“How could we be capable of forgetting the old myths that stand at the threshold of all mankind, myths of dragons transforming themselves at the last moment into princesses? Perhaps all dragons in our lives are really princesses just waiting to see us just once being beautiful and courageous. Perhaps everything fearful is basically helplessness that seeks our help.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
The Ninth Wave is a painting by Ivan Aivazovsky on display at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. I stood in front of it 30 years ago and it stays with me still. There are two paintings from that visit that keep coming back to mind, the other being Henri Matisse’s The Dance. Both are stunning when you stand in front of them and immerse yourself in them. Google both and look at the images that come up, and you’ll see a wide range of colors, from vibrant primary to muted mixed colors. There’s nothing like seeing each in person, where it literally washes right over you and you swim and dance with the subjects in the paintings.
I’ve got a bucket list of art and architecture that I hope to see in my lifetime. I only have to reconcile the images I see in a book or online to know that there’s nothing like seeing the real thing. Travel gives you that gift. And more than seeing The Ninth Wave or The Dance in my mind, I see the entire picture of that time. Babushkas sternly looking at college kids to make sure we weren’t taking flash photography or crossing past the ropes. Black market traders trying to swap blue jeans for assorted USSR military stuff. Seeing Cuban soldiers for the first time when we visited the Aurora (As a Cold War kid being in the Soviet Union and seeing Cuban soldiers was heady stuff). Such is the richness of world travel; Seeing the world as it is and not some portrayal on a screen.
I may never get back to St. Petersburg, but I would surely go to the Hermitage again and re-visit these two masterpieces. I’ve changed quite a lot in 30 years, and so has St. Petersburg and Russia. When I visited I was a college kid visiting a city with a different name in a country with a different name at the height of Glasnost, which would inevitably wipe Leningrad and the USSR names off the maps in favor of what once was and is again. The enormity of the changes we’ve seen in the last 30 years cannot be understated. And we’re in the middle of massive change still. What will the next 30 years bring? I hope I’m around to report on it.
The image of that dragon in Rilke’s quote above brought to my mind The Ninth Wave. This is the moment when the subjects in the painting are either driven to their deaths under the sea or they find salvation. Aivazovsky leaves it for us to interpret how it ends. The optimist in me sees the brightening sky shining light through the wave. Have the courage to hold on just a bit longer and things will get better. Rise to the challenges of the moment and turn that dragon into a princess. 30 years ago it was Glasnost and Tiananmen Square. Today it’s Climate Change, the rise of political extremism and the Hong Kong protests. Is this the Ninth Wave?
The optimist in me sees a positive future, and eventually the scarcity mentality that leads to extremism and greed giving way to a better world. The report that showed the dramatic decrease in child mortality is a good example of how the world is getting better. I’m well aware of the dragons in this world, and a little light shining through the storm clouds doesn’t mean the wave isn’t going to crash down on you. But I see the joyful dancers of Mattise waiting for us if we can only have the courage to find the princess and join in. What will we do to get us there?