By Anna Hill
I went to the museum alone. I went to look. Being in a museum is just as much as looking yourself as being looked at. I found something I wasn’t ready for – a painting that took me in its arms. The painting, I learnt later, was called Decoration: The Excursion Of Nausicaa by Ethel Walker. But in my original attention it was nameless and mediated by my present body in the gallery and not by anything or anyone else, not even its title.
I stood there entranced and crying at the blue. The painting shows a community of women washing and I felt like I was being washed by them – nourished by the curves of their bodies, the softness of the light and the blue haze of the large canvas. I don’t remember much else that was in the room – the blue of it all acting as both an exclamation mark and a kind of void, and maybe even a kind of desire.
In queer theorist Maggie Nelson’s book on blueness (Bluets) she writes of her own love of blue and her intense emotive response to it. “Admit that you have stood in front of a little pile of powdered ultramarine pigment in a glass cup at a museum and felt a stinging desire. But to do what? Liberate it? Purchase it? Ingest it?… You might want to reach out and disturb the pile of pigment, for example, first staining your fingers with it, then staining the world.”
My tears were not so much about purchasing or owning it but wanting instead to be stained by the painting itself. I felt so held by it, sitting in the room trying to cover up my crying. I wanted to be part of the blue. I wanted to wash my clothes next to the figures in the painting. Alongside them, caring, living in contact with an easy intimacy, a gentle tenderness.
In James Elkins book Pictures and Crying he presents some of the ways people have recorded their response to Rothko’s work. One person wrote “Thank you for creating a place for my heart to cry”. I wasn’t in a regimented and airless museum anymore I was in a light clear cerulean landscape and my heart was crying.
I wish I could “access the blue” (nelson). I stopped myself from moving too close to the painting because I was emotionally close enough, already pressed against the painting, hand prints on the bumpy canvas. I don’t want to describe the piece in detail because it hit me like light more than form. I don’t know how long I sat there but I stopped crying sooner than I was ready to. Whilst I attended to this painting I wondered if others had stopped and cried, feeling themselves in this sky blue work like I had, or whether I was alone, or maybe alone with the artist who must have searched for exactly the right kind of blue since she originally chose to elevate this scene with azure.
I sometimes wish I had allowed myself to cry more and to move with my emotions more. Why was I so ashamed? This piece was part of an exhibition showcasing queer British art, so it was definitely an emotional space, and yet I still felt like I shouldn’t “make emotional contact with” (Elkins) it. That electric feeling kept me anchored to the piece for some time (I don’t know how much as I surrendered to it), it felt like a dream, the type of dream that when you try to recall once you’ve woken up doesn’t rush out of your grasp but rather repays your attention in kind.
It’s not even very blue!