Life Lessons From Art History

Today it would have been Virginie Avegno Gautreau’s birthday, better known as Madame X. She was the subject of one of John Singer Sargent’s most iconic paintings and a personal favorite.

Sargent had earned an esteemed reputation as a portrait artist by that time, one that was strongly influenced by his constant success in the Paris Art Salons and ample clientele. The painter was fascinated with Gautreau defiant personality, her exotic looks and elegance and ability to attract attention as a cherished socialite. I don’t know why Sargent then decided to take the biggest risk of his career.

Madame_X_(Madame_Pierre_Gautreau),_John_Singer_Sargent,_1884_(unfree_frame_crop).jpg

“Madame X” by John Singer Sargent, 1844.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 He Asked Gautreau to pose for him. He spent days around her sketching her in different poses and then decided to paint her in a standing pose, featuring her profile, her svelte figure, her tiny waist in that provocative dress. It was in fact one the simplest and most brilliant paintings he had done. But it was not what catapult “Madame X” into the hall of fame of art history, it was a fallen strap.

Her naked shoulder, the fallen strap that seemed as it has been carelessly forgotten caused a revolution at the 1884 salon. People were on Sargent for a tiny strap. How daring! This was the man that would draw male nudes with their full masculinity on display, that painted fabrics so sensuous that it makes them almost impossible to keep your hands away from them, sensual women, gipsies and actresses. But it was that bare shoulder that caused him to distress and made a scratch on his otherwise impeccable reputation. That was in Paris, the always modern Paris nevertheless.

Sargent, beaten up, decided to scratch the fallen strap  and painted it on its original place, in a move that rivaled the Vatican ordering to cover their paintings with fig leaves.

Current and original version as seen through X-ray studies.

Current and original version as seen through X-ray studies.

John Singer Sargent was devastated by the bad reviews and left  to London where he ended up producing an incredible body of freer and beautiful work.

The reason why this is relevant, beyond its place between art history scandals, is that at some point we all experience setbacks like Sargent did. This event, although probably painful for the painter at the time, sounds truly ridiculous with the advantage point of view presented by time. Gautreau had other minor portraits made of her by other artists that do not rival Sargent’s work in quality or beauty. His talent surpassed the stupid scandal and it left us with a gorgeous life size painting well worth a an obligatory visit at The MET (thanks to Sargent who sold it to the museum three decades later)

So if you feel all eyes are on you, learn from Sargent. It will pass! If you are being bullied, remember bullies do not hold a place in history the way the courageous people are. If you decide to amend mistakes, make sure it is because you believe on it and not because you are trying to please an audience. If you fill critics hold the key to your value and talent, remember the best will always attract bad comments and well as the nice ones. And if you feel like Madame X, then wear your straps whatever way you like. Ban de fig leaves, ban de repaints, own your s...tuff!


Happy birthday, Madame X. Thanks for inspiring several generations of trailblazers. I hope I get to visit you again very soon!

When I was afraid

Growing up, I would dig into my parent’s extensive and varied  book collection and explore everything from the Britannica Encyclopedia, to Anthony Robbins, to Kahlil Gibran. It was in one of those books, I don’t even remember which one, that I read a phrase that would become my motto. I remember the moment of revelation it was to read it, how some kind on spiritual and intellectual door opened and changed me forever. Paraphrasing, it said that the only thing we should be afraid of is fear itself.  That moment I decided to leave fearlessly.

I faltered a lot, though.  The raising criminality in the place I used to call home and some close encounters to what could have been extreme tragedy made me powerless. Other than, I have tried to leave a courageous life.

Today, I had to face fear itself in a very unexpected location: the gym.  I attended a very fun Zumba class. I was doing my turns and my steps while grinning bluntly. Then I felt it. First time it happened was five and a half years ago and it was back, was it? I was sliding to the right and my leg seemed to have turned more than it should, and something pulled behind my knee. I moved again and there it was. I stepped down for a second thinking I should stop and rest.

Almost six years ago I tore my ACL while trying to beat my husband at a racquetball game. I ran to hit a ball and I felt the same sensation I felt today, but I kept going. Less than two minutes later while running again, my knee gave in, and a very loud pop echoed inside the racquetball court. I collapsed and lost movement of my right knee. There is nothing that frustrates me more than inactivity. I can’t stay still and that injury forced me to go  two months without driving while undergoing physical therapy until I recover some movement before I even got surgery. They took a tendon out of my tight and used it as a replacement for my ligament. Another month without driving, more physical therapy, then working with a wonderful personal trainer who got me jump and run and go back to my usual level of fitness.

That injury, although common in a lot of athletic disciplines, was devastating for me. It tested me in so many ways. It took me a year and a half to go back to the old me, although I discovered I was never the same. I grew a lot, I exercised my patience and acceptance, I worked harder than ever and I put all of my frustration into my painting that developed at gigantic steps during that period that I could not do much else.  As grateful as I am for the experience, I don’t want to go through that ever again!

Those were my words when I felt that strange pull behind my knee today. I would do anything to avoid it. Then my mind went to all the places I did not want to go, all the effects that another surgery will have on me. I was afraid. The class kept going on and I looked at myself in the mirror and I had replaced my grin with a big frown. I had let fear conquered me. Then I became really afraid of where my thoughts were taking me. I put the attention back in my knee. Could I move it? Yes. Did it hurt? No. Should I finish the class?…..I deliberated.  Then I remembered I was being afraid of something that could certainly be but had not yet happened. So was my fear unfounded? probably. Was I going to let fear kept me away from a great class….Oh, hell, no.

I gave it my all and I finished the class. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and my smile was back: the sign of victory. I did not let fear bring me down and I am proud of it.

Sometimes, the greatest victories come in the constant, smaller battles. When we get terrible news, we have no other option than to fight. But it is on the day-to-day smaller tasks that we fall out of the wagon because they seem comparatively irrelevant. But a dose of constant fear is paralyzing. It is like being bombarded continuously without a place to hide. 

When I saw Mr. Fear today I told him that he could go find another victim or exile. I know he would like to come visit soon and every time I will try to kick him in the butt while I continue dancing and grinning. Honestly, I am a little bit afraid of him, but mostly, I am afraid of the version of me when he is around and that is something that I am willing to to do the impossible to avoid. So, farewell, Mr. Fear! I may no control the outcome but I decide who comes visit. You, I am sorry to say, are not exactly welcomed.      

My encounter with Mr. Kent

I saw Clark Kent today…

Today I went to Costco, an experience I usually repudiate because I always go for celery and leave with a cart full of things I did not even know I wanted and most likely didn’t need.

But it was there, while pushing my cart among lemons, pineapples and batteries that I saw him. He was tall, probably 6 ft tall, with two extra inches of white hair that moved with the same vibe than a slow-moving shampoo commercial. It was a full set of hair.  

Over his blue eyes, black rectangular and very hip eyeglasses.  He was wearing a very puffy, long coat, the one you use to go pick the mail in Manitoba. But it was understandable. He was standing in front of the Costco Freezer. Checking his phone, a smile peeking in his face. It is not like I was shamelessly studying him, but it was impossible to not notice him. And then I noticed….

Under his blue shirt, only a few buttons open. Actually it would have been appropriately open if he was attending a party at at Caribbean resort; it was definitely too open for a New England winter. But I could not see his chest. Timidly peeking at the bottom of his neck there was a blue t-shirt. The yellow and red lines were distinctive. Under the heavy coat and  the blue button down, he had a Superman T-shirt.

I smiled, not at him, but for a moment I had to think twice if it was Halloween. It wasn’t. This man was not in costume, he looked like the real deal. Well, as if Clark Kent was in his seventies. But he was the coolest seventy-year-old I had ever seen, not counting my father-in-law. 

Because the aisles of the Warehouse club sometimes seem like a labyrinth, Mr. Kent and I kept crossing paths. While my cart was full of fruits and meats, he was carrying croissants and cookies. Lucky him!

I saw him paying a few lines to my right and I was dying to peek at what name appeared in his membership card. I didn’t, I let him go.

I have never been into superheroes (something I am aware it might change now that my son is obsessed with the good vs. the bad guys) but I love the idea of a disguised personality. I don’t mean portraying who you are not, showing an image of a happy, powerful, successful, super woman when you are breaking inside. It is quite the opposite, like my friend Mr. Clark Kent: pretend that you are ordinary but knowing that deep inside you are superb. It is like having the time of your life with friends and not posting it on social media. It becomes your friends’ little secret. Or wearing that expensive lingerie that nobody suspects. Maybe feeling incredible proud that you were early to your appointment, crossed an item of your bucket list or  are rocking an expensive outfit that you got at an incredible sale. Nobody needs to know, but it makes you smile and feel powerful and that is all that counts. And then you push your cart through the aisle of a warehouse and somebody looks at you and questions if you are Lois Lane and you smile because you know you are more than that…you are an ordinary woman that in between grocery shopping and Clark Kents, you have discovered that you actually love the most humble, simplest, imperfect version of yourself. 

Butterflies in the stomach

What a delicious feeling is to fall in love! Those first days when everything is a bliss, butterflies flutter in our stomach, we glow, the world seems brighter, we smile alone while remembering the object of our affection, time is eternal when we are apart from that person, time goes too fast when we are together.

That feeling is so wonderful, however....it is fleeting.

A few days ago I went to a very slow yoga class. And by slow I mean we only did like five poses. The rest of the class was just practicing awareness of every single move, of our breathing, of the space around us. That is when it hit me...mindfulness is the most similar thing to the state of infatuation.

“Mindfulness is the most similar thing to the state of infatuation.”

What makes feeling in love seem so delicious is that we put all our attention into one person while the rest of the world fades. In fact, even the least attractive parts of that person and the red flags, they all become hazy. But we don’t notice, because our attention is concentrated on something else.

Mindfulness produces the same effect. We place our attention in the present, in the smaller things and suddenly the rest of the world blurs: our problems, our worries, our pain. We don’t pay attention to things because they are beautiful, we make them beautiful because we pay attention.

Is inevitable sometimes to long for that feeling of first love. Occasionally things fall out of the track because of our egos, because we don’t have a choice. But sometimes, we stop being in love because we stop paying attention, because we become robotic in our interactions and forget to be present. If you are in that moment of your life were you wish to feel butterflies again, then breathe and offer your whole presence to your significance other, to your job, to your exercise routine, to life. Make the whole world brighter. Don’t look for someone or something new. That would be a temporary solution. Go for the real deal. Only in that place where we give our all is where we find the most absolute, delicious, renewable, eternal bliss.

Things that happen in a commuter train....

Rush hour train from New York City to Connecticut. I am lucky enough to find a comfortable seat on a busy ride. Commuters are carrying their briefcases, their coats, hats, umbrellas, laptops and tablets. Lots of noise cancelling headphones.

I decide to write for a while until I get distracted by a fellow passenger. In front of me, three people share a bench, their elbows and knees touching. In the middle, a man probably reaching his 70s is on his phone, what is left of his white hair carefully arranged. It is not that I am curious, but his phone is held high on plain sight, so I read as I always do.

He is on a dating app, don’t ask me which because that is not a domain I am familiar with. Now he has my full attention.

He goes to see his daily matches. A full list of women come up. I find myself judging along: “this one seems trustworthy,” “too much plastic surgery,” “too young for him.”

He keeps closing profile after profile but he takes a few extra seconds on a few. Then he goes on goggle. Now, he and I are on full stalking mode. I am wondering if his fellow riders, only inches away, are as engaged as I am in this man’s search. The white-hair-man goes back to the dating app and disqualifies a few more women that I thought could be a good match for him. I don’t say anything, obviously.

After a while he closes the app and opens a book. I can’t read from where I am, but it has the word “power” on it.

We both stand up at the same time because we are are getting out at the same train station. From upfront he looks like an ordinary man. He could probably be my dad. He did not look too amicable or grumpy, just a plain man. I can’t avoid thinking that the beauty of dating in this digital age is that people can be as picky as they want without offending anyone. The smartness of it, it’s that an ordinary man can change the destiny of his love life with just one click. The surprising fact is that in a packed commuter train I seem to be the only one who finds a man checking his dating matches in plain sight an anomaly worth of stealing my curiosity.

Good luck, man with white hair and a book about power! I hope you find a match worth of keeping your curiosity alive.

The worst advisor

The two sides of my brain were passionately debating a dilemma today: what makes us stay with someone (love, friend) or something (job, project, goal)? Is it plain commitment, luck, stubbornness, fear? After lots of deliberation I could only find one common thread through all the examples I could think of. The answer was not something we need to possess but rather something we need to tame: our ego. Is there a worst advisor than ego? If we make any decision, big or small, but all our arguments derive from an avoidance to hurt the ego, we might miss the chance of fulfillment and real happiness. Only by putting our ego on a tray, far from our minds and hearts, and becoming completely vulnerable is that we can really evaluate if we are in the right path for the right reasons. In painting, for example, there is an unavoidable moment (at least for me) when I feel I do not know how to continue. If at that moment I decide to listen to my ego, there is a high probability that painting no longer represents my essence, and goes in a direction that does not satisfy me at all. The point is not quitting, but rather becoming deaf to the wrong voices, not to get distracted by the siren's songs that ego represents. Now that the argument is settled, I am going to let my brain work on something else, not because I have to, not because I am committed but because I want to. Besides, I have to go pack ego's suitcases, he loves to over-welcome his stay.

 

originally written 2/2/16 

Success is...

Like many other times in my life, lately I have been showered with messages about a single topic in books, conversations, and even videos on facebook. All that information has forced me to evaluate my definition of success. When do we know we have achieved something of relevance? When do we feel satisfied? When do we feel we are at the summit and are ready to pat ourselves on the back? After a lot of deliberation I have come to the conclusion that; at least for me; success has to hold all of these characteristics in order to earn its name:

  1. Using the experience and knowledge harvested on past "failures" to go farther than where we were when we previously fell.

  2. Having reached a point when we know we need to keep the wheel turning, that even when we passed "GO" and collected our $200 we still need to keep moving. In other words, when we find that the "arrival" is a moving target.

  3. Arriving to a place that in the past we only dreamt of going, and we see that the path was paved with not only hard but especially constant work.

  4. Acknowledging that success can be painted in many different colors and that the closer we are, the clearer it becomes that we might need to redefine it with each passing step.

  5. When at night, alone with our thoughts, when there are not eyes to see what we have done or hands to applaud our efforts, we feel a fire inside of our chest and a satisfaction that can only been forged by doing what we really love and what we are passionate about.

  6. When we reach that “Aha!” moment when we discover that walking a determined path is our only way to remain "alive".

I have come to realize that success cannot be measured by numbers, and that what others will acknowledge as great achievements mean nothing if they are not aligned with our burning passions. It does not matter if it is an academic or professional triumph, or the fulfillment of a relationship or even a desired weight loss; the level of the success is measured by the way it connects with our heart. And for that, there are no relevant diplomas, promotions or awards. The true reward is in our fulfilled hearts; the rest, is quite irrelevant.

 

originally written 10/26/15 

Persistance

Sometimes I wonder if what I consider the most challenging part of my job is actually an obstacle shared by other artists and creative friends. Every time I sit in front of a blank canvas I have this weird, haunting feeling that I don't know what to do, as if I had never held a brush in my hand. Then I start painting, not sure how to approach the canvas, and suddenly I am making one decision after another until things start to take shape. Most of the time I think I am probably making the wrong decisions, and yet I keep going anyway; as if I was given a job where I am only an instrument and not a creator.

At that point, painting along other artists, is where I have found most people get paralyzed by the fear of making a wrong choice. I might feel clueless, but I am rarely afraid because I know paint can be scraped off, a whole eye erased or painted over, and it is not the end of the world. It is usually said that there are lots of things that are like a riding a bike, you never forget how to do them. That does not apply to my creative process, and maybe others as well. I guess it is what the Buddhists called “the beginner’s mind”. I don’t know if this is the “right” way to approach any creative project, whether it be painting, writing or cooking: to forget every formula you have learned before and to treat each project as a whole new experience. I know that, for me, it is the most challenging and frustrating part of the journey. But then I know I cannot stop, I can only keep walking; evaluating every new form, value and shape. The same way I need to approach this new “project” of having another baby after 13 years. I might forgotten a lot of the things I have done before, but then that is the beauty of being in front of a “blank canvas”. There are no right or wrong formulas. Instead, there are various ways to try to achieve our best work; reevaluating our journey as we move along; enjoying every step; noticing mistakes and walking without fear. Maybe there is a formula for creating a masterpiece, but so far I'd rather not follow any formula whatsoever and instead be surprised by every new beginning, haunted by my temporary “amnesia” and my persistence to keep going.

 

originally written 8/6/15 

 

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