Art is my religion

I hadn’t known it was going to be there. I’d seen some incredible paintings as I went from room to room, darting between the other visitors to get close enough to observe the brush marks before standing back to take in the whole. I was thrilled that we were allowed to take photographs and took full advantage of this, snapping away with my iPhone, recording the theatre around me, my fellow patrons like actors in a show. And then suddenly there it was — Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso, hanging on a wall. The painting i’d been obsessed with at school, the one I’d pored over in books, copying the faces into my own sketch book as I learned more about Cubism. It was bigger than I’d thought it would be. It was bold and beautiful and it blew me away, so much so that tears came and I let them leak out the corners of my eyes. The people around me must have thought I was nuts, but I really couldn’t help it. There is not much in this world that makes me cry, but that Wednesday morning I was moved to tears standing among strangers in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

The same thing happened as I stood before Modigliani’s Recling Nude. Tears and a thumping heart. And a few quizzical stares directed my way.

I was already tired and overwhelmed by the tour, and my emotions were sitting pretty close to the surface. But there was something about being so close to these amazing works of art — created by human hands, cherished by so many — that touched me so deeply. The galleries were so quiet, people speaking in hushed tones, listening to their headsets as they walked around. It was like being in a church dedicated to art, and I truly felt the reverance that the paintings demanded. It was the only time during my entire stay in New York that I wished I’d been with someone I knew, so I could turn to them and say: aren’t people amazing? Look what we can do!

I absolutely adored the MOMA. Loved the art and the space and the food in the cafe on the 5th floor. I loved how friendly and helpful the stewards were, and how the museum let visitors use their cameras. This wasn’t the case when I visited the Guggenheim a few days later and it was quite comical watching the stewards (who looked like security guards) running up to people brandishing cameras: “No photos!”. It made no sense to me. Why was someone taking a snap with an iPhone such a bad thing? Surely art appreciation is to be encouraged, and if I wanted a crappy low-res shot of the Rothko to take home with me — a little memory to treasure, a bit of proof that I’d seen it! — why not let me? (I took it anyway. And yes, a man rushed over and told me off ;-)

The only place you were allowed to take pictures was standing in the atrium looking up at the (admittedly awesome) glass roof. Of course, i ignored this rule and took a few more sneaky shots as I walked round (and round) the building:

The Rineke Dijkstra retrospective (above) was fantastic and definitely worth the visit (a female photographer celebrated in a New York museum, no less. My heart soared.) And yes, the building itself is amazing and I’m glad I took the time to see it, though I might not go back, now that I have. The MOMA, however, will see me again, that’s for sure.

Does art (or music, or theatre, or any of the other creative arts) make you cry too?

42 responses
  1. Marianne

    Music makes me cry. And so does dancing some times. x

  2. Trina

    Yes!!! There is something about seeing works, famous or not, up close, and just knowing and thinking that someone created it from THEIR HEART, not just their hands.
    THIS is the reason that I need to get my paint on myself!!!! :-)

  3. sas

    LOVE this post!
    i think i have cried in most galleries in europe: monet’s lillies, michangelo’s pieta, frued’s big sue, jasper john’s flag. the photographs of crewdson.
    i have been to paris half a dozen times and EVERYTIME something prevents me from getting to the picasso museum (closed on Tuesdays, strikes, unforseen closures). one day i will cry in front of the blue nude – a print has hung in my house since i was a first year at uni 20something years ago.

  4. Fabeku

    I have shed more tears listening to music + looking at art than almost anywhere else. There are songs + pieces of art that bring tears immediately. In a flash. No time to think myself out of it. Big magic, sweet friend.

  5. julie einstein

    This is beautiful and i can sense the emotion that engulfed you in every single word here. I also love MOMA and was just there in June after the Creative Joy Retreat. Moma’s collection is extraordinary. I had never thought about art as a religion but definitely consider it to be spiritual. How can one not consider the possibility that something ‘larger’ than oneself exists while taking in and absorbing these amazing works. Maybe it’s not a god, etc but let’s face it…anything that truly allows us to feel…to really feel …a higher power, the universe and/or interconnectedness is a blessed event.

  6. susannah


  7. Laura Petrovich-Cheney

    ADORE THIS POST! It is always so refreshing to hear how other artists loved art history class. I have cried too many times in front of too many works of art (paintings and sculpture). The last work of art that knocked my socks off was Antony Gormley’s study for Angel of the North (it’s in his London studio!) It is nice to know that art can move others to tears,too, especially people – like YOU- that I admire! Thanks for sharing this one.

  8. Robin

    Glad you enjoyed the MoMA! It’s my favorite too! Just went yesterday, but very crowded and noisy so it was good to see that you experienced quiet. That’s what I love about “members only” sessions there. So agree with you on the Guggenheim…why no photos? Isn’t that so crazy…and don’t even get me started on their restroom facilities. Horrid. So glad you enjoyed my city!

  9. susannah

    oh my god, YES! the toilets were horrible in the G!

  10. Monica

    I pretty much want to marry this post. That’s all.

  11. elizabeth mann

    i’m moved by the theater. it’s funny, the other day i went to see a movie by myself and i went to a movie theater i had never been to before.. i walked in and teared up because they had designed it to look like a actual theater you would go see a broadway play in or something. i’m moved by the art of acting for the stage. i’m a mom of two and will probably never get to act myself again but growing up doing productions in school still brings me to tears. we were not good but the whole atmosphere was made for me. i love that you are moved by art.. it moved me reading this.

  12. Colleen Leonardi

    Art makes me cry, absolutely, and get goosebumps. Dance, music, literature – all of it. I love the intimacy of your experience, how it pours out of your words and photos here. I feel like paintings still have the soul of the painter in them. And it’s always lovely when we get to meet with it for a moment in a beautiful museum! xx

  13. Lianne

    Oh yes! The Met was like that for me – didn’t make it to the MOMA – but next time for sure as I see Chagall in your montage. *heart*

    The met doesn’t allow photos either – but I had to sneak this one:

  14. Jill

    I feel the same way in a library or a book store, overflowing with love of the purest, truest kind. And music, especially seen live, breaks my heart, one or more people up on stage, opening their hearts wide, embodying so much effort and emotion, and little ol’ me in the audience with my heart open receiving it, the sound vibrating my whole body–oh dear, I’m tearing up just describing it to you.

  15. Raven

    Oh yes! I sometimes have to turn off my radio while driving, because music can have me in tears so fast that it’s not safe. And art and nature- all those wonderful creations that delight the senses and inspire me to be more. All so divinely inspired and full of spirit! Thank you for the reminder!

  16. kathryn

    my emotions have definitely been deeply stirred by certain pieces of art but i’ve never cried.

  17. Jo

    I find that whenever I witness the the heights a human soul can soar to and the way these incredible human bodies turn that flight into something breathtaking..I cry. Art, dance, music…choral voices are a biggie with me…you name it, I’m in tears. We are AMAZING. xx

  18. Jade Sheldon

    The MoMA is one of my favorite museums. I went on my first trip to New York with one of my best friends a few years back and we were just swept away by all the treasures inside. They even had some special Monet water lilly painting on display. They were HUGE and amazing. I dressed up as Claude Monet in the 6th grade for a presentation and have had a soft spot in my heart for his work ever since. It was such a lovely moment when we walked into the museum and were greeted by them. Can’t wait to take my husband there someday.

  19. La plume et la page

    Oh! yes! Music and movies can make me cry. They often make me cry! Am I so sensitive?!

  20. Bunny Sunday (Randi)

    I had the EXACT SAME EXPERIENCE in MOMA a couple years ago. I love Frida Kahlo more than words can say. I turned a corner and she was there. I thought all of her paintings were in Mexico but I should have known better because she spent a lot of time in New York. Her beautiful, little self portraits hung in a room opposite her husband, Diego Rivera’s, huge paintings. I cried. I ugly cried in front of strangers in the Museum of Modern Art. It was magic.

  21. jane

    oh yes! i went to the sfmoma and made such noises in front of the Rothko that i got hissing from my daughter “MUUUUUUM” I stood in the National Gallery in London and sobbed like a baby in front of Van Gogh’s painting of his room (i don’t know what it is called it doesn’t even matter) – the loneliness, the aliveness to everything in it, the tendrils of being so alive to everything that he was being overtaken by it, the desperation, the keening beauty of it all just shot straight into my heart and it was just about too much… Art that can reach inside you and shrill about what a magnificent gift it is to be alive is an expression of God/Goddess/All That Is way more potent for me than a sermon… so yes art makes me cry!

  22. Nina

    Music, absolutely. Sometimes even when I’m playing it myself. Theatre – yes, novels – yes (most recently had to put the last ‘Dark Materials’ book down to have a good weep), poetry and dance – sometimes, films – embarrassingly much. But never painting!

  23. Roxanne Galpin

    Loving this post.

  24. Gerri Smalley

    Most if not all of the arts make me cry…for some reason. Good art evokes emotion…
    We’ve been in NYC on vacation since Saturday and today while in the MET I took a photo of my boy shooting with his Instax 210. It brought tears to my eyes. My hubby caught a woman shooting a photo of him…she was moved too.
    MoMa was wonderful, Guggenheim tomorrow, I will tell break the news to Noah, no photos. :(

  25. Micala

    I did a project about Monet for my A-levels, so when I saw the sheer size of the waterlilies canvas in the Musée Marmotan in Paris and the work that went into it, I cried in awe.
    In front of Michelangelo’s David sculpture I didn’t just have leaking tears, but I tried to suppress BLUBS!
    I love the way that art, music, theatre moves us, and don’t understand why being good at maths, science etc at school is viewed as “superior” to arts in our culture.

  26. Ginger

    I saw a retrospective of Vladimir Tretchikoff’s works in Cape Town last year – about the first such exhibition put together of his works in the country who can’t decide whether they love him or hate him.

    There was something so incredibly special seeing the “real life” versions of what I’d seen as prints so many times. And learning more about the stories that were told in the paintings.

    It really didn’t matter, in the end, whether I liked his works or not.

  27. valeri blossom

    awwww. i completely geek out on art, too, but i still say “everything makes me cry.”

    i recently saw judy chicago’s powerplay exhibit in santa fe and was blown away by the size of her works and the emotion and jarring message that the collection invokes that you just don’t get AT ALL when you look at it online.

  28. L.McG.-E.

    So true, art reveals our souls, in all their aspects. I am always in awe of those who have the talent to create.

  29. Tracy

    Susannah, your post (!) along with fellow readers’ comments, is so moving! And validating! I’ll never forget telling someone how, for me, visiting the Norton Simon is like going to church. (At the time,I got a bit of an odd stare with that one.) But, to read here that you and so many others are of a similar mind on the experience of taking in what others create . . . thank you! I feel so at home.

  30. Jet Harrington

    Many years ago, a friend – a flutist at UBC in Vancouver, Canada – had brilliant tickets to a La Scala performance (rare outside of Europe). I had never been to the opera and she invited me to join her. During the intermission, we chatted with the folks seated next to us, and when they discovered it my was my first opera, they clucked that I had chosen the best, and not much would ever equal this.

    Later, it was dark when we left the building – my friend and I walked in silence. I had no words. She enthused about all the wonderful aspects of the performance. When she looked over at me, I had rivers of tears rolling down my face – I could not speak.

    She grabbed my arm, stopping me in the middle of the path, and said, “Oh, I’m so glad you loved it. I hoped you would.” I’m welling up even as I write this – the emotions of that night translate across more than 25 years, still moving me.

  31. Lainey

    A piece of art that moves me beyond the moment, dancing that transports me to a place beyond movement, acting that burrows deep beyond who I think I am, music that becomes part of my flesh, a sublime combination of flavors that shocks and delights, words that transform the meanings I realize I’ve become far too attached to – all these can bring me to tears.

    My husband would say it happens all the time, but I don’t think he absorbs as much of the world as I do. At the same time it seems a miracle it could even happen once in a lifetime so that it happening somewhat regularly feels like Awe.

    If I had had the insane luck of stumbling upon you while your eyes filled with tears, I would have smiled at you just a little bit and nodded to let you know I understood. Then I probably would have walked away with tears in my eyes because I got to share such a beautiful moment with a stranger.

  32. keishua

    love museums/galleries/studios-such an energy in those spaces. i also love people watching at museums. lately, i’ve been really loving interactive art. instillation that allow me{and others} to interact just touch a tender place in me…even when the instillation is very simple. i love how art{instillation or not} creates community and dialogue.

  33. Eadaoin

    I had a pretty similar experience a long time ago when I stumbled across Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ in the National Gallery here in Dublin! I too had poured over it in school books, I just thought it was so beautiful and the artist was such an intriguing character. Don’t know how I never knew that it was here in Dublin. I was so overwhelmed and delighted when I saw it, it’s an incredible feeling to experience powerful art in real life as opposed to pictures, I can only imagine how you felt seeing this Picasso :)

  34. Lindsay

    Oh I absolutely agree. The first time I saw Starry Night in person… it was an out of body experience. I was so filled with emotion. There is nothing quite like seeing something you studied in books in real life, inches from your face. Glad you had fun in New York! :)

  35. Cass

    Every so often (and more and more regularly these days) something will happen or someone will say something that makes me desperately want to go back to NYC. As in, buy a ticket and go today. Your post did this. I’ve only been once before, a couple of years ago, but absolutely fell in love with the city – and with MOMA in particular. I must must must go back. And soon. And with my children this time. So that they too can visit MOMA and stand in awe of all the beauty contained within. Thank you for a wonderful post and for making my heart beat a little faster with anticipation x

  36. Pistache

    I cried for the first time before a painting when I saw my first Jackson Pollock at the Met a few years ago. I had to sit because the experience was too overwhelming for me. Rothko has the same effect on me. I’s a relief to realize I’m not alone…

  37. Cheryl's Excellent Adventure

    I cried when I saw the dolphins and the orca perform at Great America/Africa USA. They were so beautiful and so big up close.

  38. sonrie

    Love the Marc Chagall!!

  39. Cheryl's Excellent Adventure

    I agree. I would have too.

  40. Kathryn

    ah, art is wonderful. I love how you described the museum as a church of art, really is.
    Writing or music or a photo I just love so much can all make me a little teary. :)

  41. joubert_101

    I’ve been following your blog and newsletters for the past 3 years, just to say you inspire me. This post resonated as I went to NY last summer and went to MOMA and you’ve put an image of my favourite Chagalle piece, it just thrills me to see it here too ;)

  42. Tricia

    Thank you for writing this. I cried at MOMA too. Just seeing the scale of the paintings and the tiny details, as opposed to the pictures I’ve seen in books my whole life, was overwhelming. I’ve never really been into swooning at celebrities, but artwork I can totally swoon over.

Comments are closed.