The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls. Pablo Picasso
When my sisters made a plan to meet in DC to see an art exhibit, I readily agreed to make the trek down to the National Gallery on the mall. A shot of culture and sisterly love sounded like just the remedy for my exhausted, sun-baked soul.
By the time I left Joe’s swim meet on Saturday–hot, tired and coated with a sticky film of Coppertone and sweat– I wished I could change my mind. I couldn’t find my Metro SmartCard, the house was a mess, and it was predicted to be 110 degrees. In the shade.
But my sisters were waiting, and I’d already promised to go, and a promise to your sisters is one you have to keep. Two hours after I set out from home, I emerged from the dank underworld of Metro into the blast furnace of midday on the National Mall.
The National Mall is America’s town square, a broad tree-lined boulevard that stretches from the Capitol building to the Lincoln Memorial. People of every race, ethnicity and nationality are doing what people do: walking around with no particular agenda besides seeing the museums and memorials, holding hands, snacking on food from the street vendors, just getting along.
I wish our ridiculous Congress would descend from Mount Olympus every once in awhile to see how well regular people get along with one another. How much they don’t hate and envy each other, despite the politicians’ best efforts to whip everyone into a frenzy of jealousy and suspicion for their own political gain. Actually, what I really wish is that they would stay where they are and leave us alone. But enough about Congress.
Even on this scorching day, families strolled the boulevard and sprawled beneath the huge poplars, relaxed and unworried. I longed to just linger in the shade, where it was at least 20 degrees cooler, but I hurried across the dusty mall to the National Gallery where my sisters were patiently waiting.
I charged up the massive marble stairs, through the colossal brass doors, into a cool, enchanted world of timeless beauty and genius, where myths and legends are as real and alive as you and me. The National Gallery of Art, a treasure trove of some of the world’s greatest masterpieces.
There are works by Rembrandt, da Vinci, Titian, Raphael and El Greco, an embarrassment of riches,but there was no time to linger over the elegant marble statues and glorious paintings lining the walls; my sisters were waiting in the cafe.
Isn’t it such a thrill when you’re looking for someone, and you wonder if you’re late or early, or if you’re at the wrong meeting place; and then you find them? I found my sisters, and we hugged and laughed at the wonder of being together.
After catching up for a few minutes, we headed off to see what we’d come for, a special exhibit called “Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, When Art Danced with Music.” Sergei Diaghilev was an influential early 20th century ballet impresario and founder of the Ballets Russes, which launched the career of the great dancers Vaslav Nijinski and Anna Pavlova. (Not that I knew that before going to the exhibit.)
Eyes wide in anticipation, we walked into the mysteriously dark exhibit, and encountered a velvet cavern of luxury and magic, the glorious, romantic world of Russian ballet. Each splendiferous costume was displayed in a lighted case, like a glittering jewel.
There were short film clips of some of the ballets. “Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun,” apparently shocking for its time, featured a lascivious faun danced by the great Nijinksi, hilariously lewd.
More controversial still, “Rite of Spring” was so outrageous the audience rioted at the premier. The music for “Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinski is primal and pounding; the dancers, dressed in Slavic folk-style costumes, hop and stomp in jerky, repetitive movements. It was hypnotic and strangely mesmerizing; I had to watch it twice before moving on.
We moved through the winding exhibit slowly, swimming in the glamour and beauty of the ballet world, which none of us knew much about. We were taking a crash course in Russian ballet and the immersion made my head and heart spin.
The piece de resistance was a live performance by a few members of the Ballets Russes. A dapper Russian man spoke for a few minutes through a translator, and then a lovely ballerina and her partner took the stage, dressed in glittering white costumes. She wore a tiara like a princess.
They danced a pas de deux from “Swan Lake,” and we were utterly enchanted by her grace and beauty, and by her dashing partner’s strength and athleticism, swept away by the sweetness of the music, the passion and romance of the pas de deux.
As the dance ended and the music faded, the ballerina and her partner gracefully bowed to the adoring audience. And at that moment, as I sat between my two sisters, listening to the applause swell, I felt supremely happy.
Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. Thomas Merton
What do you do to wash the dust off your soul?