Over the weekend, I fell in love with a married European man.
I guess he’s not technically married, since he’s been dead for 55 years. And I guess “love” might be strong word, since I didn’t actually meet him. But when I saw his “SacreCouer de Montmarte” across the gallery at the Indianapolis Museum of Art on Friday, the appeal was real. Maybe it wasn’t love, but it was at least an affair of the art.
Maurice Utrillo was the son of no one in particular. Oh sure, he had a mother, the artist Suzanne Valadon. But Utrillo’s paternity was never substantiated. Valadon was an artist’s model, posing for Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, and others. These famous men of the canvas were all rumored to have been the father. And so was a young painter and alcoholic, Boissy.
But it was a friend of his mother, Spanish writer and art critic, Miguel Utrillo, who kindly lent his surname, Utrillo, to the child Maurice.
Though his story of lurid parentage, mental illness, and alcoholism tell us a lot about the man, Utrillo’s work is the most revealing. His numerous paintings of the city he loved, Paris, and particularly the artist’ quarter, Montmartre, reveal him to be a simple, though not simplistic, landscape artist. Yet, his style does not reflect any of the artistic movements of the day. And his paintings are said to have captured the imagination of both the critic and the commoner.
I was drawn to the colors and lines of his painting, which suggest both care and haste. They communicate the emotion and spirit of a place, as much as the physical details. His paintings are certainly not photographic, and yet were you to take me around the world with a blind-fold on and drop me off in Paris just down the street from the SacreCouer, I would know exactly where I was from his painting.
Utrillo’s work captures Paris like Wendell Berry’s words depict the fictional Port William, Kentucky. Even though I haven’t been to either place, they are familiar. And both Utrillo’s paintings and Berry’s words are written at eye level. In my own work, both on canvas and page, I am always tempted to create from the all-knowing perspective–the narrator who can read minds or the spectator who can see all sides at once. But in Utrillo’s paintings, like Berry’s stories, we are often looking up or around. Never through. Never down.
In his old age, Utrillo’s religious devotion equaled his commitment to his art, and I imagine that ultimately, they became one in the same. His obsession with painting the city where he lived may have sprung from a deeper desire to live eternally in the city of God. In the earthly home, he suffered from the consequences of questionable birth and wild living; in the heavenly city, he would enjoy all the privileges as an adopted child of the King.
Often, when I encounter magnificent art, I am awestruck and impressed, feeling a great distance between my abilities and the artist I am admiring. Not so with Utrillo. When I see his work and read his story, I want to pick up a brush and start mixing paint. It’s what Madeline L’Engle says should be the response to truly great art.
A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else. — from A Circle of Quiet
I hope I can go often to see “SacreCouer de Montmarte,” observing those lines, memorizing those colors, imaging the boy with the borrowed name, and dreaming of the heavenly city where we will all paint to the glory of God.
Picture from the Indianapolis Museum of Art online collection. Original artwork on currently on view at the William L. & Jane H. Fortune Gallery at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.