Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Adventures at the Nelson-Atkins, and a son's penance

El Greco, The Penitent Magdalene, 1580-85. Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City. Click the image to enlarge it. Image found here.

Just a quick note to post this new-to-me painting I saw at the Nelson-Atkins this past Saturday, to say in addition that the newly-reopened American art galleries are truly worth the trip there all by themselves if your tastes run that way, and to relate the following tale as further confirmation of my theory that you can learn an awful lot about a person you thought you knew well if you take him/her to an art museum.

Peter, one of my students, brought a friend with him. There at the museum, this fellow seemed interested in being there, but I thought at the time that perhaps he was just being polite for the instructor's benefit. Besides: Kansas City was just a stop for them; after they'd seen what I wanted them to see, they'd be shoving off for Manhattan KS. But tonight in class, as those of us who were there performed a post-mortem on the trip, I asked Peter what his friend really thought about the museum. Peter said, "He actually called his mom from the museum, told her where he was, and said, 'The next time we're in Kansas City, I want to come back here to visit.'" Peter said he was dumbfounded, that he had no idea that his friend was even interested in art, much less so interested that he'd do something like call his mom right then and there about it. Bear in mind: these guys are, to all outward appearances, your typical early-twenties males, alternating easily between apathy and jokiness (itself a sort of apathy, as deployed by Kids These Days, now that I think about it).

And yet.

To witness moments like this, a tank and a half of gas for the round trip is a small price to pay.

I have mentioned in this blog in the past that things like this happen all the time on these trips. My favorite version of this story is from a couple of trips ago, when one of my students was accompanied by his father. The dad talked with his son at real length about several works; it was fun to watch. When I mentioned all this to my student, he said that he'd never before heard his dad talk about art, had never known that he was even interested in art. My favorite version, but it's also personally poignant: when my brother and I were much younger, my dad liked to take the family to the U. of Texas' art museum on occasion. I confess to not having especially fond memories of those trips. And now that my father's been dead for almost 30 years and, now, I've developed a real fondness for museum-going, it'd be really wonderful to roam a museum with him, to talk with him about what we're seeing, to tell him that I finally see what the big deal is, that it took a college education (which he insisted on) and a few years, but I get it now. Finally.


R. Sherman said...

I wonder how much we miss from our relationships with those significant to us, because we stop being interested about who they really are. Whether we don't inquire because of fears of being "nosy" or some other reason, we are the worse for it, I'm afraid.

John B. said...


I was just too young to know to ask the question, "Why does this matter to you so much, Daddy?" So, he never got to explain himself to his family. It was a question that even my mother wasn't asking him, I'm sorry to say.

Ah, well. Better to realize all this in retrospect than not at all.

May said...

How true, it happens to most couples.

I know a childless couple who seemed to be different, centered around the two of them and interacting at a deep level - except that she found out that he has a lover.

John B. said...

Hey there, May--long time, no see. (And apologies for not saying hello here sooner.)

I'd prefer not to submit my parents to psychoanalysis here, but suffice it to say that it was only after my father died (and I, of course, was older) that I began to see more clearly just how the relationship between them worked/didn't work. They were very different people. I don't know just how happy they were together--some days more than others, I suspect. But, so far as I know, they were always faithful to each other.

May said...

Hi John,

Yes it's been a long time but I've never completely lost touch with your blog.

Last Sunday, in my parents' living room, my father started to tell me about an art-exhibit that he had visited the day before. He quite enjoyed it except for the fact that the guide that was touring them around was not precise enough. "You see", said my dad "I know more about the Russian Vanguard than he does". Oh.
I thought of this post.