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A short exploration of the artworks that make us cry

Feb. 28, 2018
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For a feminist who finds power in vulnerability, studies art history, and has a star sign of Cancer, James Elkins’ Pictures and Tears put into words many feelings I have had while studying art. To research for this novel, Elkins asked folks to explore different stories involving people crying in front of artworks. He received a multitude of letters from friends, academics, and strangers who shared their stories with him. Through categorizing these stories, Elkins found it difficult to choose one reason to explain why people have cried in front of paintings. Some reasons involved crying because of absence, crying because of colors, or loneliness.

I enjoyed this novel because there was no right or definitive answer. Additionally, Elkins simultaneously critiqued the cold and rational nature that museums and art history asks of viewers. He makes clear that this was not always our practice. For example, St. Francis wept for years after seeing a painted crucifixion. Art viewing was an intense and contemplative practice. So, what has made us so cold? Is it the studying of art history in an academic setting? The cool demeanor encouraged by postmodernism in the 21st century? I was inspired by Elkins to compile an anonymous document full of testimonials and further explore the mysterious physical reactions we can receive from works of art.

To be clear, I am not stating that crying in front of art is a more pure form of art engagement. I wholeheartedly encourage people to interact with art in any way they see fit—whether that be taking selfies or solely visiting a museum to see one piece. However, I am curious as to how art engages its audience in a physical way.

Here are some stories:

I’ve always loved looking at and appreciating art. It’s very rare that I must purchase a piece as there is such a vast selection and it is a very personal purchase. Years ago, when I was traveling, I came across a painting of a dancing woman twirling in turmoil, and in the background you can vaguely see the face of a man. I became extremely emotional at the sight of this painting, as I was going through a divorce and the painting captured all the feelings I had been experiencing during that time. It brought me to tears as the woman was me, and it reflected my feelings and my life. I purchased the piece and when I look at it now, it reminds me of how low I had been and how far I have come.

My arms covered with goosebumps and a shiver went up my spine. Before I knew it, tears were welling up in my eyes and started spilling over. [The artwork] reminded me of something from my past that had been pushed to the deepest corners of my mind. I snapped back into reality and tried to casually blink the tears away, hoping others had done the same. It wasn’t a bad memory necessarily, or even a good one. It could have even been a false memory, created from my mind by twisting stories I had been told. Regardless, it made me feel.

It was a few years ago. I just wandered into this little area in the forest [at Shambhala] where paintings were hanging from the trees, because I was feeling a little overwhelmed by the crowds and the music. There were a few people painting there too, and I asked if I could sit and watch and, of course, I could. There was this one woman [who] was painting a picture of herself as she understood herself—like a bundle of energy was bursting through her body. I had been struggling a lot with my femininity and had been repressing myself and feeling some sort of shame about my sensitivities and feeling weary or silly about embracing ‘feminine’ qualities. I thought it was bad to want to feel beautiful and soft. I admired her and her work, and I started to cry because her depiction was so lovely and I wanted to feel like that too. She sat with me and we started talking about all of it, and she kept assuring me of the divinity of female energy. I got to see its power in the flesh. Really nice experience, really nice gal… changed me for the good.

"Christina's World" 1949 by Andrew Wyeth was the first painting to ever make me cry. I was visiting New York City for the first time as a way of distracting myself from the overwhelming instability I was feeling within my relationships, career, and myself. My family home was no longer a comforting place, and the city I lived in [had] lost all its novelty and [had started] to feel foreign. It was at the MOMA where I came across Wyeth's painting, and I resonated with the girl's sense of urgency immediately. She was completely isolated, as I had felt at the time, and appeared to be yearning for some sort of sanction. Although she was clearly looking for something more, it strangely felt like she was being autonomous about choosing this solitude. Despite her earnesty, it seemed like she wanted to be gone from the house, was afraid of going back, or was unsure of what she wanted altogether but just needed some sort of clarity. Whatever Christine's disposition was encoded to be within the painting, I intrinsically connected and related to this piece of art, and blubbered amidst several other gallery visitors. 

The first thing that came to mind is a strong response I had to a series of Rothko paintings. They were set up in one room and as I walked in, I had an immediate physical response. I felt overwhelmed and heavy. My chest and stomach hurt. I’m not sure if it was the scale of the works, the description written on the card at the front of the room, or Rothko’s life story that hit me so hard (it was probably a combination of them all), but I had to leave the room because I couldn’t stop crying.

Every time I look into the corner of the wall where it’s hung, I can feel the emotion coming back to me. [It’s] just like the first moment I laid eyes on it, the first moment I laid my fingertips on it, the first moment I felt it: a field of poppies in what looks like the South of France, with colors so vibrant and thick that they really do jump off the loose canvas. I was working at a restaurant when a man came in with 30 rolled canvases tucked under his left arm; to humour him, I said I would take a look. Going through the pieces, I felt virtually nothing tugging at my heart until he flipped to the beautiful scene I daydream of today: a romantic piece painted by an artist in Northern Vancouver Island [who] goes by the name of Henry W. took my eyes to another world. I instantly bought it—I needed to have it. After bringing it home and hanging it up, I took some time to really observe the painting and wonder why it had pulled me in so deeply. When I boiled it down, it was the poppies. Flowers of orange red scattered across the canvas near and far were commanding my attention, my admiration. Every time I look at the canvas, the flowers bring me back, back to my mother. I can feel her presence in the painting; with every stroke and clump, I can feel the lump in my throat, wishing we were there in that field together. I can’t help but shed a tear and think of how beautiful it would be to be near her, somewhere in a field where poppies grow wild. It’s a beautiful heartache, but more so [I feel ] admiration and love for the woman that raised me in the most loving of ways. That is why I have it hung in my room: to make me feel grateful on even the hardest days. 

I’m in the Uffizi Gallery and I feel warped for some reason. That’s probably not the right word for it, but my heart feels heavy. I look at each painting and I try to remember every detail. I try to remember the “what ifs” that were happening while it was being created. Botticelli completed "Fortitude" in 1470, and it then became a part of the seven virtues. "Fortitude" was described as the virtue of armor—the “under gown” of women. How [awful] does that sound? For some reason, I find it incredibly sad that a piece of fabric was a woman’s armor. Botticelli, as cliché as it might seem, is one of my favourite painters. He grabs emotion and expression for what [they truly are]. I’m walking over to the Birth of Venus right after seeing the seven Virtues, and I just started crying. I don’t know what happened. It’s just incredibly overwhelming. Maybe it’s knowing that at one point something so beautiful was once so controversial. How could something be kept hidden for half a century? Why hide something so beautiful? But then again, it makes sense. I can feel the love the artist [has for] his work just by looking at it. Maybe it is just a rumor that he was in love with the girl who inspired Venus and Primavera who, at the time, was a married woman, but I can see it… I can feel sadness, defeat, and indescribable forbidden love. Just understanding how it was created, what it must’ve taken to create it, and the emotional connection that it probably has had on so many people is so sad yet incredibly beautiful.

I want to thank every contributor to this article. Through sharing these stories, I hope to celebrate our vulnerability. I hope these open and honest narratives that explore moments of intense, confusing emotions allow us to harness this power for a deeper understanding of the artworks and ourselves. Instead of the embarrassment that can arise during overwhelming feelings, I encourage us to sit with our emotions and explore them. Let’s honor the understanding that comes with critical evaluation of ourselves. With thoughtful self-reflection, compassion, and patience, this just might help us grow.