I am still able to remember my very first encounter with art when I was nine years old. The parents of my best friend took me with them to an exhibition of the artist Claude Monet in Wuppertal, Germany. Now, almost ten years later, I have to admit that I am able to count the exhibitions I have visited in my life on one hand. It might be debatable whether this background makes me the most suitable person to write an article about a piece at the Scottish National Gallery, but I will do my best.
While listening to Queen on full volume I found myself standing in front of Frederic Edwin Church’s Niagara Falls, from the American Side. After a few minutes I made out two little figures on the left side of the painting, almost hidden by the waterfalls and the cliffs that had attracted my attention before. I tried to imagine being one of them, sitting completely alone at the top of one of the most monumental waterfalls in the world and staring down at the turbulent play of the water.
In that moment I felt the wonderful sensation of weightlessness. In my mind I was taken back to my favourite place in the whole wide world: a small coastal town in Poland where I spent most of my summers as a child. I was even able to smell the salty air of the sea, able to feel the warm sun touching my skin, and I felt bliss. Even though I was so far away from that place in terms of time and space, the painting had reached the spot in my heart where the never-vanishing memories of my carefree childhood had remained for so many years untouched.
It is quite incredible that, on a rainy day in Edinburgh, art enabled me to return to a once loved town and recreate an image of my most valuable memories as if I were reliving them all over again. I had not expected this to happen, but I found in that museum a personal place that enables me to feel the purest happiness.
This experience has caused me understand art in a new way. As a young employee working at the museum put it, art does not impose anything and does not set any limits … there is no value behind a painting, you have to find the value yourself. And being taken back by this painting to such vivid memories of childhood has helped me appreciate the importance of the individual viewer in the power and meaning of a work of art.
Image: a section from Church’s painting, jpbrewer1963 via Flikr