At the end of the day, or the month, or the year, people must have somewhere to go to be free; to be outside their own minds, and inside someone else’s. And so they come to this temple of art and beauty, wherein people whisper in hushed tones, expecting that their voices might create an echo; wherein some wander and amble, marking the walls with their impressions as they pass, and others harden into statues on temporary display, wondering at the same wall for hours. This is what we call a museum, a gallery, an exhibition. This is where we come to feel and listen to what our eyes see, to find characters, and worlds, and stories, and ourselves in something outside of us.
So at the end of this past year, I took a trip to the MET, to revisit the varicolored worlds of Degas’ ballet studios, Monet’s gardens, and Cassat’s urban women and children at home, at tea time, reading, and knitting. And of course, to find undiscovered territory, worlds I had never known. I found it, this time, along the edge of a very white wall, not entirely alone or under-admired, but with two glaring lamppost lights for eyes, calling for a greater attentiveness, a greater intensity, a higher respect. It is the world of Charles Demuth’s “The Figure 5 in Gold”, a visual translation of William Carlos Williams “The Great Figure.” It is small but piercing, and depicts, in the words of Willams “the figure 5/ in gold/on a red/fire truck/moving.”
If I look beyond the raging red, the burning orange, and into its flashing eyes for long enough, it will let me in, and take me with it. It will bring me into the walls of its dream city, set me down on its rain-drenched, deserted sidewalks, beneath its dark sky, and I will walk in the shadows of the towering lamplights, and balance along the edge of the concrete like a trapeze artist rehearsing in a large, empty room. I will wander into the vacant canal of that black tar street, down the middle, along those sharp-edged, white, dotted lines. And when the fire truck comes, with its gilded number five, and its sparkling red and white refracting headlights, I will be the only one there to hear it and to see it. It will come fast, and loud, and tense. Its wheels will roar and spin, the road will moan under its weight, a ladder will clatter against the side of the truck. It will flicker down the street, and I will stand in the blinking lights and the screaming horns. And out of the blinding lights and the clanging, howling sirens of that lonely, explosive night, its gilded number five will come at me and come at me and come at me.
And when that number five is too close to see, the night is over, and I will retreat from my retreat, and return to where I am—the room full of whispering people, and women’s heels hitting slow and stalled against the hardwood floor, and guards propped against the sides of archways.
There is no need to come to the MET, or any museum, equipped with an itinerary—a list of works you absolutely must see. You may never find what you are looking for, and you may never leave the hall of white walls and whispering people. You need only follow your five senses, and your five senses need only follow your imagination. They will take you away, on Hokusai’s great wave, to Rousseau’s exotic jungles, to Hopper’s 1920 American café, to the edge of Munch’s sinister bridge, where you will peer into still, reflecting water, and where you will find yourself outside of yourself.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.