large 20th-century gallery, and never with the crowds around him that a Picasso would draw. But enough that I started to recognize that maybe I liked this artist in particular. Never before this visit to the Grand Palais had I seen more than two of his works displayed in the same place. Now I was in the presence of nearly 150 of his works, which was enough to quiet my fight-or-flight response for a little while.
I still had a toddler somewhere in the building who I knew had a limited amount of time left before either she or her father would hit a wall, so I started to hurry through the later galleries. The growing crowd was making it difficult to get very close to any one object, and my body was begging to sit down, get a drink of water, or something, anything. When I reached the gift shop, though, I looked back at the final hall with regret; every molecule in my body truly wanted to get the hell out of that museum, but those paintings. I was going to miss them. I didn’t know if I would ever see so many of them all in one place again.
My forlorn, art-loving, gallery-hating self bought me a wall calendar. What I really wanted was more time with Miró’s paintings, a chance to look at them every day when I open the door to the laundry closet, sometimes moving right along and sometimes lingering for a little while. It draws me in without my realizing it, as I absent-mindedly stare at a single detail that won’t quite leave me alone. I want a quotidian relationship with something confusing and challenging and beautiful. I didn’t understand the idea of being an art collector - all that money that could be spent on so many other things! - until I started to learn that for me, communing with great art is not a one-time experience, but a process that unfolds over many, many repeat viewings. I’m always afraid that I’m looking at it wrong, maybe, because I’m just not yet satisfied that I’ve understood it, and I never will be. It’s what makes me utterly exhausted at the end of an art museum visit, and something at the beginning of one. It’s also why I always visit the 19th-20th century gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston whenever I go, and it’s why I always want to make a trip to the MoMA whenever I go to New York. Until I can afford a collection like Peggy Guggenheim’s, at least there are wall calendars.