Settling a karmic debt, student reads a book from the Art Library

Luke Jenkins/The Miscellany News.

“Stop.” I freeze. My eyes turn toward the book my hand rests on. Its spine is intimidatingly large. “Let’s try again,” I squeak, picturing myself struggling through the 400 page behemoth. I turn to another shelf. My mission is noble, albeit unserious: to read a random book from Vassar’s Art Library. A daunting task, never been done before. I place my left hand on the edge of a new shelf, close my eyes and start walking. My friend repeats herself. “Stop.” A-ha. I gently pull out a thinner bookcovered in an odd blood-red fuzzand prepare to get comfortable. 

My motivation for this quick read is an intrinsic sense of duty. A devoted studier in the Art Library, I’ve trotted past the stacks one too many times without admiring their silent glory. With the hours I’ve spent surrounded by these books, I owe them at least one pity-filled perusal. One read for all those hours spent lounging around turquoise tables, all those glances out the window wondering if I could do a sick backflip into the courtyard. For all those afternoons splayed out in the weird chairs that look like they’re from a sex dungeon.

Later I check out my book, “Paintings from the Frick Collection,” and slide it into what little space I have in my bookbag. It looks—and feels—like a grimoire, one I lug around campus with caution. I pull it out in my downtime, hunched in the Brew, curled up in bed, in the library itself. I read it slowly, like a train, mindlessly chugging along.

The book itself organizes, describes and analyzes the paintings displayed in the Frick Collection in New York City. Curated by Henry Clay Frick, who chaired the Carnegie Steel Company, the works are the result of a lifetime of art collection. After Frick and his wife’s death, their art was made available as a public museum in the 1930s. A notorious opponent of organized labor, Frick’s actions led to the Homestead strike in 1892, where 10 men were killed and many more injured. This information was not included in the book. It’s a solemn reminder of the oftentimes hideous history surrounding art and its collection.

I approached each painting, organized chronologically by the date of creation, with two mindsets. First, with all the pretentious grandiose of an overconfident and unqualified art critic,  I licked my thumb thrice to turn the glossy pages. My mouth scrunched as I contemplated the religious overtones in a still life of plums. I imagined myself at an art gallery, black turtleneck itching the stubble of my neck, champagne flute held between pointer and middle finger, tsk-tsking at the counterculture nepo-baby that disappointed me that week. I was Anna Wintour, chopping five inches of my hair, straightening it ’til it’s fried, exclusively wearing floral.

The second mindset I used—and the one closest to my heartwas of the modern American teenager. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that there is not only creative writing but creative reading as well. Approaching this book authentically, like we’re in the 21st century, helped me try my hand at “creative reading.” 

I can’t say it went well. “This is gas,” I remarked about another depiction of the Crucifixion. “Tea,” I muttered as I stared at Titian’s “Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap”. This creative reading must be a skill, in my case an underdeveloped skill, one that must be practiced with more than one thin volume.

My favorite part of the experience, ignoring whatever sham mindset I was forcing upon myself, was the subtle jabs the editors snuck into the captions. The ironic placement of Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting of Thomas Cromwell next to his portrait of Sir Thomas More. For context, Cromwell was largely responsible for the execution of Thomas More. That was definitely a jab, although in this case, it’s not that subtle. When describing one of the Rembrandts in the collection, a self-portrait from 1658, the caption notes that the Dutch artist “created an image of strength and worldly power that seems to contradict the external facts of his life. A small man, he portrayed his figure in monumental dimensions.” This violation of Rembrandt was, well, incredibly funny. I enjoyed the book for the nice paintings, yes, but the added layer of hot gossip kept me interested. Reading how artist after artist achieved great infamy, only to end up dying in obscurity and debt, was sadly, a very juicy plot twist.

As for my favorite works, I spent quite a long time enjoying Thomas Gainsbourough’s “The Mall in St. James’s Parkand Joseph Mallord William Turner’s “Mortlake Terrace: Early Summer Morning”. Gainsborough’s work is fun because of its dynamic movement. In it, strolling ladies and sprawling trees are shrouded in a wave-like haze. In Turner’s work, we see a similar muted color scheme, this time a view of the Thames from a terrace. Something about the way the light shines in the painting’s sky has me hooked. 

As for if a possible visit to the Frick Collection lies in my future, that’s yet to be determined. But what I do know is the little voice inside of my head, powered by a karmic debt, has hushedfor now. If I’m ever drawn to check out another menacing book, if that voice starts up again, I’ll be sure to write again, even if only to inform you of a centuries-old morsel of gossip.

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