Alone in the museum

by Barbara Maria Rathbone


Las Meninas

Do we really view life from all its sides?  We have our own to think of and the collective chaos that surrounds us as today’s news – rage in Tehran,   the enjoyment of all day electricity in Kabul,  the relatively minor puddles of diseased polemic that appear in Westminster on a daily basis, bear down very little, even though we are truly in the thick of it.  It is all selective of course, we elect the perspectives of life that grip us – family life, a career, the amorphous hedonism of living one week to the next.  Enough has been written on ‘Las Meninas’, the Velasquez painting, which questions whether we are the viewers or the viewed (arguably the greatest painting in the world) for me to add to much, as Foucault did so well in ‘The Order of Things’, but I think this painting represents an everyday shock, and thought of it particularly today.  For it shows things removed from us and opens spaces in existence that we so often overlook – it makes us question our place in all of this.  Life is far more dangerous, yet more exciting, when the safety of our personal docile mission as a part of it is removed.

For example, one of my favourite films in recent years is Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck’s ‘The Lives of Others’, the story of a Stasi surveillance officer’s increasing engagement and empathy with a free-thinking playwright, who is the subject of his surveillance.  The focus of his intense and elaborate regard of the daily life of the writer begins to awaken something profound in Ulrich Mühe’s Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler‘s imagination, trapped in a tiny, discreet life buried in the offices of his calling.  It is an enchanting and captivating, yet unerringly simple portrayal of a man opened up to the freedom of the world and all that is in it – all we must take responsibility for.

Dare to be alone in the museum and watch the representation of others as Wiesler does.  Cut yourself out of the painting and see what others might, challenge the existential  kink that puts us in one life rather than another.  Imagine the enjoyment of the neon that illuminates the streets of Kabul that were once sullen and dark, learn what it is to fight for democracy, to write without fear of death, to paint what you see, and recite your pain, when you have been silenced for too long.

\’The Lives of Others\’ excerpt.