Tag Archives: Museums

Apart From Naughtiness

There are many ways of knowing, there are many sorts of knowledge. But the two ways of knowing, for man, are knowing in terms of apartness, which is mental, rational, scientific, and knowing in terms of togetherness, which is religious and poetic.
—D.H. Lawrence, A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover (55)

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It was only once I was walking down the dark empty hallway that an awareness began to percolate back into my brain alerting me that I had left my glasses behind. Before the realization entirely sank in, while I was still merely in an optical haze of confusion, I spun around and ran back hoping to beat the timer I had turned—I didn’t want the light to go off and have to blindly find my way back to the stack among multiple stacks. Not my fault. I had gone there to get one book. Just one. But in my arms were four. I got excited and was dashing off like a thief in the night.

People wallow in emotion: counterfeit emotion. They lap it up: they live in it and on it. They ooze it (18-19).

What began as My Skirmish With Jolly Roger, (which I found in there! in the general stacks—a first edition! —I’m going to have to talk with someone about that.) —a stand-alone limited edition of Lawrence’s forward to the “Paris edition” of Lady Chatterley’s Lover— turned into A Propos of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, extending the original essay by some fifty pages. I added both to my check out, naturally.

And with counterfeit emotions there is no real sex at all. Sex is the one thing you cannot really swindle; and it is the centre of the worst swindling of all, emotional swindling. Once come down to sex, and the emotional swindle must collapse. But in all the approaches to sex, the emotional swindle intensifies more and more. Till you get there. then collapse (21).

In the essay, Lawrence seems to be trying to find his reader. Not the one who skips to the dirty words, not the one who is sanctimoniously looking for moral outrage, but his reader–the one who craves something true. It is a delicate and precious thing:

Herein lies the danger of harping only on the counterfeit and the swindle of emotion, as most “advanced” writers do. Though they do it, of course, to counterbalance the hugely greater swindle of the sentimental “sweet” writers (23). 

It is even harder, in this day and age, to resist the cynics and avoid the fools. This week I began my summer internship. I am working in the editorial department of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I spend my lunch hour wandering the sublime halls of the museum. I let myself approach each piece of art instinctually—yes or no. It is simple. I have time. No pressure. It is just me. Is the answer to the multiple choice question yes or no? I wish life were so simple.

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

Édouard Vuillard, Conversation (1897-98)

This is what is the matter with us. We are bleeding at the roots, because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because, poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of Life, and expected it to keep on blooming in our civilised vase on the table (40).

Poor blossom, indeed. Lawrence advocates passionately, in this essay,  for marriage, which, having been married, forces a sort of reckoning within me. Additionally, as the novel’s plot involves adultery, his stance is interesting. And yet, marriage for marriage’s sake–for stature or security or any other shallow or temporal purpose is exactly what he most vehemently rails against…so,  I do come to see his point. I am not only a dedicated observer of art, I am also an observer of couples, and when I espy the authentic thing—I rejoice with a yes in my heart. Life can be all that.

For an essay that begins, ostensibly, as a warning to the reader of the myriad pirated editions of his work, Lawrence diverges with such fervent passion into the heart of the matter, into our very hearts, that I cannot help adoring him. He is a sane man in a mad world, which may make him appear crazed, but it doesn’t make him wrong.

When the great crusade against sex and the body started in full blast with Plato, it was a crusade for “ideals”, and for this “spiritual” knowledge in apartness. Sex is the great unifier. In its big, slower vibration it is the warmth of heart which makes people happy together, in togetherness. The idealist philosophies and religions set out deliberately to kill this. And they did. Now they have done it. The last great ebullition of friendship and hope was squashed out in mud and blood. Now men are all separate entities. While “kindness” is the glib order of the day—everyone must be “kind”—underneath this “kindness” we find a coldness of heart, a lack of heart, a callousness, that is very dreary (57).

It’s the “dreary” that makes me smile. Yes, it is indeed dreary.

*title from pg. 32

The Mystery of Thing Three

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Arch of Gallienus – Piranesi, 1756

My friend, eleven year old son, and I went to the Springfield Museum this weekend, ostensibly to see the current show on art forgeries. And see it we did. But the funny thing about going to a museum and seeing collections in person is that you never know…you can’t know what will grasp your imagination. We are all so used to choosing what we look at in this internet “bubble of one” (as Eli Pariser put it) that we lose sight of life’s best aspect- surprise.

Very briefly- the surprise was not the show concerning forgeries, rather we were all transfixed by a strange looming painting by Erastus Salisbury Field (what a name!). My friend, Tasha Depp, has written about it eloquently on her blog from an artist’s viewpoint.

At this point, you may have noticed that the picture with which I lead this post is not Erastus, but rather Giovanni Battista Piranesi. This etching was made some one hundred years before the epic work of Erastus, (pardon me for the informality, but I simply love the name) but I could not put the work of Piranesi out of my mind while viewing Erastus’ unusual and thematically similar work.

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Historical Monument of the American Republic- Field, 1867-88

 

In concert, they strike me as one thing viewed from opposing directions. Piranesi’s work was all about the decrepitude, majesty and horror of the past: the “towering achievements” of mankind and nature’s momentary recapturing of ground. The glance is backwards, at once in awe of man’s splendour, as well as nature’s rebuke.

This tiny image on your screen of Erastus’s work was in fact something like nine feet by five (not sure why the brochure does not specify the size). The experience of standing close enough to read the text was completely different to standing back several feet and taking the whole world in at one time.

Like Piranesi (perhaps even artistically quoting him), Erastus makes use of art as an historical/political guide (including text, as well as a key to map out the historical events to which he represents -his painting focuses on the “conflict between the northern and southern states that culminated in the Civil War” [the hall where his work is hung has a handy brochure explaining his bio and specific detail of this work]), the towers of shame or enlightened achievement side by side leading to a fascinatingly weird railroad in the sky.

Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of seeing this odd work – it was the very first painting we came to after, as Tasha notes on her blog, spending some time in the Dr. Suess garden. In fact the order may have been key- we were mesmerized by a huge structure made of dried vines that had the look of Russian onion domes, then we loitered around bronze sculptures of  Thing One and Thing Two, and then- Erastus.

Our minds were prepped in a certain way….so that the combination of the hilariously neatly curbed foreground and the utopian skyway made me think this painting, a paeon to industry,  is one that is anticipating a glorious future made from the ground up by man’s reason. It has a “we can do it!” declaration that seems painfully earnest in hindsight. Perhaps if Erastus had taken Piranesi’s message a little more to heart he might have tempered his hopeful tone.

But…maybe the truth, or the beauty,  is- we don’t know. Call it foolish earnest hope, or the glory of mystery….At any moment we can walk into a room, turn a corner and be struck dumb with wonder.

 

 

Concupiscent Misreadings

girl_eating_oysters_oestereetstertje_by_jan_ste_poster-r4edaef2141d049adbd7427522df616cc_q9f_8byvr_512The Frick Collection is having a special exhibition of works from the The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague while it is being renovated. My daughter and I stood in the line which wrapped around to 5th Ave. the other day to see it. One room is entirely devoted to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. It is a lovely painting of course, but we were somewhat bemused over why that painting deserves a room of its own. I suspect Colin Firth is to blame. Never mind, the second room has many more stunning paintings: Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Hals and others.

We were transfixed by a lovely little still life of fruit by Adriaen Coorte. I said to my daughter, after reading the title, “Hm. How odd. They don’t look like apples, they look like peaches.” I couldn’t figure out why an artist would put a stone-fruit crease in apples. She politely ignored me and it wasn’t until I looked at the brochure much later that I read the title again: Still Life With Five Apricots. I swear it had said apples. Maybe I have an apple preoccupation. I blame Eve.
“How could you let me blather on about apples?” I asked her.
“I was just confused how to argue with your opinion about what an apricot should look like,” she answered.
“Because,” I hissed- if one could hiss via a text message exchange,  “I thought it read apples! Apples!”
sigh. The truth is, most of my friendships are epistolary and my ability to misread or commit egregious typos is pretty spectacular. It’s like my brain has this powerful editor that works itself into a sputtering froth always trying do things like make apricots look like apples.  Who will save me from myself? Clearly not my daughter.

Anyway. Never mind false apples and fake pearl earrings, the painting that really deserves a room of its own was Jan Steen’s  Girl with Oysters. The smallest painting in the exhibit, my daughter breezed past it, drawn as she was to the painterly virtuosity displayed in a fabulous cuff of lace on the far wall, but I made her come back so she could appreciate the brilliance of the little scene of a girl sitting demurely on a bed eating oysters with a look of complete joyous lasciviousness in her eyes.

I have decided that the reason why pornography depressed me so much is that it absolutely lacks that look. Without getting all D.H. Lawrence about it by contemplating the life affirming potential of passionate Love, I think the reason perhaps why pornography is so weird (and I freely admit that my familiarity of the genre is very limited and dated) is that it’s all business. Animalistic business. I find a lot of modern literature and art suffers from a tendency towards the crassness of porn. Mistaking explicitness for authenticity. There is so little delight. So little celebration. Pornography misses the sweetness in the apple’s sin. In Girl with Oysters, completed in 1660, while not even addressing the separate question of Love per se, Steen has captured the very essence of what’s different and wonderful about human sex: it’s the fun.

Trompe l’oeil

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The Dead Thrush. Jean-Antoine Houdon in the Portico Gallery of the The Frick

I spent Sunday afternoon at The Frick Collection in NYC with my daughter and two friends. I hadn’t been for many years. I really wanted to see Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. When you get to know a painting from an image in a book or on the computer the truth is- you have no idea what you are looking at. So many perceptual cues are removed:  the true color, hue and scale are mere whims of a lens, paper or screen through which you see a tiny representation of the actual object.

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Truth and certainty are concepts that I cannot grasp yet continually grapple with. A trompe l’oeil is an overt attempt to control the “truth” of the viewer’s eye and brain. Houdon’s marble relief sculpture of a dead thrush was made (according to the Frick’s info) for the purpose of proving sculpture to be a superior demonstration of art’s ability to fool your eye. It is a stunning work. Your brain knows it is hard, cold marble, but that belly, that belly… is soft, the thin wings still warm with the vestiges of life, you’d swear the feathers had just billowed in a quiet breeze. The sculptured thrush is life size and the urge to gently hold this little bird in your hand is intense.  The artist has done all he could to complete the deception.

But there are many levels of deception. Standing in front of St. Francis in the Desert was mesmerizing for its beauty, but also because of the adjustment I had to make when confronted with the truth of the real painting. The colors were nothing that could be reproduced on thin, dry paper. The sheen and smoothness of the paint, the clarity and calm of the large painting were all but unknown to me. And yet, and yet, I had loved the piece before I ever really saw it.

I have always been hesitant to enjoy the feeling of “knowing,” always certain of only one thing- my uncertainty. And while it may be a measure of my own insecurities,  my life has discouraged the comfort of surety. Forays into the foreign terrain of certainty have been disastrous for me. But at the same time the suspicion that I stubbornly hold, that I am correct to doubt, is verified in matters large and small.

What comfort there is to be had stems from an understanding that what we think we know is but a hollow perception of time, influence, and circumstance. The rigidity of certainty will only break your heart. Better to appreciate each day, each work of art,  beautiful poem or person, for the changing, evolving things they truly are, in whatever form that it is available to you- now.

Wee Cool

Weegee, At an East Side Murder 1943

I went to see the Weegee: Murder is my Business exhibit at the International Center of Photography in New York City this past weekend. Years ago a friend directed a play about Weegee, I don’t remember very much, just the images projected onto the back wall and that it ran in reverse chronology. But it was fun; the photos are fun, despite the content. There is a fantastical quality to Weegee’s photographs. Something of the carnival barker lives in them. The thing I find most interesting is that his most prevalent subject, ostensibly the corpse, is really the spectators: the people surrounding the recently departed – cops, other reporters or excited crowds.  The faces of the spectators place the photos so firmly in the historic period: that moment in time after people were already used to photographic images, but not yet jaded by the over-exposure. In one photo of a crowd of hundreds and hundreds of people at Coney Island NO ONE is too cool to look at the camera.

There were other exhibits there as well. The Magnum Contact Sheets were a wonderful example of the off hand beauty found in a process that is now sadly passé. Trent Parks’s 7th Wave and Josef Koudelka’s Prague sheets were wonderful. A contact sheet isn’t a group of perfect photos. It’s that one (or two) perfect photo with all the imperfect ones leading up to and away: the movement that comes across is very nice. And now nostalgic as well.

Chein-Chi Chang and Greg Girard had wonderful photos in the Perspectives exhibit. Chang’s were intimate photos of immigrant families, the composition and rich tones were really beautiful. Girard had a series of photos of American bases mostly in Japan. I found them fascinating; the Japanese personality of place was so completly transformed by the “mini-Americas” that were the bases. It was surreal.

The final exhibit I saw was The Loving Story by Greg Villet. Very nice photographs documenting the Lovings, an interracial couple arrested for “illegally” returning to their home-state as husband and wife. It’s a poignant historical story of racism, forbidden love, and human grace.

Most of us see a lot of photographs everyday, mostly online. Seeing them in person, the scale, the quality of the paper and color was a genuine treat.

All That’s Neue

We were hustled in the door, our bags increasing our bulk through the black wrought iron and glass doors that the security guard held open as he spit out the rules and regulations of entering the building in a hurried monotonous stream. Our heads half frozen from the cold just nodded and moved past him into the foyer where two more guards looked through our bags. ”You have drinks.” One of the guards remarked to me. “Oh. Yes, true.” I acknowledged looking at the four bottles of Schweppes bitter lemon sodas. “No drinks.” he said.  “But they’re closed, you’d need an opener to open them, they are not water bottles, yes they are liquids, but we are not drinking these. No, they are not even for us, they’re gifts for someone else. Couldn’t open them if we even wanted to- which we don’t actually want to do.”

He abandoned our babbling and went to get the guard outside, “They have drinks” he tattled on us. We looked at Head Guard as he approached, our eyebrows raised, eyes lowered in innocent supplication. In a disgusted voice he said, “No. I already told you: NO drinks. I said that.” “Yes. True. You did say that,” I rejoined, his former words and admonitions only just landing on my brain at that very moment, “but we are not drinking these. Ever.” He waved us off,  deciding that he’d wasted enough time on us already, but ordered us to check our bags. After the metal detector and the pat down, we finally got into the Neue Galerie.

Was that all-together necessary I asked myself while standing in the bag-check line which prominently proclaimed itself in immodest generosity: complimentary. The munificence ended there. Surely the entrance fee, at $20, is steep enough to make all the security an extraneous measure in keeping away the riff raff.

After wandering around the bookstore, while we waited for a friend to join us, I weakened and gave in to my book lust. I only purchased one. One small little tiny book. The littlest indulgence really. I occupied myself while waiting in the admission line by coming up with a justification for my purchase: I triumphantly pulled out my student ID, cutting the fee in half: I had just saved myself $10 and was therefore free to spend it. They were always going to get their $20 anyway. Who am I to argue?

The Neue Galerie is a museum in a spectacular “house” at 5th Avenue and 86th street in NYC. We were there to see Egon Schiele, my daughter’s favorite artist. It is mostly comprised of German and Austrian artwork collected by Ronald Lauder. The collection is really impressive, the man has good taste. Our only complaints were reserved for the curator: the pieces were too clustered together and the information about each piece was sequestered to one corner of each wall or room. If you wanted to know what you were looking at, you had to walk across the room and puzzle out whose piece belong to whom. In one room there were many wonderful Klimt sketches lining a wall and then on the next, rows of Scheile’s, three or four high and maybe seven across. Unfortunately the top row was too high up to see well unless you were right underneath and then the lighting obscured the glass. There were many other artists to see as well, Kadinsky, Cezanne, Klee, van Gough, an armory and Medieval room we breezed through and many more. Upstairs we saw a beautiful Picasso: Woman with a Raven. But the Schiele’s… they were really so amazing to see.  We had to visit that room twice before we left; that and the two sculptures by George Minne: Kneeling Youth, that my daughter was particularly taken with: they were extraordinary.

We reluctantly passed by the fabulous looking Café Sabarsky on the first floor on our way out. When we got back to my friend’s home she put together a very fine facsimile of the Viennese style coffee house in her kitchen. Brooklyn – Vienna…close enough. Schließen Sie genug.