Concerning the exhibit “Emotions – Painted Feelings in the Golden Age,” now showing at the Frans Hals Museum, some of the newspaper headlines I read were: “Emotions, by the Old Masters,” “Pain and Pleasure in the Golden Age,” and “Sigh, Emotions are so Difficult” (Haarlems Dagblad, 11 Oct, 2014). This last one really caught my eye and made me wonder why emotions tend to be an uncomfortable subject for so many of us.
I felt curious to find out more about the exhibit and to learn about how emotions were “handled” a few hundred years ago. Evidently, there was nothing more important to painters of the 17th and 18th centuries than to bring emotion to the viewer – this was the sign of success, whether it be a smile, tears, disgust – in other words, real conveyance and real effect.
Odd then that until now, emotions hasn’t been used as a theme for any museum exhibits. Or perhaps it’s not so odd, given the “difficulty” we tend to have with the subject, or with our experience of emotions especially in a public setting.
Perhaps I’m a tad sensitive to this notion. I recently gave a 4-day training to a nonprofit organization on the use of Nonviolent Communication skills in advocacy work. Many times, very personal issues came to the forefront – and along with it – some deep emotions. This was quite unexpected and uncomfortable for some of the participants. It was a reminder to me that most of us just don’t deal with feelings in an outward way. They’re there all of the time, residing in our bodies, feeding us constant information about our needs, e.g. for safety, support, mourning, celebration (this list could get very long).
What was most interesting about my visit to the emotions exhibit was how engaged my eight-year-old daughter was. Like most young children, she has very little difficulty with feelings – she’s very aware of them, expresses them easily and then she moves right on to the next set and then the next set. So, talking about the painted emotions and her own reactions to each painting seemed as easy as breathing for her.
Credit goes to the Frans Hals Museum for developing something along the lines of a treasure hunt for kids. On a single piece of paper, there are 10 cropped images which can be found in one of the many paintings. Once she found it, she answered three questions:
- What is the emotional theme of the room?
- What emotion do I see in the painting?
- What do I feel when I look at this painting? (this one she added herself)
It was a fascinating adventure for us. What we learned is that the emotions depicted in the paintings don’t necessarily convey to the viewer. We have filters that interpret what we see into thoughts. These thoughts then determine how we feel at that moment. Here’s a few examples:
My daughter saw in one painting a man laughing with his mouth open, teeth showing. She got that happiness was the intended emotion. Yet her interpretation of the painting was that he was surely making fun of some other person.. and this thought led her to feel quite sad herself.
In another painting she saw the intended rage/revenge emotion in a woman’s face and all my daughter could feel while looking at it was very scared. We didn’t dwell long in that room.
Perhaps somewhat inappropriate for her, she saw in another painting a monk forcing himself on a nun, hand on her breast. I don’t know if she fully got the intended emotion of lust/desire, but again, all she could feel while looking at it was scared! My own interpretation was “how helpless she is” and I felt sad and remorseful for her. So, three completely different emotions experienced in the same split second.
I personally don’t find emotions all that difficult to experience, express, or see/hear from others (I’ve had a lot of practice). The complexity of it all intrigues me and I remain curious and fascinated by all that resides in us humans. I deeply believe our expression of emotions brings us into our authenticity and enables us to connect more easily to one another. For me, it is “the stuff of life.” During our visit to the exhibit, I felt more connected with myself AND with my daughter and it was an afternoon very well spent.
In short, the exhibit running now through mid-February is worth a visit for exploring and experiencing your own emotions!
(Check out the website for details)