While life lasts, let us live it, not pass through as zombies, and let us find in art a glorious passageway to a deeper understanding of our essential humanity.
– Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018)
Sister Wendy, a cloistered nun whose passion for art led her to wander out into the world, where she became a star of global proportions, entertained the television masses with her frank humanist assessments.
Unfazed by nudity, carnality, and other sensual excesses, she initially came across as a funny-looking, grandma-aged virgin in an old-fashioned habit, lisping rhapsodically about appendages and entanglements we expect most Brides of Christ to shy away from.
Attempts to spoof her fell flat.
Having beaten the jokers to the punch, she took her rapt audience along for the ride, barnstorming across the continent, eager to encounter works she knew only from the reproductions Church higher ups gave her permission to study in the 1980s.
She was grateful to the artists—1000s of them—for providing her such an excellent lens with which to contemplate God’s creations. Eroticism, greed, physical love, horrific violence—Sister Wendy never flinched.
“Real art makes demands,” she told interviewer Bill Moyers, below, speaking approvingly of photographer Andres Serrano’s controversial Piss Christ.
“Great art offers more than pleasure; it offers the pain of spiritual growth, drawing us into areas of ourselves that we may not wish to encounter. It will not leave us in our mental or moral laziness,” she wrote in the foreword to Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces, her handpicked selection of the greatest paintings of Western art. (“A thousand sounded like so many until we got down to it and then began the anguish of choice,” she later opined.)
A lover of color and texture, she was unique in her ability to appreciate shades of grey, delving deeply into the psychological motivations of both the subjects and the artists themselves.
On Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat (1954):
Here, he shows the pope, father of the Catholic Church, both enthroned and imprisoned by his position. Bacon’s relationship with his own father was a very stormy one, and perhaps he has used some of that fear and hatred to conjure up this ghostly vision of a screaming pope, his face frozen in a rictus of anguish.
On Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec’s The Clown Chau-u-Kao (1895):
Toulouse-Lautrec, as the last descendant of an ancient French family, must have been bitterly conscious of his own physical deformities and to many people he, too, was a figure of fun…He shows us Chau-U-Kao preparing for her act with dignity and serenity, the great swirl of her frill seems to bracket the clown so that we can truly look at her, see the pathos of that blowzy and sagging flesh, and move on to the nobility of the nose and the intense eyes. This is a degradation, but one that has been chosen by the performer and redeemed by intelligence and will power.
On Nicolas Lancret’s The Four Times of the Day: Morning (1739):
Morning is filled with witty observation – a delightful young woman (who is clearly no better than she should be) is entertaining a young cleric, seemingly unaware of the temptation offered by that casually exposed bosom. He holds out his cup, but his eyes are fied, alas, on that region of the feminine anatomy that his profession forbids him.
On François Clouet’s Diane De Poitiers (c. 1571)
The implication would seem to be that this shameless beauty with her prominent nipples and overflowing bowl of ripe fruit, is a woman of dubious morals. Yet one cannot but feel that the artist admires the natural freedom of his subject. Her children and her grinning wet-nurse are at her side, and, in the background, the maid prepares hot water. /surely this domestic scene is no more than a simple and endearing vignette.
Her generous takes on these and other artworks are irresistible. How wonderful it would be to approach every piece of art with such thought and compassion.
Fortunately, Sister Wendy, who passed away last week at the age of 88, left behind a how-to of sorts in the form of her 2005 essay, “The Art of Looking at Art,” from which we have extracted the following 10 rules.
Sister Wendy Beckett’s 10 Rules for Engaging with Art
They are the prime locus where the uniqueness of an artist’s work can be encountered.
Prioritize quality time over quantity of works viewed
Sociologists, lurking inconspicuously with stopwatches, have discovered the average time museum visitors spend looking at a work of art: it is roughly two seconds. We walk all too casually through museums, passing objects that will yield up their meaning and exert their power only if they are seriously contemplated in solitude.
If Sister Wendy could spend over four decades sequestered in a small mobile home on the grounds of Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, surely you can go alone. Do not complicate your contemplation by tethering yourself to a friend who cannot wait to exit through the gift shop.
Buy a postcard
…take it home for prolonged and (more or less) distractionless contemplation. If we do not have access to a museum, we can still experience reproductions—books, postcards, posters, television, film—in solitude, though the work lacks immediacy. We must, therefore, make an imaginative leap (visualizing texture and dimension) if reproduction is our only possible access to art. Whatever the way in which we come into contact with art, the crux, as in all serious matters, is how much we want the experience. The encounter with art is precious, and so it costs us in terms of time, effort, and focus.
Pull up a chair, whenever possible
It has been well said that the basic condition for art appreciation is a chair.
Don’t hate on yourself for being a philistine.
However inviolate our self-esteem, most of us have felt a sinking of the spirit before a work of art that, while highly praised by critics, to us seems meaningless. It is all too easy to conclude, perhaps subconsciously, that others have a necessary knowledge or acumen that we lack.
Take responsibility for educating yourself…
Art is created by specific artists living in and fashioned by a specific culture, and it helps to understand this culture if we are to understand and appreciate the totality of the work. This involves some preparation. Whether we choose to “see” a totem pole, a ceramic bowl, a painting, or a mask, we should come to it with an understanding of its iconography. We should know, for example, that a bat in Chinese art is a symbol for happiness and a jaguar in Mesoamerican art is an image of the supernatural. If need be, we should have read the artist’s biography: the ready response to the painting of Vincent van Gogh or Rembrandt, or of Caravaggio or Michelangelo, comes partly from viewers’ sympathy with the conditions, both historical and temperamental, from which these paintings came.
…but don’t be a prisoner to facts and expert opinions
A paradox: we need to do some research, and then we need to forget it…We have delimited a work if we judge it in advance. Faced with the work, we must try to dispel all the busy suggestions of the mind and simply contemplate the object in front of us. The mind and its facts come in later, but the first, though prepared, experience should be as undefended, as innocent, and as humble as we can make it.
Celebrate our common humanity
Art is our legacy, our means of sharing in the spiritual greatness of other men and women—those who are known, as with most of the great European painters and sculptors, and those who are unknown, as with many of the great carvers, potters, sculptors, and painters from Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Art represents a continuum of human experience across all parts of the world and all periods of history.
Listen to others but see with your own eyes
We should listen to the appreciations of others, but then we should put them aside and advance toward a work of art in the loneliness of our own truth.
Sister Wendy’s television shows can be found on PBS, the BBC, and as DVDs. Her books are well represented in libraries and from booksellers like Amazon. (We have learned so much in the year her dictionary-sized 1000 Paintings has been parked next to our commode…)
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. See her onstage in New York City this January as host of Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.