The art of experience
Learning the slow, patient process of looking helps author connect with iconic paintings
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It’s perhaps best to start discussing this brief, insightful book by talking about what it’s not.
All Things Move is not an overarching analysis of Michelangelo’s monumental Sistine Chapel ceiling, though it examines some of the most iconic frescoes (The Creation of Adam), as well as some the oddest (Jonah and a very nibbly fish).
It is not a thorough historical account of Renaissance Rome, though it covers aspects of the political, social and intellectual currents that influenced the ceiling’s creation.
It is not a personal memoir, though author Jeannie Marshall, a Canadian journalist now based in Rome, does write about her family, her childhood and her life in a city just coming out of COVID lockdown.
Essentially, All Things Move is an extended essay on how we experience art. Millions of tourists file into the Sistine Chapel every year: What are they hoping to see, to feel, to learn about the world and themselves? Carefully tracking her own experience with Michelangelo’s masterwork, Marshall considers what the Sistine Chapel ceiling might mean in our accelerated, scattered and secular age.
Marshall is not arguing that we must value the ceiling because it has been declared a “Great Work.” In fact, she finds its canonization a distraction.
The work’s popularity makes it — paradoxically — difficult to view. The crowds can be crushing, and certain images are now so ubiquitous, so reproduced and repeated and even parodied, it can be hard to see them fresh.
But Marshall goes back to the Chapel, again and again. She researches the historical background of the Sistine ceiling, created between 1508 and 1512, and The Last Judgment, the angry, agonized wall fresco Michelangelo painted more than 20 years later. She looks into the rise of Renaissance humanism, the Protestant Reformation, the traumatic Sack of Rome.
She considers what motivates the vandalism or the censorship of art. She talks about art’s functions across periods and places — as propaganda, as entertainment, as valuable material object. She speaks of her mother, whose complicated relationship with the Catholic church had seeped into Marshall’s childhood.
Mostly, though, as the book’s subtitle suggests, Marshall learns to look. Ultimately, it is the slow, patient process of looking that connects her to the work: “It’s in art that I sense the meaning of a single, finite life. That is where I glimpse the enormity of the seeming infinitude of collective life stretching forward and backward in time.”
For Marshall, it doesn’t matter that the work’s specific theological content isn’t relevant to her, nor will it be to many modern viewers. “The intensity of religious art communicates itself even to the non-religious among us because it is about our shared urge to reach up and beyond the knowable world,” she suggests.
Marshall also finds in her Sistine experience a sense of solace after a series of family deaths: “I wanted to see something enduring, something that outlasts its creator. I wanted to feel part of a world that means something, a world that continues; I wanted to feel that those we had lost were part of it too.”
All Things Move sometimes feels like a really good magazine piece that has been stretched, unnecessarily and somewhat artificially, into a book. Some of Marshall’s excursions, as she wanders through time and space, connect to her central argument only in a strained way.
But the best passages are evocative and illuminating, a moving mediation on the human impulse both to create art and to experience its power.
When it comes to the Sistine Chapel frescoes, Alison Gillmor is partial to the Libyan Sibyl.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.