Rambling Post about Paintings

“Picasso – 50,000 works of art, including 1,885 paintings; 1,228 sculptures; 2,880 ceramics; 18,095 engravings; 6,112 lithographs; and approximately 12,000 drawings, as well as numerous linocuts, tapestries, and rugs, not to mention his letters, poetry and plays” If you count 60 years of productive art making that is 2.5 works per day.” Reliable source?

I got curious last night and wondered how many paintings there are in the world. This probably isn’t even an answerable question, but I was sure someone had attempted to calculate it. The answer I found was in the billions but I think that’s an underestimation. The wonderful/horrible days I wandered the pinacoteca of the Sforza Castle in Milan I saw thousands and that was only ONE of the immense collections of paintings in Milan.

The paintings hung in a dozen or more rooms and others were stored in sliding walls you could pull out and swing open similar to those you might find in a library. That was the year 2000, and the whole place was open to tourists. It was marvelous, unbelievable, beyond anything.

Even then… Even after wandering the galleries for days, I recall only two things, well, three things. I recall something left over from the medieval streets of a Lombardy town, a knife grinding machine and I remember an anonymous fresco of Vulcan. I also remember a painting of a pewter platter with John the Baptist’ head lying on it as if it were a ham.

Most paintings in “olden times” were not painted by super stars. I think of those days — days that lingered far into the 19th century — when in order to have a “memory” of a journey or a representation of anything someone had to paint it or draw it. That’s the kind of thing a person can “know” with that kind of sterile knowledge with which facts are stored and that’s how I knew it until I got a little book of ink drawings done by Goethe on some of his journeys. Then it penetrated my mind in a deeper way. If he wanted to have a visual souvenir of something he saw, he had to sit down and draw it. That’s where the whole idea of realistic images lived. “But it doesn’t look like that!”

The camera liberated artist from realism.

The other thing is that a person who WANTED to take home a representation of something or someone he’d seen on a journey would have to take the time to reproduce its image; would have to take the time to really SEE it.

So…billions of paintings and billions more every year. That’s my guess. And, since the past doubtless had paintings that have vanished and the future has paintings that have yet to exist, it seems pretty accurate to say there is an infinite number of paintings.

Here’s a little tour of the museum of the Sforza Castle. Last time I was there was 2004 and it was impossible to wander freely, but maybe that’s changed. https://www.keepcalmandwander.com/inside-the-sforza-castle-milan-italy/

P.S. Leonardo was the court painter of for Ludovico Sforza and his work is everywhere but in an ordinary way, not “OH MY GOD! LEONARDO” which is kind of cool. Also, in Milan, of course is The Last Supper.

Painting and Painting

When Goethe FINALLY found the resolve to run away from Weimar and go to Italy, he discovered so many things he had only dimly felt but hadn’t seen and couldn’t know, the vast number of talented artists whose names were unknown to the world. He was also aghast at the incredible quantity of religious paintings. For Goethe art was self-expression and he threw his bias over the world of Italian painting and concluded that artists would like to have painted something else, but were forbidden to.

When Goethe fled Weimar he was disenchanted with himself as a writer and wondered if he were not really meant to be a visual artist and he went to Italy in search of salvation as a creative being, his heart crushed by unrequited love, his mind clouded by what he feared was an inability to write. He’d had one rock-star success with Sorrows of Young Werther many years earlier and since?

I’ve mulled that over several times in the years since I read Italian Journey. I’ve wandered around parts of Italy myself looking at art, and I’ve seen some of what Goethe saw. Rather than fleeing unrequited love, I went to Italy to embrace it. Ha ha. Art was my redeemer during that strange trip, my rope out of an abyss of anger and disappointment. I had days and days to collect images and see time through that miraculous mirrored time tunnel of a really great art museum — the Pinacoteca in the Sforza Castle in Milan.

I was there before 9/11 and the entire art museum was open to the public including rooms of racks of paintings, the racks on wheels. You could pull out the racks and look at dozens of paintings.

Most were religious paintings. Some were exercises and commissions; others were much more.

I was thinking about that the other day, why the large painting of the crane and the woman, dog and tree are so different to me and people who’ve seen them. The experience of painting them was different, too. I like to paint things that a little risky (for me) and from which I’m going to learn something, and that something is usually about painting. Recently Facebook showed me posts showing the series of steps that led to this painting of an adobe potato cellar. It’s painted over a sunset I tried a few years ago. It was a challenging painting, but the challenge was mostly technical and improved my skills as a painter.

Two other paintings, the Tree and the Crane, are “religious” paintings. There’s no San Sebastian or John the Baptist’s severed head or Mary holding the infant Jesus, but entering each one was an act of faith for me. They were both MORE than most of my paintings had been, more than “Can I do this well?” They both challenged my ability as a painter, but they also demanded a certain journey into a psychological and spiritual unknown, each in a completely different way.

The crane painting is obviously a painting of a crane, and there was the challenge of the large canvas (4 feet x 3 feet), but it’s more than that. I wanted to paint the silence of the big empty under the silvery pre-snow sky. The moment I saw this in real life, the world was silent except for the sounds of cranes. I don’t have words to explain it, but I have long wanted to say to Goethe that the really great paintings are ALL religious paintings and the metaphors people had with which to paint their inner spiritual reality have always come from their world. A world in which the Christian allegory is as potent as hunger will render its spiritual self in those images. It’s more than painting well. There is a mystery behind it.

Matthias Grünewald

Goethe never went to those places with his visual art. He DID go there with Faust and attempted an even more profound journey with Faust, Part II. I’m not sure that the person looking art or reading something is aware of the journey the artist takes in the process.

A finished work is an almost sterile coda to the experience of attempting to show, attempting to say. It’s one experience for the artist, another for the consumer of art. But some works of art allow the consumer inside, if only for a moment. I experienced this with Leonardo’s Last Supper which, in all its ruin and restoration is still way beyond a painting. As Goethe noted, it is a force.

Featured photo: On the Tiber above Rome, opposite the Villa Madama Johann Wolfgang von Goethe



I love this word. Thank you!!!

I have always had this dis-ease. Less now than in earlier years, but still. It’s funny how small we think the world is when we’re young and overcome with “fernweh.” We learn when we’re older what an immense thing it is, how complex and intricate, how lovely, intoxicating and scary.

Here’s the thing about fernweh. We might have ideas about where we long to go, but when we GET there the places are always three dimensional. I think there are as many wandering styles as there are people. I’ve been lucky to have had a Swiss/Italian family of my own for a while. It’s a long probably fascinating story how that happened, but what a wonder and gift it was, has been to me. It was during that time of my life that I learned that I like BEING in a place long enough or often enough that it becomes more than a dot on a map to me. I think, in a way, I haven’t traveled around; I’ve traveled into.

The other evening I was talking to a friend about the opera. I was rhapsodizing about attending the opera in the Arena in Verona back in 2004. The Arena is a Roman amphitheater and as I talked to my friend I heard myself yearning to BE there.

We talked about the difference between opera in Italy and in the United States. I’d told him that I’d thought of going to the Santa Fe Opera (2 hours away!) which is a world class opera, but when I priced out everything it was almost the same as traveling to Verona to go to the opera.

“You know why? Because here the opera is only for fancy, snotty rich people. In Italy it’s part of life.”

I agreed. I cherish the image of sitting on the sun-warmed marble seats of the Arena waiting for Madame Butterfly to begin. Everyone around us was talking laughing, some had brought a picnic supper. It was the most wonderful atmosphere. And those magical seats were only something like $6.

It was the second opera I’d attended in the Arena. The first was Aida which Verdi first performed in the Arena. I bought fancy close-in seats with backs and arms. It was OK, but NOTHING compared to those marble seats that had held Roman asses. At the end of the Madame Butterfly, a storm came up and we had to leave. Part of the experience was hurrying down the stone steps in the dark, tunnel-like stairwells down which Romans had poured in their time.

Since then, they’ve built a cover for the Arena so people aren’t chased out by rain. Personally, I think that’s a pity.

Once outside, having said “Ciao!” to my schoolmates (it was my last night in Verona and this had been kind of a party), I turned toward home, an apartment on the other side of the Adige. I walked up the hill to the bridge. the river was lined with Linden trees all in bloom. I stood on the bridge watching the river, immersed in the fragrance of the trees, knowing that I would always remember being chased out of the Arena by rain and ending up alone watching rain hit the Adige.

No tourist guide anywhere mentions anything like that.


Courage and Faith

I’ve been semi-writing the little story I’m working on now (I don’t think it’s going to end up being a little story) for more than a year. It’s been somewhere in my mind since 1999.

This whole year — 2019 — I was deeply involved in three projects — finishing The Price, keeping my vow to the young woman I was 40 years ago to finish HER story, and then the China book. But always this project hung around like a dog who wants to live with me.

Now that I’m finished being famous (at least for this year) and all the broo-ha-ha of the holidays is distilling into the actual holidays I’m “stuck” with the project. I surrendered to it a couple of weeks ago and started just getting down to it every morning. It meant back-tracking, mostly, and getting reacquainted with the story as I have known it so far. It’s kind of nice to look at writing that way — kind of from the outside but with the ability to improve it because it’s yours. I found a lot of small inconsistencies, like characters nodding in response to a blind man. OH WELL…

But as I worked, I felt the story take hold of me. The dates began to line up and dead ends in my research. If you write about the early/mid 13th century you find out that — 1) not a lot remains, 2) not a lot was recorded, 3) people in those days didn’t keep great records; they didn’t have paper and it seems that what mattered most were finances and God, 4) they had no idea I’d be writing about them; I’m sure if they did, they’d have been more thorough. 😀

I began with the idea of showing something of the life of the Goliards, and that’s still my course, but it looks like there will be much, much more. I’d hoped to write a novel that had nothing to do with religion, but it looks like that’s not going to happen this time. When a writer finds his/her characters he/she has to submit to their lives. A writer can start out — here’s a guy and what he/she does — but once that’s happened, I think maybe particularly with historical fiction — the times capture the character, and he/she goes off to live in his/her world taking the writer with him/her.

It’s not much fun writing when you don’t know where your story is going. It’s easy to say, “Well THAT’S not happening,” when it doesn’t feel like it’s happening. More than once I’ve experienced that, and it’s not easy to keep going. But I’ve also experienced that if I keep going, it’s going to tell me what it is and where I have to take it. That’s where this story arrived the day before yesterday. Sometimes I wonder if I write my stories or if they just use me.


I like Italy, but I’ve had so many Italian experiences I don’t know where to start or what to write. I don’t know how it happened that Italy and Italians took such a large role in my life, but that’s how it happened.

I’ve been in Italy several times — I haven’t traveled around much as I tend to be more an “intensive” than “extensive” traveler. I like to BE somewhere for a while and get to know it and experience some of daily life. In 2004 I decided to follow Goethe to Verona — the first place on his Italian Journey where he saw an actual Roman ruin. Now that I’ve been around a bit, that seems kind of odd since the Romans were everywhere, but that’s his story and if he likes it, that’s fine.

In Verona is an amphitheater where all the usual bread and circus stuff took place some millennia back, but more recently, at the end of the 19th century, Giuseppe Verdi thought it might be cool to stage his new opera — Aida — in the Arena.

In 2004 I got to hear it and it was really wonderful to be in that place as the sun set and the music came up — the spectacle directed by Franco Zefferelli. I was in Verona for a month, studying Italian and wandering around so I went to see Madame Butterfly, too. For Aida I bought expensive seats. For Madame Butterfly I sat on the sun-warmed marble seats carved carefully for the comfort of ancient Romans. A lot more comfortable and way more fun!


Me Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly, Verona Arena, 2004


A storm came up in the last act and they cleared the Arena. As I walked down the steps leading outside, I could really imagine hundreds of ancient Romans leaving some gladitorial rout. Outside, the rain fell gently and I walked back to my apartment, under the fragrant Linden blossoms across the Adige. Thinking of it now, I cannot choose what of all of that was most lovely.




One thing in the presidency of The Donald is seeing how he and his wife redecorate the White House. I’m imagining all kinds of Roccoccocccoccco embellishments, great ostentatious displays of gilt and leather. I think he could give the Mad Prince Ludwig a run for his money. With Bill Clinton we had effing IN the Oval Office, with The Donald we could have the complete effing UP of the Oval Office. It will be interesting to see. Anyway, there won’t be any of those understated neutrals familiar to anyone who has watched the TV series House of Cards. I anticipate plenty of sinister maneuvering, though, I understand, House of Cards was based, somewhat, on The Clintons.

Ambition, insecurity and ostentatiousness — they seem to go together.

In 2004, I was in Munich. Only two nights, two jet-lagged nights and two full days (I arrived early in the morning). During the second day I was taken to Nymphenburg Palace by a docent I met at an art museumThis art museum in Munich is one of the few civic (as opposed to prison) buildings remaining from Hitler’s fascist architectural frenzy. It’s a nice art museum; well laid out, and I’m glad they didn’t tear it down.


House of Art, Munich

Anyhoo, the docent — a very nice and intelligent guy — met me and we went by tram to the palace. I didn’t know anything about it. I knew only about the Mad Prince from a mad friend years ago who believed he was the reincarnation of that singular person.

In the carriage house of the palace were, uh, carriages. They were all gilt and embellishment, so much so that I thought they looked like vomit. I don’t know how to explain that except there was so much stuff there that the decoration seemed to have no purpose or design. It was decoration piled on decoration piled on decoration piled on decoration. I thought at the time that they were hideous and I said so, shocking the docent and possibly hurting his feelings.

Munich was far more than I could wrap my head around. This palace, the art museum, the nearby prison camp (that I did not visit), the press of history, of repeated tyranny, of time. I was happy to leave. My true destination on that journey was Verona where I would study Italian and look at frescoes. During that journey, I would visit a villa that had, in WW II, belonged to a Nazi general. I would also wander through a formal garden which Goethe had loved. Time pressed against me less heavily there, even with the Roman amphitheater in the middle of the city, the centuries of paintings, the history of conquest and the ultimate receding of the conquerers.