Moving Pictures: A Prequel, or Church Was a Neuroscientist

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by Andrew Baker

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In the 1850s, Frederic Edwin Church was commissioned on two occasions by Cyrus West Field, of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, to travel to South America and to produce work as a chronicle of his journeys. Sometime after returning to New York, Church began work on Heart of the Andes, a monumental canvas of nearly ten feet in width that strung together elements from various sketches and paintings he made on the continent. Accounts of its theatrical unveiling and exhibition, in 1859, seem almost mythical.

The painting was displayed in an oversized walnut frame onto which curtains had been strung so that the unveiling would give the effect of a window being drawn open. The space was dimly lit with dark fabrics draping the surrounding walls to absorb the ambient light. The painting was lit by gas lights that were directed onto the picture by silver reflectors, and being the only object in the room receiving direct light, the picture reflected light back onto the audience giving the impression that the thing was being lit from within. Some accounts claim that Church filled the space with indigenous flora he had brought back from South America, but there is some discrepancy on that. It is known, however, that viewers were required to sit on benches and were provided with opera glasses to examine the painting's details from afar.
 
Among the first installation pieces in the history of Modern Art, the picture was a sensation.
 
Church's canvas had a significant effect on its viewers; a contemporary witness wrote:

women felt faint. Both men and women succumb[ed] to the dizzying combination of terror and vertigo that they recognize[d] as the sublime. Many of them will later describe a sensation of becoming immersed in, or absorbed by, this painting, whose dimensions, presentation, and subject matter speak of the divine power of nature.

For the three weeks it was on display in Church's studio, more than 12,000 people flocked to see it, for which they would willingly pay a 25-cent admission fee. The painting would soon thereafter go on tour, first of London then of the United States. When it reached St. Louis, it was seen by Samuel Clemens, who would rave that, "You will never get tired of looking at the picture, but your reflections--your efforts to grasp an intelligible Something--you hardly know what--will grow so painful that you will have to go away from the thing, in order to obtain relief. You may find relief, but you cannot banish the picture--it remains with you still." He was 25 at the time.
 
The thing eventually sold for $10,000, the highest price anyone had ever paid for the work of a living American artist. But that may be the least interesting part of the story for me. It's a story I think of so often when looking at art today, and while I can't remember seeing it then, or even before then, when I think back on that day and The Quintet of Remembrance, the moving image that in a dark room felt like a living painting, my thoughts quickly shift to the audiences who sat in the dark staring into the Heart of the Andes (a painting!) feeling themselves overcome by an emotional and physical response which they could barely even begin to classify, and I feel so fucking jealous. Not of Church, but of his audience, of their experience and, maybe more to the point, their capacity to have it. (And yeah, I'm probably pretty jealous of Church, too.)
 
It's not so much that I am jealous of their opportunity to view the piece in its original installation (although that would be pretty cool, and if anybody at the Metropolitan is reading this, just remember who it was that gave you the idea: Me that's who!), what I mean is that, even in the dark and with the assistance of tiny binoculars, part of me seriously doubts that I would even allow myself to be open to the kind of reaction the contemporary accounts describe. Maybe I'm too cynical, or maybe the opposite is true and I take the descriptions of the accounts too literally, but when I read phrases like "the dizzying combination of terror and vertigo" I can't help but look for that kind of reaction to a piece in my personal history, and I don't know if I can find it. And I really wish I could. I'd like to know that feeling.
 
There's a chapter in Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist that deals with the 1913 opening of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring (Lehrer later retold the story to Jad and Robert for an episode of Radiolab).  From the book, Lehrer describes the scene:
 

But spring, as T.S. Eliot pointed out is also the cruelest time. No sooner do lilacs emerge than the sweeping dissonance of Stravinsky's orchestral work begins, like "the immense sensation that all things experience at the moment when Nature renews its forms." In one of music's most brutal transitions, Stravinsky opens the second section of his work with a monstrous migraine of sound. Though the music has just started, Stravinsky is already relishing the total rejection of our expectations. Stravinsky called this section "The Augurs of Spring."
 
The "Augurs" don't go well. Within seconds, the bassoon's flowery folk tunes are paved over by an epileptic rhythm, the horns colliding asymmetrically against the ostinato. All of spring's creations are suddenly hollering for attention. The tension builds and builds and builds, but there is no vent. The irregular momentum is merciless, like the soundtrack to an apocalypse, the beat building to a fatal fortissimo.
 
This was when the audience at the premiere began to scream. The Rite had started a riot.

 
"For the audience," Lehrer claims, "Stravinsky's new work was the sound of remorseless originality." He goes on to weave this story and others into an interesting discussion on the topic of neuroplasticity and about the human brain's adaptability to new stimuli that may initially come as a shock. As proof, Lehrer offers that audiences did indeed warm to Stravinsky's new sound and The Rite, within a short time would be hailed a great success.
 
I bring this up because it's a great story, but also because I think it's analogous to the initial reactions to Heart of the Andes and how, today, I really question whether or not I could ever be affected in the same way. So much about seeing the Church would have been new to its audience. The scale, the subject, and the manner in which it was displayed, would have all felt distinctly foreign, even shocking. But the sad truth, if Lehrer is right, may be that our brains, or even our collective unconscious, have evolved beyond the point that we could even hope to will ourselves to see any of it as new again. Maybe it's not that we're cynical, but that we have become desensitized to the sublime.
 
But these stories, really whether they're true or not, remind us of what art can mean to us, of what it can be. They remind us that art itself can be a force of nature. They remind us of its bewitching power not simply to seduce or move us, but to shake and even startle us. To wield the disorienting force of spectacle, and to take us out of ourselves and will us to go in a direction of its choosing, often further than we would have ever been prepared to go on our own. And even today, there's got to be some hope in that.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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