Monday, June 4, 2012

From the Mixed-up Files of Belle.... notes from my visit to the Metropolitan Museum last Thursday...
Friday, June 1, Brooklyn. Good morning darling. It's dawned a beautiful clear sunny day, cool and dry, and so it's blessedly still and quiet now, since I've turned off all the fans. I hear the faint twittering of Brooklyn birds singing outside, over the steady whooshings past of cars. I wanted to note more of my impressions of my visit to the Metropolitan Museum yesterday. I've been going there my entire life - my mother and I would take pilgrimages there several times a year when I was a girl, going by train from Stamford to Grand Central. It was about the only museum she ever took me to, besides the Frick -- usually we'd visit both the same day. So yesterday as I crossed Fifth Avenue at 83rd and approached the grand edifice, it was with a sense of proprietary, comfortable return to a familiar place that is always, as if outside time, there, that splendid earthly pleasure palace.

By the time I left, two-and-a-half hours later, I was so filled with a dismaying array of disparate images from having seen a number of exhibitions, each wildly different from the next, that my immersion in all these images, colliding now in my head as I found myself in the peaceful reaches of the marbled Greek and Roman halls, was almost hallucinatory, phantasmagorical, as if I'd woken from a succession of very vivid vibrant dreams, or - the thought occurred to me - that I was here in a kind of palatial heaven on earth, with its superabundance, all collected under one massive roof, in room after capacious room, of the most remarkable beautiful colorful artifacts, relics, works of art, and treasures. I truly had a feeling of sensory overload, it was impossible to absorb it all.
(Also, I couldn't help feeling, perhaps a bit snidely and unfairly, that this had been a far more fulfilling, substantial experience than viewing the Cindy Sherman exhibit at MOMA the day before, which for its one-note repetitiousness and bleak cataloguing of the female subset of aging harpies, had left me cold -- I think there is only so much detached, vaguely mocking irony and grotesquerie that I can bear... an excess of it, so many of Sherman's works assembled all together, and to me it veers into parody, and self-parody. I had viewed the show with the benefit of a free audioguide, and when I returned it & got my drivers license back, the young woman clerk asked me, so what did you think? And I said that I found it a little too ironic and mocking "since I'm not at all like that" (which isn't strictly relevant, yet that was my reaction), and she responded, "Oh neither is Cindy Sherman, she's the nicest, most unassuming person you'd ever want to meet." Well, then that makes for a very interesting contrast right there, I replied. And certainly (I'm thinking now) Sherman has her place, but perhaps it's a rather small niche, and there is something "fashionable" about her work -- hip & cool on some level to dig her, and to be aware of her work -- rather than deeply-felt, that it's more in the realm of fashion & style, than of fine-art. I know very well that in terms of aesthetic critique, I'm way over my head --- so I will forthwith swim back to shore.)


Ceci n'est pas un Cindy Sherman
Ah, so back to the Shangri-la of the Met. My initial intention had been to check out the new Islamic, Arab, and Asian Wing, which recently opened. But on my way there I was immediately and delightfully waylaid by an all-too-tempting intimately-scaled exhibit, in a few small cozy rooms -- "Naked Before the Camera," which turned out to be essentially a charming collection of vintage cheesecake -- many 19th and early 20th century images of winsome damsels, and some exquisite male specimens too, posing in the nude in the early days of photography. So that was an unexpectedly naughty way to dip my feet into the lovely, shallower waters of the Met's vast ocean!

Then I wandered through the galleries that housed a beautiful and fascinating exhibition having to do with the geographic intersection of divergent civilizations - Byzantium and Islam -- in the Near East in the 7th to 9th centuries. A seemingly arcane subject, and I don't pretend to have absorbed it, or to have paid as close attention as the show truly deserved. And yet I was able to get a sense of it, and of a place and time so far away, and very long ago --- and usually I have no visceral grasp of that scale and vastness of time. For example, this past Sunday was the Pentecost, which as the Rev. M. explained to the congregation, commemorates the Church's Birthday, two thousand years ago. I sat at the organ, blithely listening, thinking, okay, 2000 years, nice round number – but I didn't "feel" it. But here at the Met were handwritten, in fine inked calligraphy, early Christian bibles -- and already then the Church was 600-700 years old -- imagine! Christ had died all those years in the even then distant past, and here were all these beautiful artifacts, and images of monks and of saints, and bibles, and religious imagery, all made devotedly by hand, in the furtherance and sustenance of Christianity and the early church. The scale of time eclipsed was suddenly palpable - and here we are in the 21st century, so many centuries later still. There was much beauty in that exhibition, and it was astonishingly comprehensive -- presenting artifacts from diverse cultures that flourished in Byzantium, not just Christian but Jewish as well; there was a room devoted to "commerce," and another that displayed ancient, fragile pieces of clothing; there were architectural details, beautiful mosaic floors -- there was a lot, and each detail so finely-crafted, and deeply-felt. Every object - from the most rare and sacred, to the most common everyday – was decorated and imbued with beauty. I couldn't help but contrast all these beautiful fragmentary relics, made in an age before machinery & mass-production and all the rest, with our own age. Are we worthy of this inheritance? The best our general culture today can come up with is a bunch of blank big-box stores and asphalt parking lots? What will generations ahead in the future see of our time? Have we squandered our inheritance? I know I'm being too bleak perhaps -- except that in that show I had the sense of all aspects of social, cultural, and religious life in that age, as partaking in the creation of beautiful objects and images -- there was a sense of joyful, deeply meaningful abundance.

My next stop at the Met was wildly different -- an exhibition that brought together a great many of the contemporaneously created late 19th and early 20th century paintings, that were collected by the Stein family, including Gertrude Stein, in Paris. I'm making a long story short, but they were great collectors and patrons, and bought and sold and traded paintings, and befriended artists, notably Matisse and Picasso. And that's where I encountered Bonnard's Siesta! One of the Steins had owned it for a time, a year or two – before trading it for a Gaughin and a Renoir. (I didn't make it sufficiently clear how rare this wholly unexpected opportunity for me to see it in person was -- it's on loan for this exhibit, all the way from Australia. I am so glad I got to see it -- and can only imagine my heartbreak, if I had subsequently learned that it was here and had missed it. So talk about total serendipity, for me.) Here was gallery after gallery after gallery of the most wondrous paintings -- it was all too much! Many Picassos and Matisses, and Renoirs, Cezannes --- unbelievable. And there were very clever and incredibly effective notes of curatorial inspiration. Such as, in one corner was an empty space, about 500 square feet -- the size of Leo Stein's first Paris studio, in which he started to collect art. And on all three walls of this space, were projected to-scale wall-size images of the art that lined his walls, over the years... it was like a film, as you could see how his collection grew and the walls became filled up. It was astonishingly immediate - you felt as though you were there, in that apartment. I was so blown away by this, that I remarked to a woman standing next to me - isn't this cool?! And her eyes widened, and she nodded her head vigorously, and said enthusiastically -- totally!

Then there was the new Islamic wing… a treasure trove… and what stands out now in my mind are the large-scale Persian rugs hung like enormous banners from on high, each two or three stories tall - I felt positively dwarfed surrounded by this collection that lined the walls of the gallery, whose coffered ceiling itself was an intricately carved work of art as well – I craned my neck to admire it.

And then there was a Costume Institute exhibit of the fashion designers, Elsa Schiaparelli and Miuccia Prada… exquisite costumes, timeless, in a witty presentation, in which the actress Judy Davis plays Elsa, and Ms. Prada is herself, and the two women are engaged in a filmed dialogue, that is projected on the walls throughout the rooms of the exhibit, so that one is constantly in their presence, overhearing snatches of their imaginary conversation. Here too, in one of the rooms, which contained aisles of transparent cases housing mannequins in their exuiqistely tailored outfits – and it was a hall of mirrors in this gallery, dizzying, in amidst the costumes I kept catching immediate clear glimpses of myself – I looked alright, but a bit of weight still to lose from my middle, and my outfit – oh dear, I thought it was quite nice, but amid all this haute couture splendor – well, Peebles isn’t Prada. So I felt, a little, as though from a fashion point of view, I wasn’t cutting it, wasn’t meant to be there…

It was a relief to come to the end of the exhibit, and quit catching inadvertent, disconcerting glimpses of myself as well as improbable, ever-impetuous, impishly smirking and hamming Judy Davis… and so from that kaleidescopic exhibit I found myself summarily ejected into the sober, quiet, dim halls of the Arts of Oceania, from which I made my way back to the Greek and Roman marble statuary, onward to the great hall, out the door, and into the fresh air and sunshine of a Fifth Avenue afternoon.

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