News & Features » Miscellany

One gallery reflects on Sept. 11, while the arts community ponders its place.

The Art of Tragedy

"Guernica," one of Pablo Picasso's most renowned works, was created in 1937 as a denunciation of civilian bombings during the Spanish Civil War. It was painted monochromatically and in Picasso's fragmentary, Cubist style. In it, the artist depicted a mother screaming as she grips her dead babe, a horse dying with wild eyes and open mouth, a woman with outstretched arms consumed in fire, and human limbs strewn about amidst chaotic shards. While always an extremely powerful and moving work, "Guernica" seems to resonate even more today, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

How does art fit into our lives now? Is the making and viewing of art an equally important extracurricular activity in times of peace and prosperity? Or are the arts even more crucial today than ever before? As we seek to understand our new world and especially our common humanity, can the arts offer a portal into the human soul? Do artists have a special responsibility in times of tragedy?

A week after the attacks, the New York Times ran a piece by Michael Kimmelman describing the apparent sudden resurgence of visitors' interest in local galleries and museums. Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, noted: "This is precisely the time we should be providing a comforting experience. People who haven't had the heart yet to go back to work have been coming here for a sense of serenity and the intercession of other people, rubbing shoulders in a kind of womb of culture. Hospitals are open. They're around to fix the body. We're here to fix the soul."

President Bush and many others have commented on how, despite the horrific September events, the positive side to this tragedy has been the bonding of the human spirit — in giving blood and donations, in volunteering locally and further afield, in loving one's family more fully, and in bringing communities together.

Certainly here in Richmond all these feelings of compassion and patriotism can be felt. The arts too are seeking to find a way to renew and strengthen bonds of family and community. A jazz concert by the David Esleck Trio last weekend offered proceeds to the American Red Cross. The sale of one of the copious fish sculptures at the Oct. 20 Go Fish! Auction will go towards disaster relief.

Bev Reynolds, owner of the Reynolds Gallery, postponed an October exhibition of a Boston artist, to quickly organize her first benefit show of 25 artists; it is suitably called "Reflections." It features works by Sally Mann, Andras Bality, Nell Blaine, Davi Det Hompson, and Theresa Pollak, to name a few, and the sales from the show will be donated to the American Red Cross. Beginning as a small gathering of intimate drawings, the project expanded into a full exhibition due to the overwhelming response of local and international artists.

"I had a great need just to do something," says Reynolds. "Reflections" not only offers financial aid to relief efforts, but locally it offers emotional aid to all those who visit the show. "There is such a high level of expression in these works, especially now that they are grouped together. It is overwhelming to stand here in the gallery and see the art before me," Reynolds continues. "I think art revives and challenges the spirit — it can help you heal, offer you a place to go to find peace or strength."

Interestingly, several of the works were made in direct response to Sept. 11. David Freed created "Unreal September," a delicate, evocative etching of two white, towering trees amidst a cloudy dusting of gray. Here, nature symbolically represents the two World Trade Center buildings before their destruction. Richard Crozier's new painting features a red house with car parked out front and a prominent U.S. flag hung by the door — a very literal reflection of any suburban neighborhood in America.

Although most of the works were created years before September 2001, it is significant how they seem to hold new meaning in light of current events. Sally Mann's "Hangnail" conveys the heartwarming innocence of childhood that stands in such contrast to adult evil and destruction. Bill Fisher's abstract panel of cream and red blocks juxtaposed to moody stripes re-emerges as an American flag. Luis Castro's sculpture, "Nest," composed of limestone spheres, now represents the joy of new life and the infinite triumph of hope.

And even if we turn back to "Guernica," despite the overwhelming sense of agony, pain and brutality, Picasso could see that evil would not ultimately prevail. Amidst the chaos, the torch of liberty plunges through the darkness and offers what Picasso, the Spanish people, and we, today, depend upon now more than ever — the indomitable belief in hope. Although life is brief, art, like hope, is eternal.

Add a comment