27 May, 2007

Brotherly love

At the age of eight I accompanied my parents, and possibly my grandfather, who was then living in a retirement community in rural Pennsylvania, to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a new experience for me, and this remains my earliest memory of any art gallery in the world. I fell in love with that old bastard Picasso around this time, but what really set me off, I think, was this, Chagall's 1911 Half Past Three (The Poet)

A green head—and upside down! It captured me. Such was the inexorable course I took towards a puberty-long love of modernist painting. I was soon to trick up a theory, too: while browsing the Musée Picasso, which was at that time my Mecca, I decided, apropos of not much, to found my own aesthetic calculus on three 'primary' qualities, each ranked out of 10: colour, weight (or solidity), and balance. The middle term charged me as something of a Berensonian, I realise now, though of course I had never heard of him. So for the next hour I scuttled around the gallery, rating each canvas out of 30. It satisfied me then. But a man changes, and I would not remain Clive Bell forever. Now Chagall bores me. Cooled, in fact, are my affections to a vast majority of the art that occupied the first ten years of my gallery-going life. But even now, as Chagalls go, this is better than average—perhaps you will agree.


Why the reminiscence? Yesterday I returned to the Philadelphia Museum with my wife: my first time since the first time. On this occasion we scorned the modernists, and clove solely to the pre-1500 masters on the second floor. Mrs. Roth admired the fragments of Gothic baukunst; I marvelled at the Van der Weyden Crucifixion, a primitive Navicella by Giovanni di Paolo, and some second-tier late Botticelli predellas. There was also this, unexpectedly, in a sea of orientalia to which I remained largely indifferent:

A combination-padlock securing a nineteenth-century Chinese chest, and far handsomer than its client. At six or so, as the sunlight intensified in the west, Jeff 'Tain' Watts and his band appeared for a scheduled performance in the gallery's atrium. The smart set sat on the grand stone steps; the smarter sat at tables, nibbling on salads and quaffing red—I watched with amusement from the balcony as a gourmand and his wife took turns fondling the lower back, not quite the bottom, of their young waitress as she bent over to clear the table, chastely uniformed—a little moment of voyeurage almost lost in the whobub of glasses and cutlery and Tain's frenzy on the skins.


With us were Paul Zenoli and his wife Marty, who had invited us, on the basis merely of the Varieties and subsequent correspondence, to spend a couple of days with them in and around Philadelphia. (Finally, an ulterior use for this thing!) They are, truth be told, a most splendid couple, whose hospitality during our short stay was impeccable—a Baucis and Philemon of our times, replete with cats and laughter, although being mere mortals ourselves we could not quite repay their generosity.

With the Zenolis we partook on foot a little of the city in its wafting glow. Through Rittenhouse Square we walked, and it thought me of Jane Jacobs, whose case study of the four Philadelphian squares is a beacon of attentiveness and crisp thinking. A graffitum opposite the fountains proclaimed, 'Life is more than just love'. But Marty was more interested in the prams and strollers, of which she spoke like an automobile enthusiast, full of love, and lovingly scornful of the overpriced and underdesigned models being jollied about under the trees by affluent bourgeoisettes in the latest summer-frocks. She seemed to know what she was talking about, and her cogent and unusual contempt was just the sort of thing to delight me.

When exploring a new city, the candescence of evening—or morning—is quite the ticket. (Though punishing rain has its merits too.) Being alone gives the experience its own thrill; having company, on the other hand, even unmet company, as we did, provides the new environment with a certain readymade familiarity. At times I was reminded of Manhattan; at times Berkeley, especially in the profusion of surface detail upon façades of brick and stone. On Thursday we took in the Mütter Museum, a latterday wonderkammer, taciturn and macabre, whose highlights included a Huttesque colon, a case of suicided skulls, and several drawerfuls of objects removed from foolish throats.

I enjoyed the Mütter; but to me the greater museum was the one outside, full of living specimens and huge, intricately-carved machines for living in. The city, for once, had just the right amount of life, neither crowded nor empty. When we emerged from the darkness, Paul's lost cap was discovered in the middle of the road, ground into the dirt by innumerable wheels in the space of an hour, yet quite intact. He wore it jauntily, undeterred.

For supper, by which time we'd all relaxed a bit with each other, Paul cooked up a polenta with onions, walnuts and bleu cheese, perfectly delicious. As I said at the time, I'm always impressed by culinary skills, so lacking am I in that department. The herbs and vegetables they had grown themselves—il faut cultiver le jardin—and all of us at that moment were feeling old, in a happy way: sated. We toasted, as was most natural, the internet, most revolutionary of modern innovations, for bringing together such an unlikely gang. And we were each just a little relieved that the others' online sanity had not, after all, concealed psychoses in the real world. All four heads were distinctly white, not green, and, thank goodness, on the right way around.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Baucis and Philemon is high praise - how wonderful! There is indeed a tangible relief after successfully braving such an unknown...