Sister Wendy Beckett, who has died at age 88, was not only a Carmelite nun but a popular TV art critic for the BBC. She did it all in a traditional nun's habit, attesting to her vow of poverty. I don't know how you can call this an art show, though? When asked why she took time from a hermetic life for the TV broadcasts, she explained a need to pay for her keep at the nunnery, according to The Guardian.

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The Royal Academy also honored the centennial of Gustave.

She had been a teacher until epileptic fits forced her to stop. By taping her broadcast, she was able to take breaks as needed. What audiences saw, then, was a seamless stream of chalk talk, but something else, too - getable talk, unpretentious, unencumbered by art speak. In the interest of transparency, Sister Wendy is my all-time favorite art critic for her straightforward and free-spirited take on art.

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Kiss and tell

How plain-speaking was Sister Wendy? Her 1998 “Book of Meditations” counts the ways, particularly with her chapter titled “Love.” Here's her take on Gustave Klimt's The Kiss, which describes a couple in a rapturous embrace: “It is not easy to say exactly what love is. The Kiss might seem a perfect illustration; the passionate and emotional physical involvement of two people. In the intensity of their embrace, Klimt's couple has become one, fused together by their mutual ardor.”

But then she questions herself: “Is this love?

Or is it only the appearance of love? Are they giving to each other, or using each other?... A bodily embrace is very precious, but its real value depends upon what it signifies.” How did a cloistered nun, sickly all her life, living in isolated since childhood, know to ask such questions?

Failed love

Then there's her view of Donatello's sculpture The Magdalene. In a chapter titled “Regret,” she says, “None of us can claim a perfect record in love.

We all fail and betray, even inadvertently. This is perhaps the worse pain of love, failure for which we feel culpable.” She goes on to say that the Magdalene, who came to love Christ after a life of selfishness, grieved forever after. Donatello portrayed her in old age in a fragile wooden carving abraded to the bone by sadness. “This is a vision of what all love knows, repentance for inadequacy.” Spoken like a woman of the world, not a lifelong recluse.

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Truth or consequences

Possibly the most surprising of Sister Wendy's insights on love in art, was her chapter “Conditional Love.” Using a 15th-century porcelain figurine of a young man toting a caged bird, said that perhaps the most enduring failure in love is not revealing one's true self, the temptation to see better than one is. “We need great faith in the reality of love to dare present ourselves in naked trust to the person we love.” She dazzles me still, with her knowing that human experience gives life to the art experience.

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