By Angela Gallagher
SHE was just curious. It didn’t seem to her a big thing, at the time, but it opened a crack; just enough to let something in, to trickle through the veins.
It was her usual route to work, past the art gallery, and she always saw the banners advertising some exhibition or other but she’d never considered it to be a place someone like her went. But somehow on that day everything seemed to come together to bring her through the doors: it was raining when she went out to get a sandwich; her usual lunchtime gossip-mate, Di, was off ill; and she’d had a tough morning so didn’t want to go straight back into the office. Plus there was something about the banner for this exhibition, “Turning to See”; something about the face looking sideways out at her. It mentioned the name Van Dyck – he was really famous, wasn’t he? Did they actually have a painting by a very famous person right here in her town?
She just stood under the portico at first, as if sheltering from the rain. She could just carry on to work if she chose, if she didn’t get up the nerve to go in. She wondered if she’d feel out of place inside, if people would stare at her, knowing she didn’t belong in there, that she’d never been in an art gallery in her life before. But today everything had come together to bring her inside. She looked up at the banner again just as a well-dressed woman came out and walking past her said, “Have you seen it yet? It’s simply marvellous,” before disappearing down the steps. She stared after the woman, then put up her umbrella and hurried back to the office.
The next day, at lunchtime, she could have gone in, except she was behind with her work so cut short her lunch. The day after, she dawdled in front of the entrance, indecisive, then went to sit on the edge of the fountain opposite to eat her sandwich. She looked at that face on the banner. Quite handsome, actually, considering – from his clothes – he must be quite ancient. She didn’t know about art, obviously, but he looked real. She liked that face.
A woman crossed the square in front of her and started to make her way up the gallery steps. She wasn’t well-dressed at all, just normal. Reminded her of her mother, in fact. On an impulse she stuffed the remains of her sandwich in her bag and darted after the woman. She’d somehow feel safe if she went in on her coat-tails.
She found herself in a cool high-ceilinged entrance hall, it’s grandeur matching the exterior. A man was hanging around, clearly in some official capacity, but instead of asking her what the hell she thought she was doing there he smiled at her and said “Good afternoon. If you’re here for the Van Dyck it’s in gallery 15.” She mumbled a thank you, and grateful to find there was only one way she could go from the hall, climbed the very grand-looking staircase.
He hadn’t thought she was out of place.
At the top of the stairs she followed the signs for the exhibition, passing through other galleries lined with paintings and objects. But she didn’t stop – it all felt a bit overwhelming.
Finally she arrived at gallery 15. In the centre of one wall she recognised the painting she’d seen on the banner. That face. She was almost afraid to approach it. There was a card plaque next to it where she read that not only was this by Van Dyck, it was him – a self-portrait. It was a painting of him painting himself. Wild. She sat down in front of it. Other people came and went, often standing really quite close to it. Were you allowed to get that close? No-one seemed to stop them. She got up and went nearer. If it was a self-portrait then that meant he was actually looking at himself but she felt he was looking at her. And he was so alive, this man looking out at her from, when? 1640. It blew her mind. She stared at him for ages.
Back at work she had to apologise for being late.
The next day she ate her lunch by the fountain. It would be silly to go again wouldn’t it?
She began to spend every lunchtime there, each time heading straight for the Van Dyck, no longer afraid to lean in and get right up close. She noticed different things each time, like the brush-strokes on the clothes and how different they were in detail to his face, the colours. She bought a little booklet about the painting in the gallery shop. She Googled him. In those nose-close moments she started to look at how he achieved light and shade in the painting, the folds of the clothes.
Eventually, as Di returned to work and wondered what had happened to her lunchtime companion, she started to turn her attention to the other paintings in the exhibition. There was a Picasso. Another famous painter! She’d had no idea that was there. There were a number of drawings and she began to see the different marks used to achieve a certain effect, from subtle shading, to cross-hatching to almost violent scribbles to squiggles. There was a Lucian Freud portrait whose thick brush strokes she admired close-up and then was astonished to notice it from a distance and see how different it looked – the features much clearer.
But always she came back to the Van Dyck.
Finally, she took herself off to the gallery as summer ended and the beginning of September marked the final day of the exhibition. It was a Sunday and she spent most of the day there, starting off with the Van Dyck, of course, and then wandering round the other galleries, visiting other paintings she had discovered which had now become favourites.
Finally she came back to him. She was the last person in there when the gallery closed and she paused at the doors and turned to see him one last time.
Lunchtimes wouldn’t be quite the same again, but it was September, the start of the academic year. Her art class began next week.
© Angela Gallagher 2016
(Inspired by the “Turning to See” Exhibition – on at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery till 4th September 2016)