Small Is Good

I’m still recovering from jet lag and the sinus infection I picked up my during last weekend in Paris, so this post will be brief.  Actually, brevity and smallness is what is on my mind this week as I reflect on my trip and what stands out in my mind as its highlights.

Wait: right now even the word “highlights” makes me think of a certain grandness, a tall, lofty summit overlooking lesser experiences or beings below.  In our attention-grabbing culture we are surrounded by the loudest voices, the biggest spectacles, the hugest successes.  Yet I wonder if I am alone in finding all that bigness bordering on tedious, on simply too much for our tender nervous systems to take in and absorb.  There can be a straining for significance in the grander efforts, a clenched-fist yearning to be #1, that makes it difficult for us to be anything other than overwhelmed in the presence of The Important.  Overwhelmed and, frankly, submissive, which is the opposite of free.

As a younger man, when I traveled to a big city with famous museums, I invariably spent many hours, both exhausted and enthralled, in the company of great works of art.  This time, I found I had little appetite for big crowds, big museums, big art.  At the modest Wallace Collection, in London, I stood enraptured before “Landscape with a Bare Tree,” by the 17th-century Dutch painter Jan Wynants.  In this vibrant landscape you can absolutely smell and feel the dark moist earth and taste the freshness of the sky.  You can hear the sounds of people moving slowly, the clop-clop of their horses on the trodden ground.  The wind carries sounds that are sparse yet distinct.  I enjoyed losing myself for several minutes in Wynants’ world, alone in a gallery that was empty except for a bored museum guard who wandered in and out every few minutes.  Elsewhere, London was packed to the gills.  But at this small, beautifully organized art collection, there was the space, the freedom to truly enter into a work of art—which is a way of going within oneself.

In Paris, my favorite art object was a small writing table at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, in the Marais neighborhood, by the 18th-century furniture-maker Charles Topino.  In “Le Bonheur du jour” (I love that he gave his table a title), Topino uses inlaid wood to create gentle, sporting images of those small domestic objects that for some of us do indeed signify a kind of “happiness of the day”: a pot of tea, a vase of flowers, a book, a quill and paper for writing.  The table generates a spirit of well-being, the freedom of solitude and personal reflection.

An interesting point: unlike the grand museums with their hefty admission fees, which forcibly turn the visitor into a consumer and can make him feel almost obligated to spend a long time inside to get his money’s worth, checking off a list all the famous objects studied in Art History, admission to both the Wallace Collection and the Musée Cognacq-Jay is free.  You can come, you can go, you can pause, you can return.  You are free to enjoy what is inside on your own terms.

When I returned to Monterey I felt a sense of renewed gratitude for the small, quiet places we have around town to explore and experience art.  I haven’t been to either branch of the Monterey Museum of Art in awhile, so in the next few weeks I will post about what they are currently showing.  First, though, I must catch up on my sleep.