The Difference Between Looking and Seeing

I remember a distinct moment with my dad. I must have been around 12 years old. We were in the car alone; he was driving me somewhere. He leaned in, opened wide his dark brown eyes, and looked at me intently. He was about to say something he wanted me to remember.

Use your eyes, he said. Most people don’t know how to use their eyes. They look, but they don’t see.

This moment with my dad resurfaced in my memory recently, when I ended up visiting the Courtauld collection at the Louis Vuitton Foundation, twice.

The first visit was for looking. This wonderful collection of impressionist paintings filled me up with joy, and I was almost out of breath as I finished the galleries and walked out to the rooftop, flying on a concrete sailboat in the sky. The feeling of the collection lingered a bit, but a few days later, I had completely forgotten about it.

The Louis Vuitton Foundation designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry
The Louis Vuitton Foundation designed by the famous architect Frank Gehry

A month later, I had friends visiting me in Paris. When talking about what they could do during their stay, we stumbled upon the same exhibition. I enthusiastically went with them to visit it a second time.

The second visit was for seeing. I stood in front of each painting and allowed myself to be tightly surrounded by the many tourists and art enthusiasts of Paris. I felt I was part of a continuum. How many people, for how many decades, had seen these masterpieces before me? This man, Courtauld, who had commissioned and collected all this art in his home, for how many hours had he stared at them? He hadn’t only seen the paintings; he had written poems and painted watercolors on them. He had gotten intimate with them. He had created art from art.

I love standing in galleries with a pen and notebook in hand, letting words come to me, but that day I didn’t have either. So instead, I soaked in the stories. I allowed each piece of art to find a place in my body and settle.  

Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, for example, landed on my social media addiction. A tightness in my throat, an inclination in my fingers. This painting, painted by Manet in 1863, was received with shock in its time for the way it depicted humans with the clothes of contemporary life. Fast forward 156 years, we disclose our contemporary lives ten times a day, and nothing about this shocks us anymore.

Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, by Manet, in 1863
Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, by Manet, in 1863

Then came the breathtaking colors of the Mediterranean. Most great impressionist painters had ended up in the Mediterranean, due to its quality of light. I realized I envied them, somewhere in my belly. I smelled the unique mix of pine trees, flowers and earth, fresh and sun-dried. I got touched by the Mediterranean sun; I got washed by its salty waters. I feasted on the soft greens of olive trees; I lingered under mighty trees spreading their leaves. I tasted countless summer fruits. I heard the giggles and footsteps of lovers walking on cobblestones.

The Mediterranean, as it appeared before my eyes now, was one of the truest expressions of who I am. I stood there for a while dreaming of the day I will live in a small Mediterranean town, keeping big cities nearby, creating art, making love to life, dancing.

Antibes, by Monet, in 1888. Antibes is a town near Cannes in the South of France.
Antibes, by Monet, in 1888. Antibes is a town near Cannes in the South of France.

As I finished the galleries a second time and found a spot on the rooftop, my eyes were still tracing the cypress trees Van Gogh saw from the mental hospital. My ears were hurting from the violent fight he had with Paul Gauguin. I was swimming in Cezanne’s Lake of Annecy, and uncovering the full emotional spectrum of his man with pipe.

The joyful rush of my first date with this collection had left its place to a serious consideration. I was full, as if I had eaten a five course meal, and I had to sit for a long time to digest what had just happened.

Art had awakened a place of sensitivity in me. A sensitivity toward places and people I had never seen, a sensitivity toward my truest self, a sensitivity toward what I want my life to be.

I realized one more time that art was there to be our salvation, if only we remembered how to use our eyes.