Since I’d just written an article about the Civil War-era U.S. Colored Troops for our local magazine, when I was in Boston I asked my friend Monika to take me to see the memorial honoring Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts, which was one of the first units of black soldiers to fight in the Civil War. The monument, which is a gorgeous bas relief sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sits right across Beacon Street from the State House, in Boston Commons (turns out Shaw lived down the street at 44 Beacon). It was unveiled on Memorial Day, 1897.
Here’s another look:
I was interested in the sculpture’s subject matter, and the sculptor, since I’d read about him in David McCollough’s The Greater Journey. I also wanted to show Monika the cool way Saint-Gaudens inscribed his monogram.
So we started looking for the monogram, peering into all the nooks and crannies in the sculpture. We looked at the horse’s hooves, the men’s boots, the field at the top. We probably spent half an hour just poking around. And while we were doing it, we really got sucked in. The expressions on the men’s faces, the drape of the fabric of their uniforms, the thicket of rifles above their heads, the muscles and veins on the horse. We talked less and looked more. It was really cool.
Which got me thinking about what we’re doing, or should be doing, when we look at a piece of art. I found this cool article by James Elkins on Huff Post that discusses how to look at a work of art. Elkins mentions a woman who spent her lunch hour every day sitting before the same Rembrandt painting … for decades. He then describes his thinking as he looks at a medieval devotional image of the Madonna. It strikes me that looking, really looking, at a piece of art can be a form of meditation, a way to slow down and participate in the beauty around you:
“Looking for a long time is not the usual way people see artworks,” writes Elkins. “The usual interaction with an artwork is a glance or a glimpse or a cursory look. What I have in mind is a different kind of experience: not just glancing, but looking, staring, gazing, sitting or standing transfixed: forgetting, temporarily, the errands you have to run, or the meeting you’re late for, and thinking, living, only inside the work. Falling in love with an artwork, finding that you somehow need it, wanting to return to it, wanting to keep it in your life.”
That’s what I mean. That’s what happens to me (sometimes) when I relax and really get into a painting, even though I’m a novice and have only a vague idea what I’m doing when I look. I think that’s what began to happen for Monika and me at the Shaw Memorial. Seems to me it’s a way of seeing and experiencing the world that I’d be wise to practice … that if I were skilled at it, I’d get more out of not just the art I look at, but every moment of my life.