Connected \\ August 24, 2017
The Space Between: A sculpture’s lesson in love
It was one of those times when we were apart on holiday, missing each other over text messages, each spending time with our families, when I decided to visit a museum. She was spending the day with her high school best friends and I was spending mine trying to ignore the jealousy the was making my chest tight every time I checked my phone. Art has always been a part of my DNA — my parents, both architects, had taken me to art exhibits every two or three months since I was a child — and on this lonely, early afternoon I decided that I needed beauty. I thought that maybe it would soothe the jealousy, even slightly. Maybe seeing art would feel like being with her, at least a little. I took the ferry from downtown Boston to Salem, Massachusetts, and went to an exhibit on Rodin at the Peabody Essex Museum. I walked into the building, bought a ticket, walked up the stairs, and opened the door leading to the exhibit filled with beautiful casts, preliminary sketches, and plaster molds of the great sculptor’s work.
The cathedral (1908). Auguste Rodin. Photo: Daniel Stockman.
The very first piece I saw was a bronze cast of The Cathedral. When I laid eyes on it — the two bronzed hands stretching towards one another, wrapping around the air between them, making a ballet of the empty space — I cried out. I couldn’t help it. It was a soft and gentle cry, the kind no one would notice.
I stood transfixed by the beauty and simplicity of the sculpture. Many people walked right by it, more eager to stare at the casts of larger, perhaps more famous pieces, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the two hands. They, in their frozen longing, looking remarkably cathedral-esque, felt so familiar to me. I knew the space between hands. I felt how eternal not touching someone you loved could feel. I had felt it as I walked into the exhibit. I felt it in that moment. I was captivated by the way the sculpture plays with air. The negative space it creates is perhaps its most beautiful aspect. While the two right hands, belonging to two different figures, gently reach for each other, the fingers of one hand curving towards those of the other, they do not, at any angle, touch. Yet in this I saw no hint of tension, no desperation in the hands. I wondered how this could be. How eternal separation could look so gentle.
A young girl walked to the piece with her mom, read the description between the piece, and began walking around it, getting as many different angles as she could. I think she was looking to see if they touched. It was watching the young girl search for a point of contact that made me suddenly understand why The Cathedral had brought quiet tears to my eyes. There was such a contentedness in its trenchant, insistent separation. Not only that, there was beauty. It inspired a profound peace. The way Rodin controls the atmosphere between these hands was like a revelation to me. Empty space has its beauty. Empty space births a love all its own, capable of fascinating and inspiring the old and young. Separation can make a music out of emptiness. The space between a face leaning as close as it responsibly can and a sculpture, between a married couple standing only inches apart, between two young lovers separated by hours, can be immensely beautiful.
It would sound absurd to claim that The Cathedral cured my jealousy. If deep emotional conflicts were that easily resolved, therapists would simply diagnose weekly visits to the nearest art museum. I don’t know, though. Rodin’s work threw some powerful kind of switch in my head that day. Recognizing how wonderful a small separation can be shifted something within me. Isn’t that what great art is capable of doing? Rearranging the furniture of one’s mind? The Cathedral blessed me with a kind of wisdom that I carried with me after I left the Peabody Essex Museum. It was a kind of wisdom that helped me beat my jealousy back to its small, ancient cave. There are still moments, when she is too far away to whisper secrets to, that jealousy returns, but like a meditation, I turn my mind to The Cathedral. I see the space made sacrosanct between two palms, and I smile, and watch that sliver of jealousy recede and let my imagination make art of the space between.
Spencer Nitkey is a writer and student studying English, creative writing, and Education at Temple University.
This article originally appeared in the online publication Critical Read and is reprinted here with permission.