This Artwork Changed My Life is a fortnightly series of personal essays that share the stories of life-changing encounters with art.
The loneliest I have ever felt was when, in my late 20s, I moved to Amsterdam to be with someone I loved. That I decided to move to be with him was a leap of faith, and may be one of the braver things I have done in my life.
We lived on the top floor of his father’s tall narrow canal house. Nothing in the house was mine except for a few shelves of clothes I had brought with me and a borrowed desk in the corner of our bedroom. I had moved cities before, I had made friends, I had found ways to make money. I was very sure that I could do it again.
My boyfriend was out all day finishing his degree, and when he came home he was tired, whereas I had spent most of the day tracking the movements of a mouse across our room.
“Seems to be behind the bookcase now,” I would message him during the day. “Was going to leave the house, but don’t think I should because not sure where it will be when I return and worried it will make a home in my shoes.” I would email my friends back at home: “Lots of mice in Amsterdam, otherwise things are great.”
One night, at a family dinner, my boyfriend’s aunt asked how I was spending my days. I said something about the mice and cycling around and looking for work and she looked at me, and said, with typical Dutch candour, “Wow, you must be very lonely”. She didn’t offer any advice or thoughts, just an unequivocal summary of my state.
“Loneliness is not just being without others, it is being without ourselves”
What I hated the most about being lonely was that I became unrecognisable to myself. Who was this person trying on green corduroy jeans and crying in H&M because of a sentimental Coldplay song? Who on earth was this bizarre girl who had started a blog where she mostly just wrote about the different mice she had encountered?
Any attempts to make friends by smiling dementedly at people in cafes had the only effect it really could: people just moved a little further away from where I was sitting. My most valuable human interactions were with the tourists who would ask for directions as I sat on the steps of the house drinking coffee. So eager was I to talk to someone, that although I had no idea where anything was and had earlier that day walked 5km in the wrong direction, I would confidently direct them to wherever they wanted to go.
“Your English is so good,” they would say, my navigational confidence leading them to believe I was Dutch. “Thank you!” I’d shout after them as they happily walked away in what was almost certainly the wrong direction. The longer I spent feeling alone, desperate for friends, the more I felt it was a fixed state, one that unfortunately had the effect of making me even more repellent to people.
If you’re going to be lonely, an art museum is a good place to do it. Museums are quiet places, people nod wisely at paintings, they whisper profoundly to their companions (“I like this one, good colours”) or stare at a piece of art, eyes squinted or awed. There are always people panic photographing paintings they want to remember or just walking through as quickly as possible to get to the real event, the gift shop.
“It felt like incredible good luck to fall in love with a painting in the city it was painted”
I had learnt from my aunt when I was a teenager that when you go to an art museum and are overwhelmed by all the art, you should scan the walls and pick a painting that stands out to you. Instead of trying to take everything in, really look at that one piece of art.
On the wall in one of the many rooms of the Rijksmuseum hung a painting, The Singel Bridge at the Paleisstraat in Amsterdam by George Hendrik Breitner. When I saw it for the first time, I thought it was so beautiful, a woman walking in a crowd alone, surrounded by people.
The painting is lonely and so soft, the snow muffling all sound. It felt familiar, the houses, the cold. Maybe because I was lonely, or maybe because we are always looking for ourselves wherever we go, in this painting I found myself.
It felt like incredible good luck to fall in love with a painting in the city it was painted. It was winter and I would walk the city, not as well attired, but just as alone as the woman in the foreground. How glamorous I would think, to be in a painting. How interesting to be alone.
If most of the time I didn’t know where I was, this painting helped me imagine and orientate myself. It was OK to be lonely. I would pull my scarf up closer to me, I would fix my gaze straight ahead.
“Maybe because I was lonely, or maybe because we are always looking for ourselves, in this painting I found myself”
Loneliness is unsettling not just because we long for others, but because without them we long for ourselves: some eyes to see me, some ears to hear me. Loneliness is not just being without others, it is being without ourselves.
It takes a long time to make the sort of life you want, to find the people you will love, to learn your way around. While we are looking around for ourselves it is helpful, it is comforting, to find ourselves elsewhere. If we’re lucky that elsewhere is other people, but it can also be in books, music, and art.
For a little while, I was a woman on a bridge on a cold street in Amsterdam, my coat pulled up close around my ears, the mesh of my hat covering my eyes. Around me people were moving, a child held her mother’s hand, a dog walked just behind them. Everywhere people went about their days, shopping or going home with the fallen snow quiet and dead.
For a while I was as lonely as a shell, and had no idea where I was. This painting helped me reframe my loneliness as something beautiful.
Emma Withers lives in Cape Town where she works in the music industry