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Photo by Tom Pablo, South America Semester.

Some Messy Thoughts on Art and Mortality

My favorite artwork is kind of stupid.

I mean, okay, no-bad-art and whatnot, but there’s so many seminal works in the world–so many challenging, norm-defying, time-enduring, important paintings that are far more worthy of my reverence. Works I’ve read about, have been lucky enough to see–like Rembrant’s Thinker, or Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup prints. Even in the local museum I roamed as a kid, I’m pretty sure we had a couple of Jean Arp sculptures just waiting to be prodded when the guard wasn’t looking.

But no. I always found myself sitting before Daniel Garber’s Franny, 1943, and I have ever since.

Franny, a portrait of the painter’s granddaughter, is what contemporary philosopher Alain De Botton would call “ideal” art: sunlit, warm, oversimplified, and unchallenging. Franny is a girl whose gaze is held by something we can’t see; with her stance submissive, and her dress frilly and pink, she seems like just another well-decorated object to be stared at, just like any other female form depicted by a man. The viewer’s understanding of the portrait’s subject doesn’t exactly dig deep–in other words, at first glance, the portrait is simply that: shallow. Simple. Pretty.

(And I know what you’re thinking: What does any of this stuff have to do with my travels through South America?)

See, that’s where it gets complicated.

I mean, it’s true that Franny is beautiful. Like most of Garber’s well-known works, it was painted among the tall grasses of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just a short drive away from my old home. It isn’t just the atmosphere that draws me back, though–Franny herself, with her half-open book and daydreaming expression, could have been the inspiration for my own barefoot childhood.

Regardless, it’s also true that art is supposed to be more than beautiful. It has a noble purpose. Art, literature, music–they tell the complex, multifaceted history of humans better than any oversimplified timeline could. Dubuffet’s paintings speak to post-war existential despair; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to the resurgence of the conservative right in America. Creative works are important because they tell us how we’ve changed as a society, capturing ephemeral moments within the broader movements of history. What happened. What could happen. Where and who we are, even in our worst moments.

This is a theme consistent throughout the arts. Still-life paintings of the Dutch Golden Age remind us: Memento mori. Quick, they say. Hurry–nothing lasts. W.H. Auden and Mary Oliver whisper it through their poetry: Love what is mortal, Oliver tells us. This will make you human. Impressionist art, originating from the desire to paint busy landscapes quickly, also reminds us to love the ever-changing world–to abandon perfection, and love it imperfectly.

Maybe this is why I love Garber’s work–it does no such thing.

See, Garber was really only an impressionist when he wanted to be. His portraits–especially those of his family members–could be very realistic, and Franny isn’t an exception. He renders her frozen, timeless, out of his love for her, and he couldn’t have picked a more perfect moment. This work was painted as the U.S. entered World War II. Twelve years later, Garber would die suddenly and unexpectedly. Franny becomes not a portrait, but a modern still life. Although still a testament to Oliver’s words–love what is mortal–Garber captures his granddaughter with intention and care. Do it well, he informs us, when it matters–cherish your experiences, and paint them in sunlight.

How beautiful.

Under Franny’s beauty, I reflect on my own experiences. What have I loved? What has changed me? The tall grasses of Bucks County, surely. The libraries and museums of my youth. My dad’s ridiculous road trip tunes, the smell of homemade manaeesh, the pages between my fingers, the relentless laughter of Massai children, the thunderous storms of September in Australia.

I reflect on where I am. What art, what music, has fallen through the cracks in my Western-centric library? What stories, unpublished and proudly told, will reach me in Bolivia? When I buried my fingernails in those Q’eros potatoes, when I smiled at my homestay family in Urubamba, when laughing water soared during Carnival, did those memories find paint and pencil? Will they stay? How will they color my life?

Of course, there’s so much more–I’m not done with my canvas. It waits for evenings in even bigger libraries, lessons from travel’s textbooks, new challenges, new friends, new favorite paintings, and the chance to change and be changed. It waits for my hands to get working, get going, soak themselves in rainwater, pick a university, reiterate my earthly passions, grow up strong, meet my second decade, and love with mortal abandon. Honestly, what am I waiting for?