Saturday, 9 February 2013

Remembering past centuries

My morning review involved running a Thursday/Friday window over every week of my internal calendar since I began this process of remembering every day that passes.

And so I remembered that on 13 January 2012 my wife and I visited an art gallery. It was hosting a touring exhibition of Dutch masters and was shortly to close so I left work for an early lunch and we joined the queue.

Visiting the gallery is my memory tag. Mentally standing on this image pinned to Friday 13 January, I looked down at my feet and decided to enter the image to relive the day.

There is one particular moment that is especially vivid as I recall shuffling past the pictures in the crowded room. A portrait of a lady with a white silk dress, sitting, with the skirts ballooning around her as was the style when it was painted, over three hundred years ago.

In the huddle around the picture, everyone leans in and I am captivated by the sheen on the dress. The picture is about the size of an A4 sheet, but it seems the texture of the material has been captured with a brush that is too fine to exist.

Standing up, I am transported back to my bed in the early morning of 8 February 2013, the sun not yet risen.

I think of the skill shown by the artist and the years it must have taken to develop the skills required. Then it hits me. When it was painted there was no photography, no way to capture an image from the light it reflects, other than through the medium of the artist's skill. No wonder those who could put down a likeness that breathed reality were so highly valued - even if poorly paid.

The years of dedication it took to reach that level of ability was a worthwhile investment, because it gave the artist a trade. Having a portrait drawn, or painted if one had the money, must have been such a special occassion. Something magical.

With the onset of photography realism became less important than interpretation and today most of us have many more photos than we can be bothered to put onto paper and frame, or even look at. In this digital age I wonder how soon the period of a century and a half when images were captured by the chemical marvel that was photographic film will be forgotten.

Before that innovation human beings relied on artists and the pictures we have of past times are thanks to them, from the matchstick figures on the cave walls to the finest silk dress.

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