The experiential test of whether this art is great or good, or minor or abysmal, is the effect it has on your own sense of the world and of yourself. Great art changes you. – Sister Wendy Beckett
The inspiration for this blog entry came from a discussion in the comments over at SandraC’s blog that made me want to introduce Sister Wendy to anyone who hasn't "met" her yet! “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting” is a BBC series that I watched on PBS when it was first shown in the 1990’s and then I bought the videotapes so I could watch it again and again. It's such an awesome series. Sister Wendy is one of my heroes because she talks about art from her heart and from the perspective of the bigger picture (why art is important, how art can enrich our lives). She's such a fascinating woman and a great teacher.
But what an unlikely TV personality she is! Sister Wendy lives a “contemplative life” of complete seclusion and prayer in a little trailer on the grounds of a monastery in the U.K. She became a nun at age 16, went to university and taught for a while, and then in 1970 at age 40, she went into seclusion. A contemplative life includes two hours of work a day, and Sister Wendy’s work for several decades was studying art on her own. She published a few articles and somehow was discovered by the BBC who took her on the road all over Europe (and later, America) to make these wonderful shows.
She’s an amazingly free thinker (for a nun!), a great storyteller, and she can be very funny and surprising. One thing that makes the series so powerful, I think, is the fact that she’s such an art lover and when they were filming her, she was seeing many of her favorite paintings for the first time in person, and you can tell that she’s very moved at times.
One of the things I've learned from her is how to really look at art. She doesn’t call it “Slow Art” but that’s what she means. Here’s her advice:
…go to a museum and look at no more than two or three works, perhaps even two or three taken at random. Look at them. Walk backwards and forwards between them. Go and have a cup of coffee. Come back again. Wander around the museum. Come back again. Go to the shop. Buy postcards of them. Look again, and go home. At home, look at the postcards. Borrow from the library books on these artists. Go back again.
Eventually you will find they open up like one of those Japanese paper flowers in water. You have to expend time and energy. If you don't want to do that, you can still get a lot of enlightenment and entertainment by just wandering around, but you'll never get the deep spiritual nourishment.
It’s such great advice and it’s one reason why I like to look at art in churches more than in museums - when there’s less to choose from, it’s easier to focus on one or two paintings. I try to visit my favorite paintings more than once, and I always buy the postcards so I can keep in touch with the paintings I love when I get home.
“Story of Painting” is five-hours long, divided into ten 30-minute episodes. It begins in ancient times with the paintings in the Caves of Lascaux in France and moves all the way up to modern times. You can buy or download it on Amazon, or rent it from Netflix. It’s part of a set called "Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection” which includes a few other shows she made with the BBC:
Sister Wendy’s Odyssey (she visits museums all over the U.K.)
Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour (she goes to Venice, Florence, and Rome and other places in Europe)
Sister Wendy’s Pains of Glass (the stained glass in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge)
I also have the DVDs of her series “Sister Wendy’s American Collection.” This is six episodes, one hour each, and in each one, she visits a different museum in the U.S.:
The Art Institute in Chicago
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth Texas)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC)
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
This series is interesting because she doesn’t just focus on paintings, she talks about Native American pottery, Oriental and Egyptian sculpture, and even a silver bowl made by Paul Revere.
She’s written a bunch of books and the companion book to “Story of Painting” is a great reference. I also like “Sister Wendy’s 1,000 Masterpieces” - a big glossy coffee table book with beautiful reproductions; in this one, she selected two paintings from each of 500 artists and writes about them. It’s fun to read and interesting to see what two paintings she chose for some of the more famous and prolific painters. She’s able to go into more depth in her books but really, I prefer the TV shows because I like to see her standing in front of the actual painting while she’s talking (and I like to hear her talk!).
All great art is a visual form of prayer. - Sister Wendy
Here’s a photo of her outside her home (she calls it a caravan). I scanned this in from one of her books.