Hisham Matar’s ” A Month in Siena”

A picture changes as you look at it and changes in ways that are unexpected. I have discovered that a painting requires time. Now it takes me several months and more often than not a year before I can move on. During that period the picture becomes a mental as well as a physical location in my life. …This unveiling of new territory must be one of the most remarkable achievements that an artist can attain. By challenging the imagination they nudge our perception a little and, for an instant at least, the world is remade. …To look closely at their work is to eavesdrop on one of the most captivating conversations in the history of art, one concerned with what a painting might be, what it might be for, and what it could do and accomplish within the intimate drama of a private engagement with a stranger. You can detect them aksing how much a picture might rely on a viewer’s emotional life; how a shared human experience might change the contract between artist and viewer, and between artist and subject; and what creative possibilities this new collaboration might offer.

Pulitzer winner Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena is an intensely personal memoir. It is about spending a month in Siena, observing the Sienese School of paintings that he first was fascinated by as a nineteen year old. Now these paintings which covered the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and belonged to a “cloistered world of Christian codes and pleasure” somehow against his best intentions made him return over and over again to reflect upon them. A Month in Siena was written after he had spent more than three years researching into his father’s disappearance. Unfortunately it transpired that his father would not be returning home. The grief experienced would be inexplicable. As he says in this interview with Radio National that when his father first went missing, no one in the family could share or speak about their grief, worried that it may mar the prospect of their father returning home. But once the realisation dawns upon the family that there was to be no closure, Hisham Matar’s grief is acute. He needs time to recover. At first he spends most of his lunch hour visiting one paiting at a time at the National Gallery in London. He then decides to spend a month in Italy. It is therapeutic. And with him the reader too is transported, transfixed, transformed and transfigured as should be with any work of art. ” …rediscover our own powers of remembrance, and to finally find the consolation that lies between intention and expression, between the concealed sentiment and its outward shape.”

8 February 2020

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