That first day, he told me things about the paintings, which I appreciated. I probably tried to say smart things in return. At some point, we arrived in front of Pandora’s Box. Maybe I was the one who noticed it; maybe he brought me there. It’s a relatively small painting, about the size of a bathroom mirror. It stopped me in my tracks. Looking at it was like a revelation—of what? There was a way in which the painting made no sense, but it was the kind of nonsense of a beautiful dream: the lipstick-colored sky, the stacked roofs in the distance, the translucent lamp post, the floating white rose, the man with the bowler hat. He could have been looking into a brilliant sunset or a sky on fire, which was how I was feeling those days, that danger and beauty were intertwined, basically interchangeable. I probably said something like, “Wow.”
It wasn’t like I was struck by lightning. I wasn’t even really having a profound experience of art. I was just looking at a painting, my gaze parallel with that of a complicated person I was starting to care about quite a lot. I was noticing things with a new kind of attention. That act of looking closely, so that the painting unfolded to me in a series of details, and then re-composed itself as a complete image—this is the basic stuff of an aesthetic encounter, but it felt revelatory. It was making me feel something. It helped, I think, to know nothing about it, not to classify it immediately as “
,” though much of what I was sensing was its quiet, surreal distortions, the beauty and terror intertwined, the dreaminess of it.
Magritte had nearly given up his Surrealist style several years before Pandora’s Box, horrified by World War II and its aftermath. Painted in 1951, this was an early work in his return to Surrealism, an attempt at beauty after unspeakable disaster. About Pandora’s Box, Magritte wrote, “The presence of the rose next to the stroller signifies that wherever man’s destiny leads him, he is always protected by an element of beauty.” I didn’t know any of that at the time, of course; I read it years later, when I was writing a review of a Magritte exhibition in San Francisco. But I think that is part of what the painting offered me—the possibility of simultaneous beauty and confusion as a kind of refuge. It also showed that some of what I was feeling might be refracted back to me visually, slightly different than before.
I have become a person who goes to museums. It’s part of what I do for a living. There are lots of things I don’t like about them—the bombardment of too much stuff in one place, the implicit expectation of knowledge, the fatigue that sometimes comes with standing and trying and failing to feel or understand something, the wall text. Many museums are experimenting with ways to improve these things, but there is still the reality of the form: they contain a lot of stuff and are asking you to stand there and look at it. But what I like best in museums is the possibility of the random encounter—the revelation around the corner, the sudden rush of seeing an object about which you can say nothing intelligent, which makes you say, “Wow.”
If you are feeling a little lost, like I was then, and am still, this kind of surprise encounter can be a balm. It could be a painting like Pandora’s Box that is, for lack of a more precise word, beautiful. It could also be something completely different, something grotesque or upsetting or even ugly. It could be a 16th-century tapestry of a unicorn in captivity that suddenly has you in tears that really have nothing to do with the unicorn, except that they also do. A painting can make you see the colors of the world just a little differently, which is something. Be porous to that.