Do you remember your first encounters with great art? I vividly recall my introduction to certain artists–life-changing discoveries that revolutionized my views about art.
The composer Berlioz recalled his introduction to Shakespeare this way:
“Shakespeare, coming upon me unawares, struck me like a thunderbolt. The lightning flash of that sublime discovery opened before me at a stroke the whole heaven of art, illuminating it to its remotest depths. . . .”
That’s what I’m talking about.
Rodin. In my sophomore year of high school, I came upon a book of poor black and white reproductions of Rodin’s sculpture. The austere, lofty, and profound images leaped off the page and jolted me out of my school-boy slumbers. It was my first inkling of what really great art could be. Rodin immediately supplanted van Gogh as my favorite artist, and he still remains in my personal Pantheon.
Picasso. The Cincinnati Art Academy used to be physically connected to the Cincinnati Art Museum. One side effect of this
arrangement was that mere art school freshmen could wander through the museum when it was closed. Early one morning I tiptoed past the dark, deserted rooms of Renaissance furniture to the library where I discovered a book of Picasso etchings. These were the works he did between the wars with classical references. The elegance of the simple-looking line drawings defined art for me then and still does to a large degree. That was also the birth of my love of prints and printmaking.
Bob Dylan. One night during the wee hours I was painting in my tiny Manhattan apartment while listening to the radio. In those days, I painted during the night because it was the only free time I had from my taxi job. Desolation Row came over the radio. I had never heard it or anything like it. I dropped my brush; I was riveted. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. In my 19 years, I had never experienced the real power of honest, vulnerable poetry. I still listen to Dylan even though he is largely a parody of his earlier self.
Balzac. Rodin’s magnificent monument to Balzac was my introduction to the writer. Immediately after reading Pere Goriot I launched into the rest of the titanic Human Comedy, and after reading Lost Illusions, I was hooked for life. Balzac is the best novelist who ever lived–it’s not even close.
Fellini. On a lark, I bought a ticket to the Fellini festival at the St. Marks Cinema (NW corner of St. Marks and 2nd Ave. in Manhattan.) Unfamiliar with Fellini, I was inexplicably drawn to the day-long festival. It was unlike me to go to such a festival. Who could sit through movies for that long? I don’t think I moved once during the five hours it took to watch Satyricon, Roma, and La Strada. I couldn’t believe what I saw. Why didn’t anyone tell how good movies could be? I had no idea. Fellini redefined cinema for me during the course of that one afternoon.