My parents met in an airport in Spain. Madrid actually. Although, this was way back in the 70s, so rather than today’s trendy euro hipsters lining the streets listening to drum ‘n’ bass, I always pictured the Spaniards of that era with thick mustaches and golden aviators driving their awkwardly shaped cars up and down the boulevards.
It’s strange to think that you exist because your mom, who at the time was younger than you are now, saw your dad sitting there in his business suit reading Time Magazine, and decided to go up and start a conversation with him since she was having kind of a bad day and wanted someone to talk to. She said that because he was reading Time Magazine, he looked like an American and this made her feel comfortable approaching him. My dad is actually South African.
What was the first thing they said to each other? What article was my dad reading before he was interrupted by my mom and looked at her for the first time? And when they looked at each other, what was the look that they exchanged? The beginning of my entire history can be traced back to a specific time on my father’s watch, no different from the kind of time I have on my watch right now, and as I get off the plane and walk through Madrid’s Barajas airport I can’t help but feel a little reverence for the place.
From what my parents had told me of the white hills of Spain and the surrounding Andalucía region, I am honestly expecting a fairytale Spanish afternoon, complete with blue skies and sleepy streets with shops closed for siesta. Being from Seattle however, my built-in cynicism is really not all that perturbed by the constant cloud cover and showers as our taxi makes its way down the street to our hostel.
The hostel is not allowing people into their rooms because it’s cleaning time, so we leave our bags behind the desk and walk out in our fleeces to go explore. The streets are mostly empty and are clean because of all the rain. We get a few good pictures of the must see sights – can you believe that Hemmingway’s old apartment is now an Alcoholics Anonymous center? – but because of the greyness of the afternoon and tension caused by being in a strange place where we don’t speak the language, the city feels vaguely unfriendly to us.
In order to ease the tension we decide to take a free walking tour so that we can meet some other English-speaking travelers. The tour leader is witty and after learning about Madrid’s history, we go into the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Just before we enter, though, I see something that catches my eye advertised on the big banner covering the museum’s façade.
Inside the museum there is a Spanish guitar playing at a low volume. I hang back from everyone so that I can be alone for a minute. The walls are well-lit and a warm orange color and with the guitar music I begin to feel a bit of nostalgia for what I just saw advertised outside. I had zero idea it was here; this thing – a painting – whose name I can’t currently recall, is something I have seen probably thousands of times and that is still mysterious to me since I lacked the ability to really understand it last time I saw it. I find myself in no rush to find it, though. Instead, there is more of a mild anticipation, like knowing you are going to meet a stranger, and I elect to let it find me.
This happens after a half-hour in some random corner of an exhibit on the third floor. There is no one else in the room. I decide to approach it like an old friend that I haven’t seen in a while, and take care not to look at it until I am about a body’s length away.
The paining is Swaying Dancers (Dancers in Green) by Edgar Degas circa 1877, and I find myself getting more and more lost in the emerald folds of the dancers’ dresses the longer I look. The whole experience takes me back to when I was half my height and used to spend hours doing homework and viewing the same image in my mother’s study.
There is that same feeling of reverence here that I felt at the airport, the reverence that comes from knowing that all the likenesses there are of this thing, have sprung from this— the original. The fact that this is the original inspires within me a desire to really appreciate the painting on a deeper level.
Understanding art, to me, is all about finding out what the artist is passionate about. Degas was fascinated by the world of ballet and it figured prominently in many of his paintings. In this painting, a group of dancers is depicted mid-performance, as viewed from an upper side box. Only one of the girls in green is shown full-length, captured as she executes a swift, complicated turn. The other figures are cropped, leaving the viewer to imagine the rest.
When people are passionate about something and able to understand it, they can, on occasion, show you this passion in a way that will enable you too to understand. In the rarest of instances, the connection the artist is able to make brings you into their mind and you can know the world in relation to the object being portrayed, from their perspective. This makes the world a less lonely place.
I take my time with the painting trying to understand it a little bit better. I feel a calming sensation that is created by the juxtaposition of the dark backdrop against the white, green and orange of the dancers. I imagine the dark theater and everyone dressed up and engrossed by the performance. And then I focus in on the face of the dancer in green. You can see only half of her face, but the expression is so relatable that you’d imagine it on the faces of any happy couple you saw seated at a romantic restaurant on a Friday night. For such a common look, it somehow seems strange, out of place.
For some reason this look causes me to momentarily superimpose my mother’s face onto the dancer, and then it is my mom who is the one dancing. And then for a second in my mind, time and color and the dancers all converge and I find myself inside Degas’s world, sitting there in the box at the ballet, and understanding his deep passion for the dance. His passion is manifest in the mixture of pleasure and ease on the dancer in green’s face.
You can tell that both the dancer and Degas share this understanding of what it really means for her to dance. The hours spent in practice since she was a little girl, the intricacies of all the moves she has learned, the joy it brings her to share this passion with others. In order to share this, Degas chose to depict this one little moment, and in this fraction of an instant when she twirls, there is captured the culmination of a lifetime of mastery.
Then I imagine my parents are sitting there next to us in the dark box. They are not much younger than I am, observing the dancers. They are wearing the same clothes I always imagine them in when I picture them meeting. My dad has on the watch that he gave to me on my 20th birthday, the same watch that I am wearing now, and he has his hand draped around the back of my mom’s chair. From the look on their faces you can tell that everything is young and new, and exciting with them. For one overwhelming moment I understand it all. I let this play on for a bit before looking away, and walking away from the painting.