“There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom.”
- Robert Henri, turn-of-the-century American artist.
At 9 a.m. on Sept. 13, Susan Palmer, a longtime docent at the Toledo Museum of Art, began a most extraordinary tour of the permanent collection. Her audience was colleagues on the museum staff, where Palmer has been docent coordinator since 1996.
She expected 20 or so to show up for this strictly optional offering in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington two days before, horrific attacks which grabbed this nation by its collective throat and shook it like a rag doll.
Instead, nearly 100 people - curators, administrators, guards, secretaries, caf , and maintenance workers -gathered quietly in a West Wing gallery. There was a moment of profound silence in honor of the thousands of victims and their families.
Then, Palmer asked people to look at one of the most difficult works in the museum's collection: Anselm Kiefer's large painting, Athanor.
Created in 1984 by the German artist born in 1945, it is a bleak reflection of World War II by someone who had no personal memory of Third Reich machinations, yet was touched deeply by them.
Kiefer transformed an architectural portrait of the outdoor courtyard of Adolf Hitler's Chancellery in Berlin into a vision of the gateway to hell. Over a symmetrical perspective design he created a rough surface of encrusted and scorched paint, to suggest the decay of civilization. Yet in his title, which means a self-feeding furnace used by medieval alchemists to transform base metal into gold, Kiefer also was revealing his faith in the power of art to transform evil into good.
“I asked people to look at the painting, thinking of what Kiefer had done. ... And what they saw reflected in what they had seen on TV on Tuesday,” Palmer said. Looking at her audience, she adds, her voice cracking at the memory: “I saw emotion and pain on so many faces.”
In the wake of the most terrible attack on the United States since Pearl Harbor, it might seem harsh to be reminded of even darker periods in human history.
But that day, Palmer hoped scrutiny of an artist's vision of another dark time in human history would help balance the pervasive television images of the World Trade Center disintegrating in smoke and dust and of the Pentagon in flames. She gambled that art might help create a greater context into which this very personal tragedy could be placed - not to diminish its impact but to provide a sense of connectedness over time and space.
“If [only] one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Signposts on the way to what may be. Signposts toward greater knowledge.” Robert Henri
Palmer was acting on the belief that an artist's distinctive expression of reality can touch people deeply, can heal, can inspire hope and inspiration, can even help shape a new vision for a community or a country.
Art does heal. It changes a person's physiology, reducing stress, inducing relaxation, improving the immune system.
Dr. Michael Samuels and Dr. Mary Rockwood Lane, who operate a Web site, artashealing.org, that is dedicated to the healing power of the arts. said, “It is now known by neurophysiologists that art, prayer, and healing all come from the same source in the body, they are all associated with similar brain wave patterns, mind-body changes ... they change attitude, emotional state, and pain perception.”
Today, as America struggles to rise from the limp breathlessness and fear engendered by terrorists on Sept. 11, many are turning to the arts for solace, respite, inspiration, and hope.
For example, last Sunday exemplified the very best weather fall can offer: bright sun, vivid blue sky, trees changing color. Yet the museum was bustling with visitors happy to be indoors - entire families with babies in strollers, couples holding hands, solitary viewers seemingly transfixed by one work or another.
Between the cartoon-like creatures of “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth,” and the meltingly delicious drawings of Michelangelo, a Jasper Johns print show, and the continuing series of exhibits detailing the creation of the museum, there was much to see.
Yet one show had precious few visitors: “Disasters of War” in the Stephens and Hitchcock galleries near the museum's art shop.
Before Sept. 11, Toledo Museum of Art graphic arts curator Julie Melby regarded the print exhibit as a small, choice collection, “the greatest prints by each artist,“ she said. Curatorial assistant Tom Loeffler had selected works by Picasso, Goya, Manet, Callot, Durer, Kollwitz, Lawrence, and others from the museum's permanent collection as a complementary, in-house show to run with “Star Wars: The Magic of Myth,” upstairs in the Canaday Galleries.
“We thought to do an art historical look at war, to balance the fantasy upstairs with reality downstairs,” Melby said. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, the former New Yorker admits her view of the show has been totally altered.
“It's no longer art. It's life. I'm not looking at the composition and technique now, I'm looking at the emotion. It's reality rather than history.”
Unlike the Kiefer painting upstairs, the “Disasters” show offers graphic reality and fine detail, with depictions of cruelty and hatred powerful enough to induce tears. “These artists were sensitized. They all lived through a war,” Melby said.
Indeed, the introduction to a series of brutally detailed etchings by 17th century French artist Jacques Callot includes this caveat from the artist: “Let him who wishes to know what war is look at this series of illustrations.”
A series of stark woodcuts by late German artist Kathe Kollwitz traces her own view of war from a visual mode to the resistance fighters to the tragic broken bodies of Krieg (War) created after her son, Peter, was killed at the front in Belgium.
For Loeffler, the Sept. 11 disaster made the show more meaningful. Of the Kollwitz, he said, “There's emotion in there; you could see it before. But now, it's my emotion. When I see people looking at them, I know what they're really seeing.”
If looking at painful reminders of past conflagrations helps release emotions caused by the recent attacks, taking in other art with a more positive message - indeed, most of the works in the museum collection that are on view - can offer great benefits to those seeking a way to manage feelings.
Palmer said she concluded her Sept. 13 tour by leading the group to Gustav Dore's luminous oil, The Scottish Highlands. In composition strikingly similar to the Kiefer work - both employ a central perspective point to draw the eye deep into the painting - in every other way this 19th century painting is its antithesis. Steep verdant mountain slopes shelter a glowing loch beneath elaborate clouds and patches of blue sky.
“I asked them to look for a place in the painting where they would feel protected, peaceful, and safe,” Palmer said.
She encouraged everyone to voice feelings and observations.
“Even art done in times past can speak to us in this time and culture.”