In the 90s there was a skit on SNL about a bunch of big-haired southern ladies visiting the Louvre. My sisters and I referred to these types as “Q-tip heads,” since their hair was so firmly lacquered and cottony. They were a type we knew all too well, having spent the majority of our non-school hours in a big southern baptist church halfway between Fort Worth and Dallas. My favorite joke in this skit is drawled by Cheri O’Teri, “Why would I come all the way to Paris to see these paintings when I have them on my placemats at ho-ome?” It was a reminder that consumerism (especially that particularly tasteless brand of consumerism vaunted in the suburbs) had replaced culture in America, and it was funny. I’m sure it was especially so to the art-historically educated, whose second-favorite pastime (after reading mind-numbingly dense academic texts) is scoffing at the kitsch appropriation of famous paintings for reproduction on any number of household items.
The only problem with the joke is that it ignores the idea of ‘visual resonance,’ which is one of my personal favorite art-theory word mashups. It brings to mind the resonance of sound, the physical vibration of a booming drum that lingers both in the ears and in the body long after the striking of the instrument. In art, it’s the reason why symbols are so effective. They become like a visual echo, a shorthand for some idea gong that was previously struck in our brains.
Visual resonance is especially important when it comes to viewing famous works of art; we pay special attention to a work that has been reproduced over and over again. (Hence the long lines to see a tiny portrait of a certain Italian noblewoman at the afore-mentioned Louvre) If it’s on our placemats, or our coffee mug, we know it in it’s shorthand form- as a symbol for what is culturally important. Which brings me to the present exhibition at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and a special moment of “visual resonance” for me.
As a little girl, John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Lady Agnew Lochnaw stared with intensity from the cover of a perfumed book of poetry owned by my mother. Her face was both straightforward and mysterious, and her clothes were a gauzy contrast to her unquestioning, serious gaze. I spent a lot of time trying to disentangle the love poems inside the book, but not one line remains in my memory. And yet when I saw Lady Agnew Lochnaw from a Metroplex billboard advertising the exhibition, it was like bumping into an old friend. In person, I learned details of the painting that were incapable of being reproduced: like the electric blue that pinpoints the color of light reflected on diamonds, and the exact murky shade of Lochnaw’s intelligent eyes. It was soul-shaking proof of the power of visual resonance. The echo of that image in my mind had created a unique pathway for me to experience the piece, both as a cultural symbol and a personal one. Instead of encountering it without background, I had the luxury of being surprised by the physical beauty and mastery of Sargent’s painting.
This isn’t to say that we can’t fully experience art without a foundation of visual resonance of course, but rather that we are especially attuned to these often reproduced images; we know their rhythms and can better suss out nuances in the physical works. This is a special kind of pleasure, even though it takes a bit of the fun out of scoffing at the kitsch.