During World War II Britain's National Gallery exhibited some
paintings even as the bombs rained down around it.
It was seen as a place people could go to connect to something,
to be lifted out of their wartime anxieties.
Henri Matisse, meanwhile, used to take his color-drenched
paintings to the homes of sick friends. "He thought of them as being
beneficent," says John Elderfield, chief curator at New York's
Museum of Modern Art.
If Matisse was right, then his paintings are now filling a need
for thousands. Although bombs aren't falling on this city, those
needing an artistic respite from the onslaught of war news have a
plethora of riches to choose from - and are turning out in record
The popularity of shows here ranging from Da Vinci to Manet - an
unusual confluence of big-name artists even for New York - is partly
a commentary on New Yorkers' magnetic attraction to anything with
buzz. But in a city beset by budget cuts, rising homelessness, and a
steady stream of war news, it's also about something more. To the
crowds waiting in lines that spill out onto the streets here, these
timeless masters offer timely beauty and insight to a world
desperately in need of it.
"It gives you back some sanity," says Charlene Poley, a woman
from Baltimore leaving Manet/Velazquez, an exhibit that explores the
17th Century Spanish influence on 19th century painters. "Art and
music - that's the salvation of humanity. At a symphony, you can
close your eyes and be transported to another world. And you can
come here, and stand in front of a magnificent painting, and have
the same thing happen to you."
For other visitors to the show, the paintings weren't so much a
distraction from reality as a way of adding meaning to it. "The Goya
series - that hits home," says Bob, a New York businessman who
preferred not to give his last name, after looking at Goya's "The
Disasters of War" prints. In one, a man is missing an arm. In
another, a vulture devours a dead body. "You sort of want to print
up several million copies and drop them on the Pentagon," he muses.
Bob's wife, Pat, was even more struck by a 1638 Francisco de
Zurbaran painting. "The virgin shining in the night sky to light up
for the Christians where the 'evildoers' are," she sighs, shaking
her head, as she points to "Battle between the Christians and the
Moors at El Sotillo." The message for her is clear: Not much has
changed since the 17th century.
Light amid chaos
For centuries, people have looked to art for solace and beauty,
or as a means to understanding a complex world. In wartime, say
experts, it can take on added resonance, often simply as a symbol of
something larger than human conflict. "It's an enormous
psychological reminder that despite the fact the world is abnormal,
we make it normal," says Leon Botstein, president of Bard College
and conductor at the American Symphony Orchestra. "Art is the
ultimate expression of why we fight for freedom. …