The greatest works of art circulate slowly through the world. We may only get one chance to see some of them.
I was speaking with a friend of mine recently about a particular piece of music and she commented that she would like to hear it live sometime in her life. I agreed and later her comment got me thinking about how a direct, in-person encounter with a piece of music or a painting can literally be a once in a lifetime experience.
If we’re aware of this, sometimes we’re willing to go on a pilgrimage. Sometimes if we’re lucky, the art comes to us. But in either case we have to understand how fleeting and therefore valuable these encounters can be.
Of my favorite pieces of music, there are a lot that I’ve never heard performed live. I’ve never heard Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue live even though its one of the workhorses of the American repertoire. I’ve only heard American in Paris once and that was here in Waco a few years ago with the Waco Symphony. I’ve never heard Schumann’s first symphony, Vivadi’s Four Seasons, or Beethoven’s 33 Variations on a theme by Diabelli.
A few years ago an exhibit came to the Kimbell Museum of Art up in Fort Worth from the National Galleries of Scotland.
One of the more crowd-pleasing pieces in the show was a massive landscape by American artist Frederick Edwin Church. It was of Niagara Falls as seen from the American side. He painted it in 1867 and since 1887 its been in a Scottish collection. A few years before he painted it, he painted another massive powerful nature picture called Icebergs which is today one of the most popular pieces in the Dallas Museum of Art. It’s a curiosity of the way the art world works that for a few fleeting months these two big, stirring paintings by the same artist were only 30 miles apart—it may well have been the first time ever they were so close together and it may never happen again.
Also in that exhibit was John Singer Sargent’s portrait called “Lady Agnew of Lochnaw.” It’s pretty well known and I’d seen it reproduced in books here and there. But nothing hinted at how mesmerizing it is in person. As I stood looking, an odd sensation hit me. I may never see this painting in person again in my life. Ever. This was, in a way, a goodbye. It made me linger a bit longer.
In Houston right now through the end of June there’s a Van Gogh exhibit made up of more than 50 paintings from museums in the Netherlands, many of which rarely travel. This may be your only chance to see them together.
What can we learn from this, other than it’s worth a drive up to Fort Worth now and then to see a great work of art. Well, that’s what we learn: Art is worth going out of our way to experience because you may never get the chance again.