Month of Museums #5: Back to the Classics…

There’s actually a link back to the previous museum here, because one of the SFM traveling exhibitions is due to appear at the Norton Museum of Art, in West Palm Beach.Been there. Saw that.It’s got a helluva bad website, apparently, because it’s really hard to get anything much out of there – but the place was a nice enough and inviting architectural space with courtyards and palm trees and nice cool interiors. It had some fairly high-faluting pieces of art including, as I recall, a Mondrian, which prompted a discussion between rdeck and me about art and the quality of art and the eye of the beholder. We were talking about the Mondrian trademark painting, the kind his name has become synonymous with- the painting of large interlocking black lines with the occasional square produced by these intesecting lines being coloured red or yellow or orange – you know, the sort of thing. (More on Mondrian here if you want to go look)I don’t know. I stare and stare and I see nothing there but something that might have been a magnified image lifted out of some great city’s Underground map. If I concentrate, I can see the Circle Line in there somewhere, I feel as though I ought to be going through my pockets for my Tube tickets or my Oyster card or my NYC Subway pass. My husband kinda sorta agreed, but then mused upon the time that he was once shown a “real” Mondrian and a generic copy by somebody else, and you know, you could tell which was the genuine article. Which I suppose is the point of art, in the end – to have a message that’s unique and which conveys… SOMETHING. Something that can’t be copied or counterfeited easily. The lines might translate – the soul behind the human being who made them, does not, somehow. And it is possible for the observer to tell the difference.

But the Mondrian discussion was not why I hold the Norton in tender memory.

That distinction belongs to a tiny square of canvas, a painting of water lillies by Monet. I stood before that thing for a long time, just… smiling. Hubby wasn’t immune to its charms, either. We spent a joyous ten minutes or so discussing whether it would be feasible to lift the small gem off the wall, tuck it somewhere about our person, and walk out of the museum whistling insouciantly. It was just so…perfect. So easy to imagine it hanging and being adored on the wall of our own living room or bedroom, woken up to each day and greeted like a member of the family, giving every new morning a lift of pure unadulterated happiness.

Eh. We’re no art thieves, of course. But our feet carried us through the gallery which housed the Monet more than once. By accident. By complete design. Because we could not get enough of that painting, and we could not help smiling every time we saw it.

That’s what some art just DOES.

A much longer time ago, back in London, I once found myself padding around the hallowed halls of the National Gallery, catalogue in hand, going from room to room and gawping at the treasures hanging on the walls. And there are plenty – just take a gander at what the Gallery itself considers the 30 highlight paintings, the must-see stuff.

When you’re done picking your jaw off the floor at some of the stuff on that list, follow me to one of those paintings.

THIS one.

Let me tell you something. I’ve seen this painting all my life. I’ve seen replicas; I’ve seen prints; I’ve seen it printed on diaries, and bags, and t-shirts.

Nothing prepares you for the sight of the original, hanging there. NOTHING.

It’s like you’re suddenly walking down a long dark corridor, and at the end of it there’s a light, and the light is this painting. And when you stand before it, you stand holding your breath, your hands suddenly folded tight around the glossy catalogue, and your heart beating as though you’ve just been kissed by someone you’ve always loved. And you can’t move, for a moment, for the astonished joy of its presence.

I recently learned a new word, a new concept – something called duende. It even has a Wikipedia page of its own, and there you can read this:

“Tener duende” (“having duende”) can be loosely translated as having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity…

Another definition of duende is, Inspiration; fire; spirit; magic; charm; magnetism.

I define it by that painting.

Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” brims and overflows with duende. If I never see it again with my living eyes, I will not forget its light and its magic – it has imprinted myself on my spirit.

It is the duty, the responsibility, the joy, the glory of an art gallery or a museum to hold some of this light tenderly in a place where such as thee or me may go to gaze upon it, and have our hearts sing, and our minds open, and our souls transform. We go through life like butterflies, seeking places like this where we can feed on something that transcends the quotidian, the dreary, the tedious, the melancholy. We find the places where we can alight, if even for a moment, to sip a small cup of happiness and to take away if not the painting itself, to grace our own home, as the husband and I once joyfully and playfully plotted, then the memory of it, the smile it brought to our faces, the pang it brought to our hearts, the tears it brought to our eyes.

We are a species which has made it possible to acknowledge one another’s greatness, and to allow those with the vision to appreciate such greatness access to it such that they may pay it the respects it deserves. Go, and find something with enough duende to make you bow your head before it – and give thanks for being human, and for the ability to touch and to understand what it means to be inspired by something greater than ourselves. Go fill your day with a glimpse of awe, and mystery, and pure happiness. Get thee to a gallery.


About Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander's life so far has prepared her very well for her chosen career. She was born in a country which no longer exists on the maps, has lived and worked in seven countries on four continents (and in cyberspace!), has climbed mountains, dived in coral reefs, flown small planes, swum with dolphins, touched two-thousand-year-old tiles in a gate out of Babylon. She is a novelist, anthologist and short story writer who currently shares her life between the Pacific Northwest of the USA (where she lives with her husband and two cats) and the wonderful fantasy worlds of her own imagination. You can find out more about Alma on her website (, her Facebook page (, on Twitter ( or at her Patreon page (

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