April 20th, 2005 · 7 Comments · Writing

The Voyage of the Icebergs, Frederic Edwin Church, 1861

“The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
Ernest Hemingway, Death In the Afternoon

The museum is mostly empty. Except for a guard rocking sleepily on her heels the next room over, I am the only person in the painting gallery. I’ve skipped school again. When my bus let me off this morning, I looked both ways for teachers, and headed quickly in the other direction, towards the arts district.

Downtown Dallas is an empty showroom: all glass buildings and concrete with no pedestrian traffic. The one-way streets downtown are particularly deserted on a weekday mid-morning, and I walked to the museum with skyscrapers rising all around me, aware that many work-a-day eyes sealed behind tinted glass could spot me, truant.

The museum is free today, but I worried the guards might ask why I’m not with a class. I’m a student at the performing arts high school down the street, and we’re over here all the time. It’s one of the most talked about benefits of going to this high school: that we can walk to the museum for an impromptu lecture. It’s the kind of thing the parents love to hear about, that we can see Matisse during sixth period, but in reality, it’s a resource that lazy teachers use when they don’t feel like working up a lesson plan.

We’ve all been to this museum dozens of times, under dozens of pretenses. I’m a cellist, and I’ve been trotted over here to look at Kandinsky in relationship to Schonberg, or to talk about Charlotte Moorman playing Nam June Paik’s TV Cello. The truth is, it all washes over you about the same as that old black and white version of Romeo and Juliet the English teacher pulls out whenever he wants to read the newspaper in peace. Except when we go to the museum, we’re all just glad to be out of school and walking in the sunshine for a few blocks.

The first gallery of the Dallas Museum of Art has a giant tent peg with a rope attached, skewering the space. It’s as if there’s something big happening outside the room, a carnival or a revival, and we’re all a part of a flea circus, small and insignificant, waiting in the wings to go on stage. It’s a Claus Oldenburg piece, I know this because I’ve got a boyfriend who is into art, and I’m trying to impress him by learning the names of artists I like. Claus. Oldenburg. I practiced the name, rolling it off my tongue as I cruised past the artwork into galleries that have a little less traffic.

I’ve got this idea that if I just find a quiet enough gallery, I can settle onto a bench and veg out. I walk past the contemporary art rooms, with their blinky lights and walls of words, then the minimalism gallery with the blank canvases and solid objects sitting lonely in empty rooms. The ancient rooms — Egyptian, Roman, Greek — don’t hold my attention, and I keep walking. Just forty minutes or so before I have to be back at school, for pre-Calculus and then American History.

For some reason, it’s the 19th century painting gallery that really grabs me. Still lifes, bowls of fruit and feathers. Portraits of sad-looking young girls, holding their pose indefinitely while the painter captures their likeness. The prissy men in their bows and wigs don’t really interest me, but the women do. The women with their bare shoulders and fancy hair. Their eyes, glassy as marbles, with no light shining through. I walk past them, slowly, captivated by how long they’ve stayed still.

I turn the corner into a larger gallery, and there at the end is The Voyage of the Icebergs. This is the painting that the DMA is so proud of, always reproducing it in marketing campaigns, superimposing their gold-text acronym on the blank sky of the painting’s horizon. I’ve seen it many times before, always accompanied by some impassioned docent’s recounting of its near-destruction. How The Icebergs was dismissed when Frederic Edwin Church painted it in 1861, and how he’d then added the broken mast, and it sold to an Englishman and it disappeared for 116 years, only to finally came back into the public view in 1979, when I was four. I’ve grown up with this painting, so familiar to me that I can hardly see it at all.

Today, there is no one in the gallery but me, and there is a wooden bench sitting directly in front of the Church’s painting. I shed my backpack, propping it on the floor at my feet, and sit down. It’s a relief to have found a place to be still for a while: a quiet place. I’m tired, and I let my eyes drift across the painting lazily. When I’ve looked at this painting before, it’s always been a quick scan: a 19th century landscape of the artic ocean, with some icebergs in the water, and a broken ship’s mast.

Sitting there on the bench, I try something new: letting my eyes naturally enter the painting from the relative safety of the lower left corner, which appears to be land. The snow-covered surface offers a perception of stability in an environment where there is no real stability. Everything here is temporal and could crack at any moment. But it’s also eternal. Nothing changing. No human interaction, just still, cold silence. Even the ocean is suspended in greenish-blue ice.

From the safety of the ice-shelf, I am confronted with the iceberg across a deadly expanse of water. It’s that iceberg that did in John Franklin’s ship; it’s that iceberg that creates the tension in this story. The crow’s nest broken on the shelf is the only evidence of the tragedy. In fact, it’s the only evidence of any human interaction in this harsh environment. The wreckage is a reminder; a hint at what was once a promising voyage. Those men who died, they’re still down there, under the glassy surface of the water. Nature has swallowed them up whole.

It’s so cold in this painting. Bone chilling, unrelentlessly cold. It’s cold in the gallery too, with so much stone and concrete bouncing the air conditioning around me. It’s hot outside, humid, blowing heat from the Texas Indian summer. It’s still in the 100s, even though school has been in session for a few weeks. But the world inside this museum doesn’t recognize the heat outside.

Frederic Edwin Church’s deep water gives me whole body shivers. Staring into his dark ripples, there is no way of telling how far down the water goes, or what lies at the bottom. Someone once told me that there is nothing more interesting than something happening behind a wall, and I think that’s probably true for any surface that hints at some unrevealed mystery. The imagined shipwreck at the bottom of this frozen ocean, bodies flung in horrific angles, reaching towards the surface, tin cups and spyglasses strewn among the wreckage, is more horrible because it can’t be seen.

I have this recurring dream, that I’m stranded in artic waters at night. It’s the expanse beneath my feet that has me terrified, all that dark depth and unknown. Then, in the dream, my underwater feet are bumped, or brushed, by what I know for certain to be a shark. I figure that the only way I can keep away from the shark’s dangerous mouth is to grab hold of its dorsal fin and hang on, hoping it won’t decide to dive into the deep, where I will certainly drown.

Category: Writing

7 Comments so far ↓

  • h shack

    This seems serendipitous….
    I liked looking at Church’s painting while thinking about the satellite photo of a crashing iceburg I had seen on the news this morning.
    And a wonderful essay; if I were in school I would feel truly inspired to skip classes tomorrow and go to a museum!

  • Tibbie

    Isn’t it interesting how drawn we can be to a scene so foreboding? Church had such an interesting relationship with nature – instead of painting a landscape that emanates peace and tranquility – he paints the deady power of nature. I also like his painting of Niagara Falls. I don’t know why, besides the fact that I think it is beautifully painted and somehow being so close to something so wild and dangerous gives me a feeling of peace.
    p.s. You skipped school??

  • Meg

    Thanks for the iceberg satellite link, H. Hard to fathom how huge and powerful these things are in real life.
    The Niagara Falls painting IS great, thanks for pointing that one out, Mom. Interesting thought, that seeing danger in a safe context creates a sense of peace. I identify with that feeling as well. Do you think it’s universal?
    And… yes, I did skip school a time or two. But only when I thought I could find better uses for my time : )

  • twudancer

    That was beautiful. I love that feeling of looking at a painting and seeing what the artist must have seen or imagined. There was a painting at the Musee D’Orsay that I saw that did that for me. A painting of water and sky in the early morning. I have the name somewhere. Anyways, that was a lovely story. I love museums for all those details you mentioned. Sitting down gratefully, sliding the backpack off, eyes roving across uninteresting works until caught suddenly and irrevocably. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

  • Meg

    Thanks, twudancer! The D’Orsay is one of those museums on my “must-see” list; I can’t believe we’ve never been there!
    Are you one of the dancers we worked with on People, 29 Burdens? We have a real fondness for the dance department at TWU. It was a privilege to work with such dedicated and uncompromising dancers. You’ve got a great program there.

  • twudancer

    Yes, I worked with you on that project. If you remember us by names, mine’s Stephanie Willing. I was really glad to come across your weblog. I watched Talk To Her almost immediately afterwards, and it really was incredible as you’d written previously. I’ll be keeping up with what all you post. It’s always interesting!

  • Meg

    Hi Stephanie — of course we remember you, and quite fondly, too! Thanks for the compliments about the blog, glad you enjoy it. Talk to Her IS great, particularly if you dig dance. The Pina Bausch pieces that bookend the film are sumptuous and inspiring, all those dancers in the slow shuffle step across the stage. Stay in touch!

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