BOOKSHELF:Joy Yoshikawa recommends her five favorite book-tour books that bring art to life:
Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X
by Deborah Davis (nonfiction)
The Madonnas of Leningrad
by Debra Dean (fiction)
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (fiction)
Everybody Was So Young
by Amanda Vaill (nonfiction)
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (fiction)
by Joy Yoshikawa
In 2006 I found myself in front of a portrait of a beautiful young woman sitting rather stiffly on a settee in a rather sparse setting belying the opulence of her dress, a voluminous gown of white satin and lace. Her head is in profile, her expression pensive, perhaps even stern-there is no hint of a smile on the face that is turned away from us. I stood at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., transfixed by the beauty of this portrait by John Singer Sargent of 23-year-old Mrs. Cecil Wade. I wondered, "What is she thinking?"
At the time I viewed Mrs. Wade's portrait I was a docent-in-training at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA) and as I read this fascinating book I knew there could be a tour developed to explore literature and the visual arts. I crafted my tour and experimented with gusto on my fellow docents. It has been nearly five years since those first tours were enthusiastically embraced. Now there are more than 50 guides at the MIA involved in this program, giving tours on dozens of books from popular fiction to classical literature and nonfiction titles. The list keeps growing and we are having fun!
A museum docent noticed my admiration and as we chatted she suggested I read "Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X" by Deborah Davis, about the scandal that occurred when Sargent chose to paint a portrait of Virginie Gautreau, also 23, with one slim and bejeweled strap of her dress fallen off her shoulder suggesting, perhaps, the anticipation of sex. When the painting was unveiled at the 1884 Salon in Paris, the scandal of that fallen strap was ruinous to Gautreau, who was forced to retire from her "it girl" status in Belle Epoque Paris. Sargent fled to England.
These book tours are an opportunity to explore, through the fabric of a story, various themes as well as specific works and words of art and artists. Art is brought to life by sharing what we bring to it as individuals. We become acutely aware of seeing the art, validating our observations, listening to other interpretations and walking away just a little bit transported. One participant said, "I feel as if I've been on a one-hour vacation!"
Sometimes I like to imagine that life is performance art; surely this is true as we walk, talk, look, laugh and share through these book tours.
Joy Yoshikawa is CEO of The Design Company, a docent at the MIA and lives in St. Paul.