One day, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the stars aligned before the artist Onelio Marrero.
The stars literally aligned.
This was not his first time in the Wallace Wing of 19th Century Art – he had been there many times before. But on this particular day, in front of this particular Gauguin painting, he saw something extraordinary.
Onelio Marrero saw a bag.
It was a dark blue shoulder bag with red accents and decorative moons, stars, and astral swirls. And when the woman who carried the bag stood in front of Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) by Paul Gauguin, its colors unlocked the painting behind it.
“Her bag almost seems to spill the colors and mystical symbols that exude many of Gaugin’s work from Tahiti and Fatu Hiva,” says Marrero.
Detail of Spilling Gauguin Colors
Those stars, on that cosmic bag, in front of that Gauguin painting were a cipher. They connected and called out to Marrero as if he was the final piece in some causal chain to make order out of the hieroglyphic swirl in this beckoning moment.
He saw the painting in a new way and was inspired to create his own oil painting, Spilling Gauguin Colors (10” x 8”), our Piece of the Week.
Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) is in the center of the background of Spilling Gaugin Colors, synergizing with the woman’s shoulder bag.
The entire “painting within a painting” as a genre comes with a complimentary kit of riddling complexities (the Met can become so very meta). These self-referential nesting dolls – the woman in Tahiti, the woman in New York, then finally, you, the viewer – connect, for a moment, in a way left impossible by the linear march of history.
Ia Orana Maria (Hail Mary) (44.75” x 34.5”) by Paul Gauguin, oil painting, 1891
Marrero points out that, in the original Gauguin, there is an angel partially hidden in the shrubbery.
And while we cannot see the angel in the Marrero, there is poetry in the thought of this graceful celestial being as a concealed sense of meaning and presence within the frames, both frames.
An intaglio of a similar subject by Marrero
Spilling Gauguin Colors is a part of a collection that Marrero began in 2005. It is a series that shows museum-goers.
Onelio Marrero – a Met visitor since the 70s – has witnessed the museum’s changes. He has watched the building itself grow, and change, and literally get its wings. But he has also seen the way the people visiting the museum have changed.
“Increasingly, I have found fewer and fewer people truly experiencing the artwork in depth” he says. “I suppose the modern technology is partially to blame.”
In some ways, smartphones have filtered the pure experiences of the museum. A photograph of a painting does not capture the texture and the dimension. Art becomes artificial.
Marrero working in his studio
“I suppose, to many people, posting their experiences on Twitter or Instagram has supplanted the ability to savor the moment,” says the artist.
When he was teaching high school art, he would take his student to museums for field trips. Before he would walk in, he would give a “pep talk,” a sort of crash course in museum viewership.
In the minutes before entering the museum, Marrero would encourage his students to “[focus] on trying to embrace the idea of experiencing the breadth of work on exhibition while not sacrificing the experience of studying a few works in depth as well.”
Spilling Gauguin Colors has a hauntingly fated quality to it. Its questions become eccentric and orbit far with comet tails of “what-ifs:” What if Marrero didn’t see the woman? Or, what if she had chosen to wear a different bag, or visit a different wing?
What if it was even bigger than that?
What if, in 1891, Gauguin decided not to paint the woman in Ia Orana Maria? What if he never quit his desk job to visit Tahiti or even become an artist at all?
And, then finally, what if everything had gone to plan until Onelio Marrero missed that moment in the Wallace Wing of the Met because he was checking a text?
But everything did work out, and for that, we can thank our lucky stars.