Some time ago, I reluctantly accompanied my wife to an art show opening of a friend, “Emmie.” I do not like modern art – my wife says that, in my view, art began and ended with Michelangelo. In my defense, I like Caravaggio, too, and some of Vincent Van Gogh’s work. I enjoyed seeing the original “A Starry Night” at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. At MOMA, my wife also made sure to point out Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. I had seen the movie about his life, and his technique had seemed crazy to me.
Anyway, Emmie’s work was just as I feared: formless, random combinations of colors and shapes that I could not make any sense of, despite the fancy-sounding titles. Then I saw a portrait called Jeannette. It wasn’t realistic, and it kind of looked like the Picasso posters my wife has up in her home office. The face of this Jeannette was quite beautiful, but Emmie had segmented it in a way that made you understand that there were different sides to the woman. I can’t say I liked the portrait, but it did make me curious about the person who inspired it.
Turns out, my wife had known Jeannette. Or, to be more precise, she knew her a little bit. Several years ago, the two of them had gone to a Van Morrison show in New York City. The singer performed music from his latest album only and ignored shouts for his better-known hits. On the subway ride home, Jeannette had complained bitterly about his lack of rapport with the audience. “It’s as if we weren’t there,” she said. “Why give a concert if you won’t even say ‘how ya doing’ to the people who paid to see you?” My wife had not been offended by Van Morrison’s behavior (she had seen Miles Davis, who had spent most of the time with his back to his audience), and she was amused by Jeannette’s ire.
That was Jeannette’s contemporary-music side. Some months after the concert, my wife learned that Jeannette often met up with some friends to discuss their love of Rilke’s poetry. With yet another set of friends, Jeannette liked to explore Northern Italian cooking. And Jeannette seemed to go to as many art show openings as possible, which is how she had met Emmie years earlier.
Most of Jeannette’s groups of friends did not learn about each other until they met up at an informal memorial service. My wife said that, while a few people shed tears, most of the others were still in shock.
Hardly any of Jeannette’s friends knew of her darkest side, the depressive one that had compelled her to jump out of her fifth-story apartment window. Shortly before that final act, she had left angry, desperate messages for her psychotherapist and her former boyfriend. Emmie said that, although the apartment door was locked from the inside and police had found no evidence of anyone else being present, Jeannette’s parents clung to the thought that someone must have killed their beautiful, accomplished daughter. All agreed that the loss of Jeannette was the loss of a funny, delightful, and valuable human being.
My head is spinning from all that has come from my visit to Emmie’s show. I’m beginning to see how a work of art can represent more than just beauty; it can suggest the complexities of another person. And how well do we really know each other? By hiding parts of ourselves, particularly the fragile parts, we can give the appearance of being accessible when in truth, we isolate ourselves in our fears and misunderstandings. If a person only shows aspects of herself, should we try harder to know her better?
I don’t know the answers to my own questions. All I can say is what I’ve said before: let’s be kind to each other, now more than ever.