One Tuesday afternoon in April 2005, a man named Robin takes the day off from work and attends the exhibit “MOTIONS OF THE MIND: The Renaissance Portrait and its Legacy” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. For approximately two hours he will focus his attention upon five portraits by John Singer Sargent, Sandro Botticelli, Albrecht Durer, Diego Rodiguez de Silva y Velazquez, and Hans Memling: these five paintings date from the mid-fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth centuries, and depict a boy, a young man, a self portrait, an African slave, and an old man, respectively.
Each portrait is a story, of course, and Patrick E. Horrigan introduces each section of Portraits at an Exhibition with a story involving the model depicted, and/or the artist, or even an art historian or modern artist associated with each painting. These stories assume different forms: they range from the blank verse soliloquy of Pareja (the subject of the portrait by Velazquez) to the medieval prayer of the Old Man painted by Memling to the imagined communion of the art critic Yukio Yashiro with the Botticelli portrait (which involves his contemplation of the lives of model and artist). As Robin gazes upon the portraits, reads the museum’s placards, and imagines their stories, he divulges his own story to the reader: 34 years old, a graduate school drop out, current gallery worker, he comes to the exhibition to take his mind off of a distressing encounter at a sex club the night before. After an unsafe sexual encounter, the specter of AIDS hangs over him; but taking in the portraits of long-dead models, painted by long-dead artists, may not be conducive to escaping thoughts of mortality.
These stories are not alone in interacting with Robin’s story on this afternoon. There are other patrons who view the paintings, but only one who directly interacts with Robin: Bernard, a former monk, now a therapist, briefly speaks with Robin; as he examines the exhibit we learn his story as well. Is their meeting meant to foreshadow Robin’s future? Bernard—who knows that he is HIV+–accepts Robin’s e-mail address, but there is no certainty that they will either begin a professional or personal relationship.
The only other character to speak to Robin (“The museum will be closing in ten minutes”) is Dora, the fifty-year old African-American museum guard, who is reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James while on duty. (Even the non-paintings mentioned in the text are portraits: Robin happens to be re-reading Portrait of Dorian Gray. I half-expected a reference to Modest Mussorgsky, but alas, no.) Dora also reminds Robin “Not too close to the painting please,” a subtle reminder that while much of the appreciation of a painting is internal, experiencing a painting or work of art is also a physical experience, as it involves the senses—sight especially, but it can (rarely, I grant you) also involve smell and touch. Viewing a painting in a museum or gallery also involves entering into the painting’s “space,” and almost interacting with it as one would a person (but far beyond the normal constraints of time and space).
Still, this novel is very much an internal, cerebral experience; as most of it comprises Robin’s and Bernard’s reactions to the artworks, and Dora’s reaction to the novel, it remains at heart an internal conversation between art and viewer—but an extended conversation that we are privileged to overhear.
Reviewed by Keith John Glaeske