My first memory of art was in a dictionary, when I used to gaze dreamily at a portrait by Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, a woman wearing a white cap, standing by a table covered with a blue cloth pouring milk…I was so fascinated by the painting, by the humble tranquil atmosphere and the basket of bread that resembled ours…and the dancing light on the maid’s face and arm. I knew nothing about this Vermeer but the few lines in the dictionary that never satisfied my curiosity: “a Dutch painter, born in Delft, his paintings, mostly about everyday life and domestic scenes were characterized by use of subtle light ”
Johannes Vermeer was my first inspiration, even his name had poetry or so I thought. After The Milkmaid I started a notebook and wrote about every painter I discovered. I made sure I kept it well hidden from my family.
My mother never understood why I spent most of my day holding that heavy dictionary just staring at paintings, I was a mercurial child and a picture could easily define and change my mood!! So my discoveries continued with Dutch art, some paintings by a mysterious looking guy called Rembrandt and another with an ironic look called Van Gogh.
My friends outside were so far from my world as a million star years. I remember their looks, half sarcastic half pitiful on a girl always lost in reverie, befriending ghostly figures in a dictionary and talking about places they never heard of.
I was always asking: how can this famous Van Gogh paint such a naïve painting like les douze tournesols? I can do it better!! What was le jeune homme au gilet rouge of Cézanne thinking?
Of course my childish mind always separated and catalogued them: the cheerful ones like the only painting by Rénoir that made me so fond of Paris le Moulin de la galette and those beautiful ballerinas in la classe de dance by Degas. The sad ones like femmes de Tahiti by Gauguin. Eespite the suggestive earthy colours of those exotic women I couldn’t miss the touch of melancholy on their faces. Géricault frightened me with his méduse so did the painting of Goya el tres de Mai that reminded me of my history classes about the Algerian revolution. Les mendiants made me cry and have nightmares (with all respect to Bruegel l’ancien). I hated the dismembered people and the cruelty of the act, but those who evoked me the most were those that made my fertile imagination drift even more.
When I walk back home from school I close my eyes and imagine myself walking with the couple in la route de Louveciennes despite the difference between Pissaro’s perfect painting and my village disappointed me, it gave me extreme pleasure, only equaled by floating with Chagal.’s women in autour d’elle a name I found extremely romantic. Nothing matched that serene blue bathed in moonlight and those strange looking women I wanted so bad to look like.
I loved the fantasy in autour d’elle but another painting made me laugh and cemented the impression that this Picasso used squares and triangles only!! Because I always loved the light sprinkled on Rénoir’s canvas…Musiciens aux masques was as funny as humorous, because I never knew any instrument but the guitar, or who those three men were and never saw the dog under the table until recently.
I was drowning bit-by-bit in this world of colours, I knew Kandinsky, Caravaggio, Durer and Poussin and their names had a sensual sonority for my Arabic ear, not that I could pronounce them correctly because I could only manage the French ones. I continued to dream about the Louvre and cities I can visit when I become older. I continued to have my nocturnal conversations with Vermeer, Cézanne and Rénoir and make my own versions of la route de louveciennes and
Vlaminck’s nature morte, this widened the gap between me and my friends who thought that I was weird and treated me suspiciously, my mother still couldn’t understand my attachment to this dictionary I wasn’t using to explain difficult words.
These memories came rushing back the moment I finished reading Tracy Chevalier’s novel Girl With a Pearl Earing, a gift from my beloved uncle who lives in Italy.I am still faithful to my Vermeer but through another equally mesmerizing painting la Joconde du Nord, and I know more about the art world now, my childish impressions and convictions are dramatically changed now. I can pronounce those names perfectly and I have wonderful friends who share my enthusiasm and passion.
But…despite internet and the thick art catalogues of le Figaro in my aunt’s library, despite the documentaries, TV shows and the long biographies I can read for hours, that dictionary still has the favour and a dear place in my heart, heavy, torn in places with its red cover and a single Arabic word written in black…
… that was my first art class.
– Imen Benyoub
© 2013, essay and photograph(below), Imen Benyoub, All rights reserved
Illustrations courtesy of Imen Benyoub
IMEN BENYOUB ~ is a milti-lingual, multi-talented essayist, poet, and artist living in Guelma, Algeria. She is a regular contributor to Into the Bardo.
12 thoughts on “very private thoughts”
What a joy, Imen, to travel with you from childlike wonder to adult appreciation and meaning. Thank you for a lovely piece and welcome to Bardo.
thank you soo much Jamie..for sharing my piece, am delighted to be part of your family here..and so happy..<3
“…a picture could easily define and change my mood!!” That’s still true of me to some extent…is that a childlike thing, projecting yourself into pictures and drama and stories? A way to try out the world, explore possibilities? Is that artistic or merely dreamy? Or both? Compassionate, empathic perhaps?
Imen Benyoub, I’ve enjoyed reading your essay. I love to read about art appreciation and art perception as much as art history. It is wonderful to read about what art does to people. The downside of being aware of how much art means to people is getting cross with governments that closed museums and stop subsidizing orchestras and art schools.
Art is there; at the start of life, in the middle and at the end. We need art.
Lovely piece, Imen. To mark aspects of our lives through various paintings or pieces of music etches those moments into our souls.
Wonderful reflections, Imen…art touches us in so many deep ways when we allow it to become a part of us. You make me think of some of the pieces that touched me at an early age.
Thank you for sharing your story!
Vermeer is one of my very favorite artists–his mastery of mood and light, and also the fact that he was depicting every day life. I read that there are only something like 18 of his paintings in existence today, but on a recent trip to New York, by going to several museums, we were able to see half of them.
thank you so much everyone for reading..I never had the chance to visit art museums as a child,so I created my own gallery with only the paintings I knew at that time, not too many but enough to ignite my passion for everything that is “art” starting with canvas and paint..I remember i spent time making copies, and dreaming of museums..it was my escape where i had peace with myself because my childhood was not always happy..xx
Thoroughly beautiful recollecting of youth’s first loves– that’s what they are to me. I’ve enjoyed these grandiose talents! Have often covered my room with them, and equally loved the book The Girl With the Pearl Earring. Blessings ~Debbie
Jamie, This piece reminded me of the many hours I spent in the school library gazing at art books and filled with curiosity and wonder. Thank you!
It is a lovely piece. Not mine though. It’s Imen Benyoub’s, one of our young new additions. Delightful! Thanks for commenting, Michael. I hope today finds you well. Jamie
I am so grateful to see how –across the world— the same capacity for wonder comes so often as we struggle to learn from our parents, artists, poets, great teachers — these are the experiences that magically stun us and wake us up!