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Neena’s Favorite Piece In MAG’s Collection

By Neena Narayanan, University of Rochester student, Class of 2009

Everyone always wants to know what “your favorite” is. Your favorite color. Your favorite book. Your favorite football team. You favorite artist. As if by choosing what we would prefer above all others we are conveying something of deep significance about who we are.

When you’re in elementary school picking a favorite is easy. Ask the average 2nd grader what their favorite color is and within seconds you’ll have your answer. Of course it may change over the course of the next hour, but in that one moment of time, they’ll be able to tell you exactly what color they prefer above all others in the rainbow.

It was with an attempt to channel that cutthroat determinism that I stepped into the Memorial Art Gallery one quiet Saturday morning. “Favorite painting –” I whispered to myself, tripping through the silent rooms. “Which of you,” I asked, (very quietly of course), “is my favorite painting?” Which of the gallery’s permanent collection would be the one that would stand out. And when I found it, what would it mean that above all others, I had chosen to label it “favorite.”

However as I walked through the light and airy rooms, contemplating each piece as carefully as if they contained the meaning of life, I was continually disappointed. With each new painting my 2nd grade determination faded into a more adult confusion. What would my choice say about me? Would a Monet work mean I was a drippy sentimentalist? Would a Degas mean I only liked things pretty and romantic? A Cézanne might suggest I like life a little disorganized while a Rembrandt might mean I like life pastoral. I was so wrapped up with what picking a favorite meant, that I failed to give any painting a chance to speak for itself.

Just as I was about to give up the whole “favorite” thing as a bad idea and pick a modernist piece with bubble gum colors and brushy work just for the fun of it I passed a dark muddy portrait. Something about the glowing forehead of the subject drew me back to this frame.

77103_a1I stepped closer to Pietro Paolini’s Portrait of a man Holding the Frontispiece to Dürer’s “Small Passion” and stared up into the young man eyes. Simply put, I was astounded. Not only by the prodigious skill and dramatic palette but because out of all the Rembrandts, Monets, Degas’, and Cézannes this young man, mid-contemplation, should stop me in my tracks, should present himself as the sought after “favorite.”

Frankly the young man depicted is just not my type; pale and with long hair, he is rather unattractive. Nor am I usually a fan of dark and deeply contemplative works. At first glance the canvas is almost muddy, the black habit of the seated figure blending into the background. Finally the strong illumination of the young man’s head appears almost ridiculous; a glowing egg in the middle of a grubby gloom.

I crossed my arms and stepped backwards determined to examine my new favorite carefully and figure out why it struck me so. Soon I began to see why such a simple composition and scholarly young man could be so arresting.

Paolini uses strong lighting and careful positioning of his figure to make an elementary composition enticing. His symbolic illumination of the young man’s forehead suggests the subject is an intellectual, while the severity of his dress suggests he could be a man of cloth. The viewer might conclude that the subject was a nerd, a rather dull person lacking in passion. The type of guy who would never kiss a girl prefering to contemplate a woodcut rather than flirt with a woman.

Yet it is in his face, his turned frame, his beautifully depicted hand, that I found so much more. Closer inspection reveals a shining intelligence behind dark, sensitive eyes. They’re shadowed giving the man an aura of mystery. His right thumb seems to be tensed, as if gripping his book tighter, in surprise, at seeing you behind him. His dramatically turned head and slightly opened mouth suggests you interrupted him, mid-thought, perhaps about to speak, to tell you about something that engaged him.

I soon realized that the quiet genius of this painting, the reason why in a hall of masterpieces this work stuck itself in my brain, is that Paolini gave his portrait something many works lack: personality. This strange, pale, intellectual, possesses a compelling humanity. Like the Mona Lisa he draws us in, yet keeps us at a distance.

Aesthetically although this painting may not be prominent historically it is a gem that will remain in my heart forever.

Comments

Comment from Ruth
Time: April 2, 2009, 10:57 pm

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Ruth

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