I grew up in a city of great museums, New York, and felt intimately close to many of them from a very early age because of countless school visits and trips with my parents. But it was only on a recent visit to London that I realized something extraordinary: art can heal me.
I was in London teaching in a summer abroad program for Michigan State University and had marvelous, hardworking, creative, and witty students. The two classes were small which made for an easy bond to develop among us, and I was thrilled to have my dream of teaching abroad finally come true.
Unfortunately,the circumstances weren't ideal. I'd injured my knee right before the trip. I had a surgeon's OK to travel, but I wore an uncomfortable knee brace, was in pain despite medication, and wasn't getting much sleep for the first few weeks of the trip. London was suffering under a heat wave, and my flat had no air conditioning. Not only that, it was a duplex, so I had to hobble up and down a narrow, wearying staircase more times than I could count every day.
And then one Sunday morning, when I was feeling momentarily better, I decided to venture to the Tate Britain Museum, which was very close to my flat in Pimlico. I had to take a cab there because the half mile walk would have hurt too much. I arrived at 10 a.m. when the museum opened, finding just a handful of people waiting to get in; they quickly scattered on their own missions. I had come to see the famed pre-Raphaelite collection -- and was crushed to discover those paintings were away on loan.
I wandered somewhat disconsolately, and then suddenly found myself in heaven: a roomful of Henry Moore sculptures. I knew Moore's work from books and having seen some statues in New York, but here was a whole family of them, so to speak -- and they were all mine. I wandered from one to the other, solitary and awed, for a good ten minutes, in utter silence. Then I sat down near my favorite one and just admired its enigmatic beauty.
I don't know how long I sat there. In all my many years of museum-going in New York, Chicago, D.C., Paris, Berlin, Munich, Bruges, Florence and other cities, I couldn't recall ever having quite so much time to simply revel in a great work of art alone. The tranquility of this cool, aquamarine figure radiated throughout the room and worked on me like a series of Chopin Nocturnes.
Contented and happy, I eventually moved off as other people entered, and in the next hall, was dumbstruck. All the way at the end in another gallery was a remarkable sculpture unlike anything I had ever seen. The closer I came to it, the more amazed I was. I'd heard of Jacob Epstein before, but had never heard of his remarkable, stunning 1941 sculpture Jacob and the Angel.
The massive work is carved from one giant piece of alabaster and when the sun shines down through skylights above, parts of the statue are translucent; other parts glow and the whole thing seems to be shimmering with frozen movement. The Genesis story in which Jacob wrestles with an angel all night and emerges with a new name, Israel, and a limp, has always been one of my favorites because it's so mysterious and otherworldly.
The statue did in fact radiate mystery and unearthly power both in form and texture. Despite its size, it felt strangely weightless, even timeless, and I felt transported, though I'm not sure where. I circled the statue, once again alone, feeling as if it were my own or a gift or a message. I caught a glimpse of Jacob's face. I read surrender there and peace. The struggle was over and the angel was holding him up.
It seemed ironic to be limping away myself when I couldn't take in any more of the statue's mysteries. But I felt infinitely lighter in spirit, and that day marked a real turning point for me in London, because I slept better, felt more relaxed, and even was able to tolerate my pain somewhat better.
For days afterwards, I carried around inside the feelings of transcendence, peace, and awe I felt at Tate Britain, and writing about it now, I can recall being lifted out of my own existence completely. I may have arrived there feeling battered and even broken, but I felt much closer to being whole when I left.