The Soul of the Rose
Given that the rose was named Gardeners' World Jubilee Flower earlier this month, Country Life's choice of Waterhouse's The Soul of the Rose for its cover, published just two days before, was somewhat prescient.
Both pleased me immensely. For although white hydrangeas, being the flowers I carried on our wedding day, hold the most special place in my heart, it's hard not to fall under the spell of a rose. Perhaps that's why, many moons ago when I moved into my flat, I chose to frame a poster of this pre-Raphaelite beauty, sometimes referred to as My Sweet Rose, and hang it on the wall directly opposite to my bed.
Painted in 1908 it depicts an elegant woman in what appears to be some sort of enclosed garden. Dressed in a loose-fitting blue and gold coloured flowing gown, she is standing close to a wall which is covered with a pale pink climbing rose. Her head is titled upward, her cheeks are flushed and her eyes are closed as she cups a flower head to her nose. Her other hand is pressed against the wall as if to steady herself against the force of memories, or perhaps a sense of longing, released by its scent. The emotional intensity of the moment is almost palpable.
Whilst I’ve seen and admired My Sweet Rose every day for the best part of two decades, until recently my appreciation had always been fleeting, amounting to little more than a brief glance as I rushed from one thing to the next. But last year when I indulged in some much-needed downtime, I found myself enjoying the painting in a more mindful way.
I found myself noticing the similarity between the texture of rose petals and the smoothness of the woman's skin, both of them contrasting with the roughness of the wall and the woody stems of the bush. I could almost feel the warmth of the sun on her upturned face and the weight of her rich auburn hair, thickly coiled and beaded at the nape of her neck, hot and heavy, sticky against her skin. And I imagined the sensation of the fabric of her gown sleeve falling in folds from her arm, perhaps catching on the thorns of the climbing rose as she presses her body against the wall.
This way of looking at art does not come naturally to me. If you've already read 'Mrs Moore on Mindfulness' you'll know that I have the National Gallery to thank for that. Before I participated in a session entitled 'Life Lessons from the Old Masters' I had no idea about how to approach a painting mindfully, tending to skim over even the most well-known masterpieces in a fairly cursory fashion. But that afternoon I began to understand how I might actively engage with visual art by allowing it to prompt a series of questions and probing my conscious mind for possible answers.
One of the questions I found myself asking last summer when I was gazing at My Sweet Rose was what sounds the woman might be able to hear. It’s hard to imagine a garden without buzzing bees and birdsong, but which birds? Swallows or house martins perhaps. And what of the world beyond the wall? Who might be passing on the other side? Might the woman be able to hear footsteps? Or voices? Or both?
That the audioscape of a painting should occur to me in this way is largely due to an exhibition that The National Gallery mounted in 2014 entitled Vermeer and Music: The Art of Love and Leisure. On the day of our visit the Academy of Ancient Music was performing pieces from the seventeenth century using period instruments similar to the lutes, virginals and guitars depicted in the Dutch Golden Age works on display. By engaging our ears, as well as our eyes, our experience of the exhibition was enriched hugely such that the scenes portrayed were rendered more vibrant, more real and more accessible than would have otherwise been the case.
Then in 2015 the National Gallery took the concept one step further with Soundscapes which saw six contemporary musicians and audio artists invited to create a soundtrack in response to a piece of art. All of the soundtracks were thought-provoking and innovative, each one adding a new sensory dimension to the work of art in question, but we were particularly captivated by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's response to Saint Jerome in His Study by Antonello da Messina. Not only had they produced a soundtrack of the kinds of everyday domestic sounds that Saint Jerome might have heard but they had also constructed a scale model of the sort of building of which his room would have been a part. Being able to see Saint Jerome's study within its wider context, whilst at the same time hearing a dog barking, footsteps echoing and doors banging, created a bridge between that long distant past and the here and now. It offered the chance to glimpse a world that, in terms of sensory perception, wasn't really that different to our own. The soundtrack of twenty-first century life may be dominated by ring-tones, sirens and the drone of traffic, but now, as then, dogs still bark, footsteps still echo and doors still bang.
What all of this has taught me is that you don't need to be an art connoisseur to enjoy art. Even if you know absolutely nothing about the artist, the genre or the context in which a work was created, you can still imagine what you might feel, smell and hear if you could step into the canvas. In fact, it could be argued that not knowing makes the experience of art more meaningful because, in the absence of any preconceptions, you can interpret what you are looking at in light of your own unique life story.
From one perspective it seems almost ironic that the National Gallery, with its huge repository of intellectual knowledge and learning, should be instrumental in promoting such an instinctive way of interacting with art. And yet, on the other hand, it is absolutely right that an institution charged with caring for works of art given to the Nation for its benefit should be looking to broaden the appeal of those works and seeking to make them more widely accessible. So here at MooreMundi we applaud the National Gallery and look forward to enjoying more of its exhibitions, the highlights of which we will, of course, look forward to sharing with you in due course.
© Pamela Moore 2017