The artist at work

Tucked away in the hills above Lake Geneva is a museum called the Fondation Martin Bodmer. When visiting Geneva early this year, my husband off-handedly suggested I plan a few things, and this museum was the first on my list. When M offhandedly suggests something, I receive it as just that—a suggestion. Nothing else went on the list, which became a source of marital strain when we found ourselves wandering aimlessly with no plans for dinner, transportation, or entertainment. Thank goodness I didn’t take charge of accommodation. My “plans” tend to be rather fluid, or in M’s words “non-existent”.

It was a tense few days. We spent a lot of time on our feet with three hungry children and a vague idea of where we were going. We might need family counseling to recover. We also needed a bench and few bottles of water after the thirty minute hike up-hill to the museum. You can imagine the children’s delight to learn not only was water unavailable, but the Fondation is a literary museum, housing original manuscripts spanning centuries. In other words, old books in funny languages. I don’t think I’m winning a mother of the year award anytime soon.

 The museum houses a collection of ancient texts, original manuscripts, musical scores, and first editions by authors such as Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Melville.  I teared up when I came across a piece of sheet music written in Mozart’s own hand.  Something about seeing smudged ink on paper humanized his act of creation—humanized his art—an art which often feels a bit out of my realm of understanding. It felt more real to me in the seeing than it ever has in the listening. I felt the same way when I came across a handwritten rough draft by Antoine de Saint Exupéry. The manuscript showed where he revised a thought here and removed a line there, how he shaped and molded it across the page. I’ve always wanted to climb into the mind of the artist, to see how they enflesh their vision, and this was probably as close as I’ll ever get. I can’t read music, or French for that matter, but I can read heart and soul and so many of the handwritten works contained that element for me.

 

Sometimes I find it hard to remember real, live people lived behind the art, especially when the art is older than the town I live in. Hands once held the pen that wrote the words, eyes once captured the scene before it appeared on a canvas, souls once heard the bend and bow of the music before it ever reached my ears. It puts skin on the art when we remember; it lived in an artist first. I don’t understand the genius behind it, but it fascinates me. Intimidates and fascinates. And I wonder how much is the result of talent, and how much the result of trying, and how much is a result of fine-tuning their hearing enough to make out the echoes of our Creator’s voice. Because I think true art is an echo of things past and things to come.

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