Finding Permanence in Impermanence
By Sophia Yakumithis
Last semester, I studied British history and art history as a transfer student at King’s College London. I also made the decision to transfer home universities, designating the months between December and April as confusing, challenging, and ultimately, transformative months. During that time, I saw visual art as an escape to my happy place.
My experience abroad was, unfortunately, terrible overall. In hindsight, there were quite a few factors working against me that I should have recognized and dealt with before trekking across the Atlantic by myself. For starters, I lived alone. Certain cultural nuances that I was unprepared for hindered my ability to develop close relationships with the people around me. Even the city itself was especially unwelcoming due to the biting furor of the winter months. Also, a looming uncertainty as to where I would be headed once I returned to the states induced chronic anxiety, even when I was tucked away in the confines of my studio apartment. Long story short, I caved to the isolating circumstances. I left immediately after classes concluded.
After deciding to jump ship earlier than expected, I wanted to ensure that London itself would sit well with me. I was determined not to look back on those three months and convolute a vibrant, cultural epicenter with my rapid spiral into anxiety and depression. My brain is my problem, not London’s. Enter my passion for art.
I love art and I always have. Paintings, specifically. With some of the world’s greatest collections less than a mile away from me at all times, I clung onto the proximity as a reminder that an experience abroad could be whatever I wanted it to be. I took full advantage of London’s free art galleries to make the most of my situation.
It’s one thing to love a painting for what it is in its literal form. At the most bare minimum, we are attracted to paintings simply because we “like” them; they make us feel “nice” because they’re “interesting.” Or maybe not. Maybe you’re a bit of a masochist and get off to melting clocks and lobster phones. Other and often times, we are inherently attracted to a painting because of an association with a fond memory, or because of something pleasant we did the day we first laid our eyes on it. Personally, I feel love for certain paintings because the people I love love them.
However, one’s love for a painting can push any of those bounds, which is what I learned in London. And the two things motivating me not to cower in fear of the ‘big, bad’ city were the National Gallery and the Tate Modern.
When I reached a point of gripping onto anything for stability or familiarity, certain paintings provided me with a sense of physical continuity and content. To fall in love with a painting on that level is to stand in front of it for hours, memorizing its intricacies and noticing the small details and brushstrokes that only you, the painting, and the artist are aware of. This is not rocket science. But to fall in love with a painting on that level means that it is a part of you; part of your approach to navigating challenging emotions in unpredictable situations. The visual power of paintings in providing stability or permanence is one that is incredibly unique, and is an experience I think you can only undergo when you feel that you are truly deprived of those qualities in any other aspect of life. The isolation of living alone abroad gave me the privilege of having this relationship with some of the world’s finest paintings. (After all, it’s easy to nurture a deep relationship when your partner is an inanimate object and provides zero pushback.)
Knowing that Melendez’s Still Life with Lemons and Oranges would be waiting just beyond the Rembrandt Room, or that Modigliani’s Madame Zborowska was located around the block from my studio, was incentive to leave my apartment on days when I felt vulnerable or unstable and didn’t want to go anywhere by myself. Knowing that certain works were waiting for me in the same permanent place every time made me feel significantly less alone, and enabled me to temporarily depart from my negative thoughts.
When it came time for me to leave London (never in my life had I been so excited to go to Ohio or to shop at my local supermarket), my mother flew out to help me move. I took her to the National Gallery to see Monet’s The Water-Lily Pond. However, when we arrived in Gallery 41, it wasn’t there. One of the paintings which I fell in love with, and relied on for balance in permanence, was gone. The National Gallery moved it. Goodbye.
In its place, though, was another work by Monet, which I had never seen before. And I liked that. I was struck by the fact that when I confidently sought out a painting to share with another person, it was gone. It felt almost like a send off. The painting still exists, but has moved to a new home and in its place is another, equally beautiful work to enjoy. I felt lucky that in the short time I was abroad I was able to tap into a considerable level of intimacy with the former: something that I knew would carry on even once I lost daily access to the gallery. Perhaps had I stayed in London longer, I would have fallen in love with the content of the new painting as I had the water lilies.
Impermanence is a good thing. Without change, everyone can agree that life would be boring. An important lesson I learned from this experience is that looking to physical aids for support when you feel emotionally alone is valuable, but if that stability deviates, you can’t be disappointed; instead, you must simply adapt to the new and embrace it just as you had the old. Permanence can be found in impermanence.