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The Radiating Light Of One Small Painting

DURING my adolescent years, which were spent between Chicago and New York, I began to haunt the great museums. I went back and forth between the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, my paradigms of what any adequate art museum should be.

As time passed and I lived in or near smaller cities like Berkeley, Calif., and New Haven, Conn., I visited smaller museums that did not have three or four masterpieces in each room.

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I learned to change my expectations, to focus on finding just one piece that would make the visit worthwhile - one painting, sculpture, print, or photograph that had some challenging or comforting resonance, or that provided an opening into a new or renewed appreciation for a particular artist.

It was this new approach to museum-going that I took with me when I went to visit the St. Louis Art Museum.

It was a difficult time in my life when I went there, a "sidewalk phase" as one friend put it, when I was looking down at the sidewalk and into my own broodings rather than upward and outward. I went to the museum to get out of myself, hoping to find just one piece of art that could help me do that. I don't remember the building, but I did find what I needed.

In among the French Impressionist paintings was one small picture of an arrangement of flowers. It was not exactly of the Impressionistic style; it was there because the artist lived in France in that era. The artist was Henri Fantin-Latour.

I knew his name from one of his huge portraits in Chicago, and I recalled the day when I had gone into the print room at the Art Institute. After a conversation with the curator about my interests, he pulled out a portfolio of prints by Fantin-Latour, among which was a large black-and-white print of an arrangement of flowers. I liked the prints, just as the curator said I would. But nothing I had seen by this artist had prepared me for the oil painting I saw in St. Louis.

Nothing had prepared me for what I can only call the "white light" of that moment. For among the colorful flowers, most prominently among them, were white flowers - emanations of light, really. It was not so much that there was light shining on the flowers from some outside source. Rather, the flowers were expressions of an inner kind of light that emerged out of the struggle to become, to be, to blossom, to exist.

I began to understand the mysterious words of French poet Gerard de Nerval: "It is a well-known fact that no one ever sees the sun in a dream, although one is often aware of some far brighter light." In the dream-like reverie that this painting triggered, I became aware of a sunless world of "some far brighter light," the depth of consciousness from which Fantin-Latour's flowers had emerged. I also began to recognize that very same place in myself.

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These brilliant white flowers became for me very special invitations to accept and to love into fruition the concerns, the passions, the facts of who I am and what makes me tick. The picture told me that a person's "self" cannot be the result of any other person's light shining: It doesn't rub off. A self emerges if it is tended, through the courage to claim an inner photosynthesis, to follow out and test the light of one's most compelling inner directives, perhaps especially the uncanny ones. I had neve r before had such thoughts in front of a painting.

I HAD seen my picture for the day. I have not seen it since. But a day does not pass that I do not remember it and its message about light.

Last week I spent a few days in Cleveland for several long business meetings. I was booked to leave on a 5:30 p.m. flight, and my meetings ended at noon. There was just one thing I wanted to do in that extra time. I wanted to see the Cleveland Museum of Art, home of some great Rodins and a very great Picasso, "La Vie."

I caught a cab and took the ride from downtown to University Circle, passing through a devastated area of empty warehouses, closed hotels, and massive old church buildings. On the way, I prepared myself for this museum visit, trusting that there would be one piece there for me.

I got to the museum entrance, and there was Rodin's "Thinker" pondering the sidewalk. It was too cold to spend much time pondering him, so I went in. I wandered the big galleries, getting a heavy dose of 18th-century French art (even, to my surprise, Marie Antoinette's tiny bed). I walked and looked with admiration at the impressive collection. But I hadn't come to be impressed; I'd come to learn. So I walked and walked from Watteau to Warhol, keeping myself open for just one special piece.

Eventually I came to a case of small statues by Rodin, studies for the larger, famous works. As I approached this encased wall of sculpture, I saw a small painting of a girl. I glimpsed a certain whiteness in her face and dress that I knew I had seen before. I went closer.

Hanging improbably among the dark Rodins was a portrait of radiant whiteness. As I approached this picture, I was not surprised to find that what the artist had done with flowers he had also done with a human being. The small portrait of Mademoiselle Fitz-James by Fantin-Latour hangs among those dark statues, shining.

It was my picture for that day. It continues to mean even more for me. It makes me think that scattered in museums and collections in this country and abroad is the query of a great hand and spirit into the light, deeply into the light, drawing it up from the inscrutable dark depths of what it is to be "flower" and, yes, what it is to be "person."

I did not look for Henri Fantin-Latour in St. Louis or Cleveland. But he seems to be looking for me. I won't go chasing around looking for his pictures. You can't chase enlightenment. But as I see his pictures in the coming years, it will not surprise me at all if the "light" they render continues to suggest the light I need on any given day, in St. Louis, in Cleveland or, through memory, today as I write these words.

The light I need to claim and reclaim, to find and to follow, emerges from what I am going through, deep from within the humus of an examined life. So too does it emerge and shine from these pictures.

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