I recently had the opportunity to visit a friend in Chicago. We stopped by the Chicago Institute of Art, where I stumbled across a painting that instantly affected me. The painting, shown below, is of course called, “Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida,” by Ivan Albright. What are your thoughts, your reactions, dear reader, upon seeing the body holding the soul called Ida? My thoughts, below.
There is something about Ivan Albright’s painting that practically screams to me the value of the person who is called Ida, or rather, the soul who is called Ida. The depiction of Ida is about as grotesque as they come, emphasizing all the details that modern day photoshopping quickly clips and edits in order to present a life unblemished.
Unfortunately for Ida, photoshop was not around in her day. Her body is finally rebelling in her old age. Lumpy, sagging, dull, grey, stringy, mottled… And as she prepares for whatever lies before her, perhaps a lovely dinner party or a simple trip to the market, she faces this cold reality once again in the mirror she holds in her veiny hands.
We are all destined for this end. Yet, in the gaze she sends to the mirror and receives back from herself, there is something eminently human which occurs.
Perhaps she knows how repulsive she physically appears to be, and desires to hide this as best she can from the world. Perhaps she is about to lay down the makeup brush and accept reality without attempting to cover it anymore. Perhaps she is on the verge of smashing the mirror she holds. One could interpret her gaze in a myriad of ways. She sees herself for herself and does not appear to like what she sees.
Who among us has not felt the same? Who has not gazed into the bathroom mirror, at the folds of fat developing, or the many pimples, or the unsightly strands of wet hair clinging to the body? Who has not looked into themselves and wished they could appear different? Ida has. I have. And in that moment, a blossoming awareness of empathy occurs for the viewer of this beautiful painting.
I can love this grotesque figure, despite the visceral reaction of disgust I feel on first seeing the painting and her face and all the lumps, because she is like me. She and I have had similar emotions and feelings.
We are all of us humans after all, and beneath the fragile shell of the body which is riddled often with confusion, disease, unsightliness, pimples, wrinkles, dysmorphia, there is a soul called Ida. There is a soul called Seth, and there is a soul called “<insert your name here>”.
Learning to look at Ida’s body with compassion, past the things we typically call ugly, and seeing the soul behind the lumps creates an emotional pathway which allows me to begin practicing this ability in real life. In a low-stake setting, I have been given a chance to be compassionate, to see beyond the physical. This, my friends, is the power of art. I hope you feel it too.
What else is there to say about Ida? What role do typical conventions of beauty affect our seeing the soul called Ida? Do you think she is going to break the mirror? Or continue her futile efforts to disguise the parts of herself she does not like?