One thing invariably happens when I travel: the places I was most looking forward to going end up being somewhat of a let down, while places I never dreamed of, or never meant to go to, end up being trip highlights. The best people, places and experiences are often literally stumbled across.
On on my recent trip to Europe there were art galleries I planned to visit, and most of my planned visits were worthwhile, albeit involving jostling elbows with others. However some of my best art experiences were ones where I ended up in galleries alone.
I stayed in the Belgian city of Bruges (Brugge) for three days and the first day I just wandered. I hate looking too much like a tourist and so I was hat-less and map-less (which actually resulted in me being asked tourist information by a group of Polish people, and led to an interesting conversation in which they were trying to persuade me to visit Ghent and look at a website containing aerial photos of Ghent – but I digress!).
I saw a sign to exhibitions of the art of Picasso and others and wandered into the Site Oud Sint-Jan (old St John) hospital site. While I was buying a ticket to Picasso, I saw they also had a Chagall exhibition on and so went for the ticket combo. It turned out my Chagall ticket had a door keypad combination attached to it. It took me a few goes to work out how to gain entry to the Chagall exhibition via the keypad – things are never simple when foreign languages, other cultures and even non-language specific symbols are involved (what is that supposed to be a picture of?).
Once I gained what now felt like privileged entry to the Chagall exhibition, I felt like I had entered a sacred space.
The room had high ceilings, sun and classical music playing. I’ve seen a number of Chagall’s paintings before, but never his prints; his lithographies. Something about the space, the art and the fact that I had the art all to myself filled me with a sense of joy and wonder.
If you’ve never seen the art of Russian-French artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985) before, there is a strong sense of character to his people, who are depicted in an expressionist, semi-naïve art style that stirs the emotions. The combination of their expressions and the vibrant colours tells a story with minimal use of line, richly coloured tonal areas and shading. Some of the lithographs were of biblical figures, like David playing the harp (to King Saul), his head turned to one side, in profile and looking down, and his arms encircling his harp, holding it close. His one visible eye and protective posture capture a poignancy. Often his figures are floating, along with plant and animal life, untethered from this earthy plane and gravity. His work has a minimalist charm.
I remember looking at the works, and then returning to each work that spoke to me, under the spell of these speaking pieces. The sun shone down through the tall six-pane windows into the charmed space and I was in a state of awe and wonder.
Eventually other people could be heard punching in the doorcode, with its accompanying beeps, and getting frustrated when it wasn’t letting them in. But after a while the space no longer belonged to just me. The spell broken, I went on to see other works, and share gallery spaces with other people (and an Afghan wolf hound at one stage). I can’t quite recapture it, but I still remember the state of grace that was that gallery experience.