A few years ago, while in graduate school, I was visiting with my grandmother over lunch and we ran into one of her friends at the restaurant. After introductions were made, talk turned to what I was studying (Art History) and from there, to local museums.
“You have been to the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth, yes?” inquired my grandmother’s friend, in a heavy accent that I couldn’t quite place.
I assured her that I had. It was one of my personal favorite museums, and I visited every chance that I got.
“It’s a fine museum,” agreed my grandmother’s friend. “But I regret that I cannot visit it. Because of the painting.”
Confused, I asked for more details about the painting in question. After hearing her describe it further, I realized the work that my grandmother’s friend was referring to was Aschenblume (1983-97), an extremely large work by German artist Anselm Kiefer. The painting usually hangs in the first of the Modern’s permanent collection galleries and depicts the Chancellery of the Third Reich in Berlin. Kiefer overlaid much of the piece with a mixture of paint, cement, dirt, clay, ash, and a single large, dried sunflower.
How is it possible, I asked this woman, that this single painting could keep you from visiting an entire museum?
“I was a young girl, perhaps six or seven years old, when the bombing began in Vienna, near my home,” she explained quietly. “My sister and I…it was weeks before we left Austria for America…we were in the tunnels, and we were buried for a while by the rubble. And when I saw that painting, as soon as I walked into the room, it all came back to me – the sounds, the smells, the soot and the ash in the air – and I simply could not go on."
"I cannot visit that museum again while that painting hangs in the gallery. It is just...too much.”
I was speechless by the time she finished her story. At this point, I had walked by Aschenblume countless times during my many visits to the Modern. I had always been struck by its scale, and I knew the work’s backstory – that this painting was one of Kiefer's attempts to come to terms with his national identity as a German in a world still reeling from the fallout of WWII. I also knew that Aschenblume, with its delicate, upside down sunflower, was also representative of transformation, of new life and new beginnings rising from the ashes.
These facts and the artist's intent were all things that I knew – I'd read about them, I'd studied them in classes. But I'd never really gotten it – never truly understood the impact, nor recognized the emotional turmoil that would have driven Kiefer to create this monumental work.
And honestly, until that moment, I don’t think I’d ever really appreciated how a work of art could provoke such a visceral, overwhelmingly powerful effect on someone.
The experience of talking to my grandmother’s friend that day caused a profound shift in my thinking about art. I realized that in order to truly know a work of art, to intimately appreciate it and understand it, you can’t just stick to textbooks and art theory.
Art has to be connected to people, to ideas, to emotions and philosophies and culture, while leaving some room for different perspectives and interpretations made by others. Art needs to be connected to history, both past and present, so viewers can learn from it and prepare for the future. Art should be explored through questions, examining all sides of an issue – the light and the dark, the good and the bad – while often acknowledging that there may be more than one answer, and that the piece itself asks questions too.
Most importantly, this experience taught me that each of us experiences art in a way that directly reflects our own life experience...and that there is no "right" or "wrong" way of interacting with it.