Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Backstage at the Met

On my last trip to NYC, I scheduled a full day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; well, a full day interpsersed with lunch at the lovely Cafe Sabarsky (at the Neue Galerie), and walks in the park.  Besides seeing some favorite paintings and the Egyptian temple, we visited the arms and armor section to see the Negroli Helmet, which was quite stunning.  This on the recommendation of PS, who had been reading Danny Danziger’s book about the museum, entitled simply Museum, in which he interviews a wide selection of people employed by or connected with the museum, including the security guards, the Director himself, Board members, the cleaning crew, etc., giving a broad and fascinating portrait of a great institution.  Especially great was hearing from the curators about their personal favorites, the one thing they would save if the building caught on fire.  The point is, I never would have gone into arms and armor without some reference point, some item to hone in on. After reading Danziger’s book, I have a new list of such items and am looking forward to my next visit.


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The book is Pictures at an Exhibition, by Sara Houghtling, set in Paris  before and after WWII; the narrator is the son of a Jewish art dealer; and the tragedy is the looted paintings, many lost forever, in particular, standing in for the rest, “Almonds” by Manet.  Apparently the publicly owned treasures were protected by the armistice, but privately held works, especially when held by Jews, were free game for the Nazis, and left France by the trainload. The plot is garbled, even foolish in places, unearned sentiments crop up and annoy the reader, the passion is for the pictures and to explain what happened, but the desire is lost in meaningless plot twists and unconnected occurrences.  Bernard is a great character who could have been more fully-explored; his loss is a true tragedy.  Too much weight is placed on Rose, who is actually based on a real woman who tried to chronicle in secret the stolen artwork, yet her character doesn’t ring true. The narrator is likeable, his parents are believable, but the whole subplot of the missing sister is brought in too late to explain too much.  Paris is nicely rendered.  What I liked most, besides the reproductions of lost paintings, was the explanation of the title, of course, based on the piece by Mussorgsky, but who wrote it for the paintings of Victor Hartmann.  The painter died young and the paintings were lost, so the music is all that’s left – I never knew that. Finally, I liked her writing style and many of her characters; I kept feeling that there was a good novel somewhere in there but it was difficult to get at.  Once again, a writer failed by editors – too bad.

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Key West was great fun, with gorgeous weather and great food.  My favorite attraction was the Hemingway House Museum.  It’s a beautiful, historic house with two-story verandas, tall shutters and lush gardens.  The guide was a bit jaded, but told all the amusing stories about the wives, the cats, the pool, etc.  The photos on the wall are worth perusing and the cats are fun to observe (there is also a cat condo and cat cemetery).  After that we went to the Key West Art and Historical Society located in the Old Custom House. They had a intriguing exhibit by J. Seward Johnson who does the lifelike plaster statues of ordinary people.  In this exhibit, entitled “Icons”, he has replicated famous works of art as plaster statues, so there is a three-dimensional “Mona Lisa” as well as “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.”  By floating frames in the air in front of the statue, the viewer gets the impression of looking at the actual painting, then you can have your companion stand in the frame with the subject.  It sounds weird, but it was actually rather thought-provoking.  They also have a pretty good history of Key West exhibition and a Hemingway room that adds a slightly different perspective to what is learned at the Hemingway House museum.  Both are well worth visiting.  As you might expect, there are lots of local artists in Key West.  Some of the best local galleries are at the southern end of Duval, away from the Bourbon Street atmosphere toward Front Street.  We liked 1100 So Du and bought a painted tile of Hemingway’s House by Fran Decker.  When I settled by the pool on our first afternoon, after finishing both of my New Yorker magazines on the plane, I discovered that the book I brought with me (The Ionian Mission, by Patrick O’Brian) was not the next one I needed to read in the series (I should have brought Desolation Island instead.)  Once I am involved in a series, I must stay in order, so I started up Duval in search of a bookstore.  I was sure I was out of luck until I spied “Key West Island Books” down a side street (513 Fleming).  It is just the kind of bookstore I love, filled with a jumble of new and used books, and I quickly snatched one off the shelf, “A Confederacy of Dunces”  by John Kennedy Toole.  What a mistake! It definitely had promise, and I bought into the initial bizarreness of Ignatius, his mother and all the rest, but after awhile I gave up.  It was mildly amusing in the beginning, but gradually became tiresome.  I left it on the plane. 

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On Art

While cleaning up my office – the more I clean the messier it gets – I came across a New Yorker clipping from the 5/27/96 Talk of the Town segment about a speech by art critic Robert Hughes. It is entitled “The Case for Elitist Do-Gooders” and was written when the NEA (along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) were under attack by the Republican Congress. Here is some of what Hughes said:

“Of course, the economic argument is the merest flimflam. The drive to abolish the NEA (or to cut its funds to the point where it’s unworkable…) has nothing to do with the economy–not in a Congress that last year voted the Pentagon seven billion dollars more than it had asked for. Eliminating the NEA is simply a bone that Congress can throw to the extreme right. It is a cheesy piece of political symbolism, mounted by opportunists who want to show their populist credentials, and who don’t care what the destruction of the NEA does to the public culture of America.”

And further on:

“One of the ways you measure the character–indeed the greatness–of a country is by its public commitment to the arts. Not as a luxury; not as a diplomatic device; not as a social placebo. But as a commitment arising from the belief that the desire to make and experience art is an organic part of human nature, without which our natures are coarsened, impoverished, and denied, and our sense of community with other citizens is weakened. ……The arts are the field on which we place our own dreams, thoughts, and desires alongside those of others, so that solitudes can meet, to their joy sometimes, or to their surprise, and sometimes to their disgust. When you boil it all down, that is the social purpose of art: the creation of mutuality, the passage from feeling into shared meaning.”

Wow! I love that line “where solitudes can meet.”

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