There is something rewarding, intoxicating, liberating, and most of all, humbling, when one immerses oneself totally in a piece of art created by the masters. I find it easier to do so when it comes to a painting or a photograph than say, a novella or a play. For a long time, I tried hard to locate a “common language” shared by word and image. What was Picasso thinking of when he stenciled letters and words onto his Cubist paintings, or made collages with fragments of newspaper cuttings? The late American artist Cy Twombly once scribbled, “The image cannot be dispossessed of a primordial freshness which ideas can never claim.” An image is an act, a presence, an experience. Fraught with dialectics, logic, theory and even ideology, words often strike me as more vulnerable, abstract and at times, unreliable. I remember my past struggles of putting down in black and white the haunting experience of a photograph or a painting, only to realize that each step I put forth in writing is another step backward. None of what I have written could break through the limits of being either illustrative or derivative. Certain things are best left unsaid.
Recently, I read that one of my favorite photographers, Dorothea Lange, kept on her bulletin board for many years a wisdom from seventeenth-century thinker Francis Bacon: “The contemplation of things as they are, without substitution or imposture, without error or confession, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention.” Paintings and photographs calm my monkey mind and quiet my imagination. Stopping in front of an image, I learn to allow myself to be transported into a time and space that isn't mine, but of the image. In a way, paintings and photographs teach me how to meditate: the vita contemplativa.
I grew up with Bonnard's breakfast table and Vermeer's windows, and as a teenager, I was absorbed by Joan Mitchell's highly emotional splatter of colors on those expansive canvases. While I was privileged to be able to see most of Bonnard and Vermeer in different museums and galleries, I never had the chance to do so with Joan Mitchell's paintings — not until two autumns ago in Giverny. I went to the exhibition on its last day, and was among the last visitors. For a while, I lingered before the twenty-six-foot-wide Edrita Fried. I wasn't thinking of anything. I just wanted to spend some time with her tumultuous blue.
I am not gifted at long emails or laconic postcards. However, I often can't resist the impulse to send my friends postcard prints of paintings or photographs I have seen in person. Just an address and a stamp, no word required. Right after the Joan Mitchell exhibition, I bought a postcard of Edrita Fried and sent it to an old friend in New York. I wrote nothing, and expected no word in return. Two months later, a postcard of Diane Arbus' Castle in Disneyland arrived in my mailbox. Just my address and a stamp. No word was required.
Fiona Sze-Lorrain writes and translates in English, French and Chinese. She graduated from Columbia University and New York University before returning to Europe to receive her Ph.D. from Paris IV-Sorbonne. Her book of poetry, Water the Moon (Marick, 2010) is an Honorable Mention for the 2011 Eric Hoffer Book Award. Translations include Ghérasim Luca, Auxeméry, Bai Hua, Yu Xiang, Hai Zi, Lan Lan, Yi Lu, etc. Co-editor of Cerise Press, she co-directs Vif éditions, an independent French publishing house in Paris. Also a zheng concertist, she has performed worldwide.