The David by
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Prompted By Art’s Impact

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Though not an art history major, I’ve loved looking at and learning about art since I was a small child. I tend to be very sensitive to all forms of external stimuli, which makes me open and vulnerable to various forms of creative arts and I enjoy most.

For example, I have always loved the story of Romeo and Juliet. (I first saw it performed as a 10 year old, while visiting my brother at the National Music Camp – he was a Capulet servant, but the girl who played Juliet went on to a professional career, playing opposite Jack Lemon in his Academy Award winning role in “Save the Tiger”.) I desperately wanted to perform the lead role at some point in my life. The closest I came was doing one of her monologues in Speech Class in college. But my mother took me to see the Stuttgart Ballet perform their version (set to Prokofiev’s dramatic music) when John Cranko, their genius leader, was still alive and I was still in my teens. Marcia Haydée, one of the leading ballerinas of her day, danced the role of Juliet. Much as I love ballet, it does not easily move me, yet in this version in the death chamber scene,  Romeo dragged Juliet’s lifeless body around and had me weeping. I could feel Romeo’s anguish for his lost beloved and it moved me to despair too.

I have sung my entire life and am frequently moved by the music, as I wrote about some time ago: Gotta Sing .

I did take some art history courses in college, with a speciality in Renaissance art. My son took a painting  course in Italy in the summer of 2002, but of course, looked at the masterworks too. I told him to “see the art with my eyes”. He brought me a book on Giotto, the father of 3-point perspective.

We finally got to Italy in 2011, touring Venice, Tuscany, Florence and Rome. It was everything we’d hoped for, with wonderful guides in Florence and Rome. When Lorella, the Florence guide, took us into L’Accademia it was a quiet morning. We quickly walked through the entry galleries into the grand salon that holds Michaelangelo’s masterwork: The David. It truly took my breath away. Of course I’d studied it, seen a zillion photographs of it, but being in its presence, being close to it, was something else entirely and I welled up, just by the magnificence of it. Lorella looked on with approval. She could tell that I felt it in my bones, that I was moved beyond words. A mere mortal had sculpted this from sheer rock. I stood in the presence of genius and was humbled by it. (And the teacher in Florida who thinks this is pornographic and the teaching of it should be banned should sit in a corner with a dunce cap on; her thinking is from a different century. She should not be allowed near impressionable children.)

I’ve been active at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University for over 33 years and on its Board of Advisors for something like 25 years. The Rose was selected to host the U.S. Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the granddaddy of art shows. Mark Bradford did all the artwork in our pavilion, as well as working with prisoners at a local prison to teach them how to make handbags that were sold locally. They kept some of the proceeds, some benefitted indigent people in Venice. That made an impact.

I spent five glorious days at the vernissage before the official opening of the show. With our interim director and several Brandeis art history professors and curators, we had insider access to all the exhibits with great people to explain all. We could wander off anytime we chose and our group, along with another museum (where our former director had now become the director) hosted an incredible gala at Cipriani, overlooking the Grand Canal. Extraordinary!

Gala evening overlooking the Venice Grand Canal (with two curators and another Board member).

 

Lee Ming Wei, May 11, 2017, Arsenale, Venice Biannale

One artist really grabbed my attention. On May 11, 2017, Kristin Parker, our interim director took us on a tour through the Arsenale, a huge space full of invited artists. We stopped to see Lee Ming Wei. He is a performance artist. He collects old clothing from people and he and his assistant stitch up the holes in the clothing, thereby healing, or making the owner “whole”. The thread from the patch is then unspooled and attached to the wall near their workspace, making a web of thread – its own form of art that grows and changes.

threads on the wall from the artist

Kristin knew this gentle man and spoke with him at length about his process and philosophy. Something about his story really struck me. He was a Chinese refugee who had lived in Paris most of his life, so he understood pain and displacement. The idea that by stitching up these torn garments, the owners could be healed really gripped me and I again welled up. Kristin noticed me – “Betsy’s having a moment”. She took me in her arms and comforted me.

Last autumn, the Rose hosted a one-man show for Peter Sacks, a brilliant poet and painter who emigrated from South Africa as a young man and now lives full-time on Martha’s Vineyard. The show was called “Resistance”. He painted collage-style portraits of historic figures from across the world, some still with us, most deceased, who have had the courage of their convictions to resist oppression or the status quo and promulgate change. The portraits depicted everyone from Harriet Tubman to Nelson Mandela to Alexei Navaly. They also included audio recordings of some of their remarks, read by famous people, projected into the gallery in a great wave of sound, though through an app on your phone, you could isolate each person’s personal narrative. As I write this, on August 4, 2023, Alexei Navalny, who has been imprisoned in Russia on trumped up charges since January, 2021, was sentenced to 19 additional years for “inciting extremism, rehabilitating Nazism”, and other ridiculous charges. He is trying to point out Putin’s corruption and is being silenced. His daughter, Daria, now a student at Stanford, was at the Rose opening last fall. She took in all the portraits solemnly and quietly said, “So few of them survived”.

“Navalny” by Peter Sacks

Isn’t this what we all need these days? To have a moment, perhaps be comforted – “healed”; or open our eyes and learn something new? Great art should inform, teach, ask us to be vulnerable or even uncomfortable and challenge us. That should be what art can do, if we open ourselves to it.

 

 

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.


Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Betsy, I’ve always known your passion for art and your role at the Rose, so am not surprised how moved you were by David!

    On my one visit to Florence years ago all the art we saw was almost overwhelming!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      There is SO much to see – just at the Uffizi Gallery is a whole year’s worth of art history! Those Medicis knew what they were doing when they commissioned so many fantastic artists to decorate their villas; they even collected Roman antiquities.

  2. Khati Hendry says:

    You are clearly open to art’s impact—from music to theatre, sculpture to visual arts and installations—experiencing the emotions along with the messages. Art shows us the possibilities, good and bad, and invites us to respond. You have had a life full of those opportunities, well appreciated.

  3. pattyv says:

    Betsy, you’re so good at this. This piece covered it all. I ‘welled up’ several times reading this. Of course, The David. It was between Michelangelo or Pussy Riot. Standing next to you standing next to David, I too felt overwhelmed. What an honor it must have been for you. But because art obviously is ingrained in you, you have many such moments. Through you, we get to share in this. I love the way you ended this. In such few lines covering the breath and depth of art’s meaning in our lives. You should be teaching a college course. One last sad thought – I too am sick over Alexei Navaly. I find it heartbreaking with an entire world against Putin, we’re so helpless.

  4. pattyv says:

    Hi again, you would’ve made a perfect Juliet.

  5. Fred Suffet says:

    Undoubtedly, we’ve all seen photos of the David many times. But this is the only time I’ve read about the response of someone seeing it in person for the first time. It’s a wonderfully evocative description. Thank you, Betsy, for sharing such a moving experience with the rest of us.

  6. Jim Willis says:

    What a rich personal history you have in the arts, Betsy, and what contributions you have made to performing and promoting them for others to enjoy. The museum trips you describe whet my appetite to return to Europe and, especially, to Italia! Thanks for sharing your passion for the arts and your stories about them.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    I so agree with you about the insane bans on showing kids Michaelangelo’s David because it is somehow pornographic for kids in Florida. Insane. You have been blessed to experience so much great art in your love of performances and at the Rose.

  8. A fine thoughtful reflection on the prompt Betsy! I appreciated the breadth of artistic experience you drew from, and feel the same way about “David,” that you do — there’s something beyond power about seeing a work and the power of its reality that you’ve only experienced before in “mechanical reproduction” (Walter Benjamin’s term for copying stuff). (Also loved your parenthesized note on the prude from Florida!)
    I also took particular notice of your description of Lee Ming Wei’s work: I am often swept up by the conceptual origins of art like Wei’s, where an obscure idea manifests such a complex reconfiguration of human experience as screened through the artist’s persona.
    Finally, your take on Peter Sack’s portraits and accompanying audio environment. I would love to see — and hear — that exhibit! Also, thanks for weaving so much response to the work in that articulate way you have of integrating the personal with the political. Stay safe; stay sane!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you for the full-on appreciation, Charlie. I do enjoy and participate in so many art forms that it was difficult for me to pick just one. The Peter Sacks show came down last December, so is no longer available for the full experience, but I could try and grab you a catalog the next time I am at the Rose, if you’d like. It does not include any of the aural parts of the show, but at least you could see what Resistors were included.

  9. Dave Ventre says:

    A moving and well done story; your delight is palpable.
    Of all the visual arts, I think that sculpture speaks to me most deeply.

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