Can there be an excess of colour, light, and texture? #chihuly

Today I went down with Becky and the kids to take in the Chihuly exhibit at the Musée des beaux-arts. It is a good-sized, though not huge exhibit – though regardless of its size it represents a cornucopia of colour and shapes and light. Chihuly has the capacity to create enchanting pieces of glass – and astonishing larger pieces made up of multiple piece of glass. More than enchanting, his pieces are remarkable for their colours and patterns and the ways that light is used to set them off as a feast for the eyes.

Another important aspect of these pieces is that they could never have been created by one person. The level of physical effort that goes into blowing, or otherwise creating, pieces of glass of this size requires a team of creators, with Chihuly at the lead.

I can only imagine that there is, out there, an fairly vast literature about the significance of Chihuly’s work and, more specifically, on the question of whether it is mere “decorative arts” – that is, whether it offers some statement on the nature or meaning of human life and community or is simply intended to add colour and beauty to the background and foreground of our daily life. At a minimum, the display I saw today suggested that we are drawn to his work because we are drawn to light and colour and beauty – symmetry and organic shapes and a diverse but generally bright palette. Here are a few of the pieces.

But after these photos I took this morning, and after the jump, I also want to briefly consider (and contrast with the work of Chihuly) a painting I saw in another section of the gallery today.

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After visiting the Chihuly exhibit, I wandered through part of the permanent collection at the gallery, and came across the following piece by Théodule Ribot, entitled The Morning Wash. Relative to the ‘excess’ of Chihuly’s glassworks, this piece by Ribot is stark and grey and spare, though not completely so, as I’ll suggest in a minute:


Here’s part of the description of the piece at the gallery offered about it: “This sorry little group, dressed in drab uniforms and supervised by the daunting schoolmarm looming in her dark doorway, is sufficiently gloomy to have suggested the title under which the painting was known in Montreal: The Children’s Home. The painting actually represents an asile, or state-run school for children from poor families.”

So the painting is perhaps as stark and plain and grey as the lives of those it depicts, though we should not assume too much from the painting. But what really strikes me about the painting, as was also pointed out by the description, is the copper wash basin: “The painting, executed in subtle tones of grey and black, is highlighted by a burnished copper pan.” It is a lovely and highly realistic detail there in the corner of the painting – it is warm and bright and brassy all at the same time. If there is a Chihuly moment in this painting, the copper pan is it:


The pan is alive with light and texture and colour – sitting there, if you will, almost unnoticed in the corner of a grey painting.

And somehow it seems that this is where Chihuly moments belong – not in a grand and almost over-whelming presentation, but in the almost unexamined corners of our lives. I suppose I feel this way both because my aesthetic sensibilities push me toward a more spare style, generally speaking, but also because it seems that this is more the truth of human existence. That the moments of beauty and light often appear almost unnoticed, that we need to have eyes peeled for them, and that when we discover them they will stick in our heart and mind. They will touch us and perhaps change us. Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed spring to mind.

At the gallery gift shop dedicated to the Chihuly exhibit, they had small, individual pieces of his work available for sale. They were at the most 12 inches high and wide and deep (and they were expensive – around $8.000), but somehow there might be more delight in discovering one of those small pieces in a corner somewhere than in the full panoply of light and glass on display in the gallery.


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