Valentine’s Day has a reputation for being shallow. It is ridiculed for its materiality (the flowers! the expensive gifts! the obligatory chocolate boxes and sentimental notes!) and vilified as a poorly-concealed corporate moneygrubbing scam. Beyond our suspicion of Hallmark, though, is a more instinctual conviction about the holiday dedicated to love – we feel it is, or should be, a simple, unassuming and unadorned affair: three little words that say it all.
But Valentine’s Day wouldn’t be Valentine’s Day without all its trappings. It’s a lesson that becomes clear when looking through the collections within MARBL’s holdings, many of which belonged to artists, writers, scholars, and entertainers whose passion for creation was matched by a less public, but equally profound passion for another person. For these individuals, the words “I love you” simply weren’t enough to express their feeling – they required hundreds more, or the visual reinforcements of a drawing or a hand-made card. Often these expressions of love shed light on the artist’s creative expression as well; Benny Andrews, for example, in a description of his relationship with his future wife, Nene, reveals his habit of feeling the world in terms of art:
“I realized what had been puzzling me about her. I knew she looked familiar, I knew I’d seen her or images of her someplace else, and looking at her holding the roses, I recognized a Vermeer. Yes, I look, look and look at the paintings of Vermeer, not to copy …but because they give me a feeling that I can try to take to my own works.”
In many of the valentines, the object of love is not only equated with a work of art, but also serves as inspiration to the artist or writer. For the painter Walter A. Simon, who wrote long, beautiful letters to his wife almost every day during his service in World War II, his love allowed a new type of creativity to emerge:
“Darling, since knowing you, all that was dormant has come rushing forth – I’m full of paintings…These paintings are very definite things – they only remain to be transposed – from my mind to canvas…and all because of you.”
In examining these love letters and valentines, we gain access to their creators’ deepest interiority – the intimate parts of themselves that are ignited by only one person. It is easy to imagine that from these same places, these same wellsprings of passion, emerge the great works of art that we usually associate with them. With this understanding, the materiality of Valentine’s Day seems far less banal – less a commercial construct than an inexorable overflow of feeling: the art of going beyond three little words.