Click here for the concert that I was privileged to attend on Sunday the 9th, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine assembled before this magnificent Christmas tree, in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. (You can toggle back to the first screen and gaze upon the tree, while listening to the music.)
For more on this music, and on Christmas in New York, click here.
It’s been many years since I was in Manhattan at Christmas time. I was there last weekend. Wanting to be as close to the Metropolitan Museum as possible, I stayed at a small hotel on the Upper East Side. There were some delightful decorations along Madison Avenue. The windows of Ralph Lauren’s flagship store were gorgeous!
(The building seen at 00:28 through to 00:34, a French Renaissance revival edifice completed in 1898, is called the Rhinelander Mansion.)
What I was most excited to see was the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each year the Museum puts up a Christmas tree decorated with eighteenth century figures from Neapolitan Nativity scenes. It’s been many years since I’ve seen this moving and beautiful display.
(Thanks go to my husband Ron for creating the above video montages.)
Sunday night my friend Helene and I attended a concert at the museum. Directed by Kent Tritle, the Choir of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine presented a program of sacred music entitled O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery’). In all my years of going to the Met, I’d never been there when the museum was not completely open. Certain galleries were lit, especially those that led to the Medieval Sculpture Hall where the concert was to be held. Others were roped off and dark. We came in through the Roman Sculpture Court.
This was the set-up for the performance: . The choir entered from the right; we heard them before we saw them. They were singing a Gregorian Chant entitled Veni, veni Emanuel. They entered slowly, grouping themselves directly in front of the Christmas tree.
Here, the chant is sung by the Christendom College Choir and the Schola Gregoriana:
Neither photography nor videorecording were permitted on this occasion, so I have selected some YouTube videos of several of the pieces performed by the choir. This setting of O Magnum Mysterium by Tomas Luis de Victoria is sung by The Sixteen:
Several of the pieces on the program were by twentieth century composers. I was especially taken by this Ave Maria by Franz Biebl, a composer with whom I was not familiar.
And I was delighted to find a video of Chanticleer singing this luminous work in the very same space where Sunday night’s concert took place:
This performance is by the King’s College Choir, King’s College, Cambridge. It’s accompanied by these comments from the poster:
Probably the best and most moving piece of music I have ever heard. I was lucky enough to be able to watch this on “Carols from Kings” on Christmas Eve 2009 and it left me in tears. The beauty of the harmonies and the control of Kings College Choir transcends all words and I was left in a state of shock quivering and speechless. I have never heard anything like this in all my life! I never want it to end!
The piece that I heard at the Bach Concert earlier this year is called”Dirait-on:”
Can music be too beautiful? For me, “Dirait-on” comes close…..
At the close of the concert, the choir, once again singing Gregorian chant, made its stately way out of the Medieval Sculpture Hall, to the gallery at the right.
Here is Conditor alme siderum, sung by the Schola Gregoriana Mediolanensus of Milan, Italy:
How could something be so magical? We were transported. O Magnum Mysterium, indeed.
Of course, it was not nearly enough.
How could it possibly be? The Met’s website contains this statement: “Today, the Museum’s two-million-square-foot building houses over two million objects, tens of thousands of which are on view at any given time.” So you see, ten hours was downright paltry! (The building itself was designated a National Landmark in 1986.)
My first goal was to see the newly revamped American Wing:
The Metropolitan Museum’s collection of American art, one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world, returns to view in expanded, reconceived, and dramatic new galleries on January 16, 2012, when the Museum inaugurates the New American Wing Galleries for Paintings, Sculpture, and Decorative Arts. The new installation will provide visitors with a rich and captivating experience of the history of American art from the 18th through the early 20th century. The suite of elegant new galleries encompasses 30,000 square feet for the display of the Museum’s superb collection.
This final phase of the American Wing renovation project is comprised of 26 renovated and enlarged galleries on the second floor. The new architectural design is a contemporary interpretation of 19th-century Beaux-Arts galleries, including coved ceilings and natural light flowing through new skylights. The redesign, which has added 3,300 square feet of gallery space, also allows for a chronological installation of the American paintings and sculpture, and improved pathways connecting to adjacent areas of the Museum.
(For the full text of this article, click here.)
In order to view this marvel, one must penetrate to the farther recesses of the museum. I chose to enter via the Egyptian Art Gallery. Well, to heck with goals; there was no rushing through this:
For more on the Met’s amazing Egyptian galleries, go to the list of “Galleries” on the museum’s site. The Egyptian Galleries are ninth. If you can’t stop yourself from looking at other things along the way – well, believe me, I understand!
And we will get to the New American Wing – eventually….
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed The Queen of Spades in the late 1880s. the year 1890 saw the premiere of this opera, which was based on a short story by Alexander Pushkin. The composer’s brother Modest wrote the libretto.
In this strange story, passions run high – it is Russia, after all – and supernatural elements are deftly woven into the plot. The action opens with Hermann, an army officer, professing his love for a young woman whose name he has yet to learn. By the time the first act ends, he has found out that her name is Lisa, she is the granddaughter of an aged countess – and she is already betrothed, to a fellow officer no less. While Hermann struggles to come to terms with this shattering news, he receives additional intelligence of a curious nature. This has to do with the card games that are such a popular pastime among the young soldiers and aristocrats. The countess, Lisa’s grandmother, is supposedly in possession of a powerful secret: If three cards are played in a specific order, the player cannot fail to win the hand, and all the money that has been wagered on it. Now at this point, not only is Hermann already in love with Lisa, he also perceives that despite her betrothal to another, she is likewise attracted to him. And so he thinks to himself: why not use this budding liaison to extract this valuable knowledge from the countess?
And so a plot is hatched, a conspiracy that ultimately leads to disaster. But on the way to this inevitable end, we were treated to much glorious singing, spectacular sets, and gorgeous costumes. God bless the Metropolitan Opera; they never do anything by halves!
Here are two of the opera’s opulent crowd scenes:
I should say that I came to this opera cold: not only had I never seen it or listened to it, I had no knowledge of the story line. I like to approach a work of art in this manner, sometimes. Of course, loving Tchaikovsky’s music as I do, I was reasonably certain that I would not be disappointed. In the event, it was a thrilling evening. One of the most unexpected delights came in the Second Act. At a masked ball, the guests are treated to an entertainment with a pastoral theme featuring both song and dance. The following video is of the same production we saw, but from an earlier year and with a different cast.
Everything about this interlude is utterly lovable, from the backdrop that is unrolled at the beginning and resembles one of Fragonard’s huge, dreamy canvases, to the music which is such a charming homage to Mozart, a composer Tchaikovsky revered. Aren’t the children wonderful? And those costumes!
Click here for a full summary of the plot of The Queen of Spades. And here are two reviews of this production, one by Anthony Tommasini the New York Times’s wonderfully knowledgeable and articulate music critic, and another from Operaticus, a site new to me.
On Tuesday I bought this collection of Pushkin’s stories; I wanted to get acquainted with the opera’s source material. It turns out that Tchaikovsky (either Piotr, Modest, or both) altered certain aspects of the original story. To begin with, Lisa is not the countess’s granddaughter. She is her ward, and she gets treated like a cross between a companion and a servant. Oddly, this put me in mind of the ingenue in the recently discussed novel Rebecca, who, when we meet her in Monte Carlo, is at the beck and call at the imperious and insufferable Mrs. Van Hopper. The countess is similar to Mrs Van Hopper, but worse:
The Countess N. was, of course, not an evil soul, but as the spoiled pet of society, she was capricious; she had grown mean and sunk into a cold egoism, like all old people whose fondest memories lay in the past and to whom the present was alien.
In Pushkin’s story, Lisa is not engaged to anyone, is alone and lonely except for the countess’s incessant demands:
Lizaveta Ivanovna was the martyr of the household.She poured the tea and was scolded for using too much sugar; read novels aloud and was blamed for all the faults of the authors; accompanied the Countess on her rides and was held responsible both for the weather and the condition of the pavement.
And on and no it goes, with nary an expression or gesture of affection toward the poor girl. Oh, she is an easy mark, poor Lisa, and Hermann has every intention of taking advantage of that fact. Love – at least, on his part – doesn’t enter into it at all.
This story is artfully wrought. It’s climax is shattering; the subsequent outcome – at least, for some of the characters – is downright prosaic, though ironically so. Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades” serves as yet another reminder of the sheer brilliance of the great Russian writers.
When my friend Helene and I are together, the talk of books is inexhaustible. I always come away with urgent recommendations that grow out of whatever we’ve been talking about. This time it was Russia and the Russians, and our perennial fascination with medieval Europe. I was receptive to the suggestion of the Stoppard play, having recently seen and hugely enjoyed his Arcadia. The Lewis title was new to me. I confess that I’ve had trouble reading this venerated author in the past, but I shall give it another go with this book.
I began my first full day in the city by going to the American Museum of Natural History. This is a place I used to visit as a child. I hadn’t been back in many years, but at Helene’s suggestion, I made it my destination. As I entered, I noted with satisfaction that the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall looked wonderfully old. (Was it always called that? I didn’t remember it being so.) The place was thronged with visitors. It took half an hour just to clear admissions – and I got there ten minute before the ten o’clock opening. I headed straight for the Rose Center for Earth and Space, inspecting some of the fascinating exhibits on view; from thence, to the Hayden Planetarium.
This was not the planetarium of my youth. The original building was demolished in 1997, to be replaced by a new state of the art facility. When it reopened in 2000, even sophisticated seen-it-all New Yorkers were stunned by what they saw:
The Hayden had also been equipped with the latest technological innovations. The the show that I attended was entitled “Journey to the Stars:”
Once inside the sphere, the visual and audio effects are mind boggling.
My next stop was the Hayden’s Big Bang Theater. In this venue, visitors arrange themselves around a circular railing and gaze down rather than up, while Liam Neeson tells you about the origins of the universe. Shorter than “Journey” (which was narrated by Whoopi Goldberg), but no less impressive.
Upon leaving the Rose Center I got lost, finally fetching up at “Body & Spirit: Tibetan Medical Paintings.” At the front of the long hall serving as the display space for this exhibit was a sign proclaiming: “This is a quiet gallery.” That alone was enough to persuade me to enter. Due most likely to the rather esoteric nature of the subject matter, the exhibit was sparsely attended. After the raucous exuberance of the crowds in other parts of the building, I was very grateful for the respite.
Here’s a brief video concerning the medical paintings:
Click here for more images from the exhibit.
I savored the contemplative interlude afforded me, and I loved this exhibit.
“This prolific author’s last book is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” – A Voice from Old New York, by Louis Auchincloss
When I heard that a memoir by Louis Auchincloss was due to be published posthumously, I knew I’d want to read it. Born in 1917, Auchincloss grew up in a world of wealth and privilege among the creme de la creme of New York society. This slim volume is filled with lively anecdotes. One of my favorites concerns Auchincloss’s Uncle Ed, who sent his shirts to Europe so they’d be properly laundered!
The Auchinclosses moved in exalted circles, although as is usual with children, young Louis took it for granted that the family should socialize with the elite of the period, including the Vanderbilts. I liked this summing up of that high profile clan by one of the era’s supreme chroniclers:
Edith Wharton spoke of the family as engaged in a constant Battle of Thermopylae against bad taste, which they never won.
(Wharton, a huge influence on Auchincloss, was known to his grandmother from their summers at Newport, Rhode Island.)
Some of the author’s recollections are poignant. For instance, he went to law school (University of Virginia) with Marshall Field IV. This scion of the wealthy Chicago department store and newspaper owners suffered a nervous breakdown in 1956 and endured a lifelong struggle with drug use. He died in 1965 at the age of 50. Auchincloss comments that “the story of the Fields is like that of the House of Atreus.” (These allusions to the classics and to ancient history serve as a dismaying reminder that a basic knowledge of these fields of study used to be presumed for all and any educated Americans.)
In the domestic sphere, Auchincloss’s mother did not have to do without: she had two nurses to assist with the care of four minor children, a cook, a waitress (!), a chambermaid for general housekeeping, and a chauffeur: “Her days were thus free for some not very taxing charity work, lunches with friends at her clubs, matinees or concerts, visits to museums.” Once again, this profusion of servants, a state of affairs that seems almost unimaginable to us now, would have been something that Louis and his siblings took for granted. To this description, Auchincloss appends some provocative observations on the status of women of that era:
It was commonly said that because so many women were possessed of great wealth in their own right, that they exercised considerable economic power. It is truer to say that they could have. But all that was left by tacit consent to the men. Women, before they took jobs in the professions, were content with the power they exercised in the home, where they ran the household and the children, selected the life style and the friends, chose the vacation spots and the charities to be supported and even the church to be attended.
In this passage, Auchincloss delineates those that comprised the entity called “society,” as it existed in New York City in the 1920s and’30s:
These persons resided on the East Side of Manhattan (never west except below Fifty-ninth Street) as far south as Union Square and as far north as Ninety-sixth Street. The members (if that is the word; it doesn’t seem quite right) were largely Protestants of Anglo-Saxon origin. (Note that Catholics and nonpracticing Jews were not always excluded if rich enough.) The men were apt to be in business, finance, or law, sometimes in medicine, rarely in the church and almost never in politics.
He adds that “Franklin Roosevelt was an exception and not a popular one, either.” I suspect that’s a bit of an understatement. Re Roosevelt: does one not frequently hear that he was considered “a traitor to his class”? I also liked the part about “nonpracticing Jews.” Better lose the skull caps and prayer shawls, fellas, if you want in!
Louis Auchincloss crossed paths with many who would later attain fame (or in some cases, notoriety). At the elite private boys’ school that he attended in Manhattan, he knew two future actors of some disctinction: Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Mel Ferrer.
Then it was on to Groton, the prestigious prep school in Massachusetts, where he counted William Bundy as a classmate. Bundy and his older brother McGeorge – called “Mac” by intimates – went on to become security advisers to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. At the time that Auchincloss was at Groton, Reverend Endicott Peabody, the school’s founder, was still headmaster. (Sophia Peabody Hawthorne, wife of Nathaniel Hawthorne, was an earlier scion of the same illustrious clan.)
Auchincloss went to Yale and then, as mentioned above, to the University of Virginia Law School. Finally in 1941, he obtained employment at the Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. The movers and shakers there were the Dulles brothers, Allen, the fifth director of the CIA, and John Foster, future Secretary of State under President Dwight D. Eisenhower. At different times during his tenure at Sullivan & Cromwell, the author worked for both brothers. He makes interesting observations about them:
Foster was sober, grave, dedicated to work, deeply religious, and utterly unimaginative in his dealings with clerks and staff. Allen, on the other hand, was hearty, cheerful, outgiving [sic], full of charm and humor. Where he was devoted, perhaps too much so, to the fair sex, Foster was strictly a faithful monogamist.
Probably Auchincloss’s most intriguing connection entered his life in 1942, when his father’s cousin Hugh D. Auchiincloss married Janet Lee Bouvier. It was his third marriage and her second. She already had two daughters, one of whom was to become one of the twentieth century’s most famous women: . (Hugh Auchincloss’s second marriage was to Nina S. Gore, mother of author Gore Vidal.)
Louis Auchincloss recounts a fascinating anecdote about Jackie Bouvier, as she then was. He had just written Sybil, and Jackie, at the time engaged to one John Husted of New York, strongly identified with the novel’s eponymous protagonist. She told him:
‘Oh, you’ve written my life….Sybil Bouvier, Sybil Husted. Respectable, middle-class, moderately well off. Accepted everywhere. Decent and dull.’
Auchincloss writes that at that moment, he had a premonition of an entirely different fate awaiting his pretty cousin. Still, he admits that no one in the family “…predicted her remarkable destiny.” (One week later, her engagement to Husted was broken.)
In his introduction to this memoir, Louis Auchincloss voices the hope that in taking us on this journey to the past – his past and ours – he will bring that past to life. In this effort, he has succeeded admirably.
Louis Auchincloss was a remarkably prolific writer. Here is his oeuvre, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Short story collections
- Reflections of a Jacobite (1961)
- Pioneers and Caretakers: A Study of Nine American Women Novelists (1965)
- On Sister Carrie (1968)
- Motiveless Malignity (1969)
- Edith Wharton: A Woman in Her Time (1972)
- Richelieu (1972)
- A Writer’s Capital (1974)
- Reading Henry James (1975)
- Life, Law, and Letters: Essays and Sketches (1979)
- Persons of Consequence: Queen Victoria and Her Circle (1979)
- False Dawn: Women in the Age of the Sun King (1985)
- The Vanderbilt Era: Profiles of a Gilded Age (1989)
- Love without Wings: Some Friendships in Literature and Politics (1991)
- The Style’s the Man: Reflections on Proust, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Vidal, and Others (1994)
- The Man Behind the Book: Literary Profiles (1996)
- Woodrow Wilson (Penguin Lives) (2000)
- Theodore Roosevelt (The American Presidents Series) (2002)
Auchincloss’s The Great World and Timothy Colt (1956) was adapted for television in an episode of the Climax! series (Season 4, Episode 22; Broadcast 27 March 1958).
It is difficult to believe that it was only only last that we bid Louis Auchincloss adieu. His work and his life belong so completely to a bygone era. The Kirkus reviewer of A Voice from Old New York commented that this last book from the author’s pen “…is a farewell to a way of life that was gone before he was.” Auchincoss would most certainly have agreed with this assessment.
It was the light. I was completely unprepared for it.
The painting seemed to be emitting light.
The colors, especially the blues, are rich and deep. The milkmaid concentrates on her task; she is probably making bread porridge. The prosaic task of pouring the milk is frozen in time forever. The bread looks good enough to eat!
But I kept coming back to the light, which seemed both ordinary and unearthly. The scene depicted in “The Milkmaid” is not ostensibly a religious one; nevertheless, the painting confers a kind of benediction on the viewer. I felt exalted in its presence (as did those on either side of me, judging by the rapt expression on their faces).
Currently mounted at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Vermeer’s Masterpiece the Milkmaid” is a small exhibit. (In “Dutch Touch,” his article in the New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl pronounced it “an example for recession-era museum practice.”) Also on view are the Met’s other Vermeers – they own five in all – plus other works by Dutch Genre painters.
What a gift these artists gave us, showing us people going about the business of life at the height of The Netherlands’ Golden Age. Centuries before the advent of photography, they have captured these quotidian moments for us to see all these many years on.
Art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s piece in the September 21 issue of The New Yorker- unfortunately the full text is not available online – is an odd mixture of masterful writing and puzzling assertions. First, he comments that Vermeer’s “View of Delft “doesn’t do a lot for me….It’s so bizarrely special – a fairyland city persuasively identical to an actual city….”
“View of Delft” – a painting I personally cherish – is not present at this exhibit, but “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher” is:
This is clearly a painting that Peter Schjeldahl adores. Here he is, waxing rhapsodic – not to mention quixotic – on the subject: “…a little patch of llapis-lazuli-tinted white, describing backlit linen in the head scarf of the Met’s “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher,” would have killed me a long time ago, if paint could.”
This rather disconcerting statement is followed by further (idiosyncratic and hyperbolic) expressions of rapture:
“The entering sunlight sustains all manner of ravishing adventures, throught the picture, but the incidental detail of the head scarf has affected me like a life-changing secret, whispered to me alone. I revel in it each time I see it–having misremembered it, of course, since the last time, helpless to retain the nuance of the color and the velleity of the painter’s touch. ‘Young Woman with a Water Pitcher’ is a Sermon on the Mount of aesthetiic value, in which the meek–or, at least, the humdrum, involving trifles of a prosperous but ordinary household, on an ordinary day–inherit the earth. Beholding it, I feel that my usual ways of looking are torpid to the point of dishonoring the world. At the same time, I know that my emotion is manipulated by deliberate artifice. An artist has contrived to lure me out of myself into aan illusion of reality more fulfilling than any lived reality can be.
Is it just me, or is there a bit too much of “I” in this piece? Art criticism or psychotherapy? And as for being “manipulated by deliberate artifice” – why, Dude, it’s a painting! It is by definition a work of art – and of artifice, one that is superbly executed. (We agree there.)
As to “The Milkmaid,” Schjeldahl is awed but at the same time ambivalent: “Like ‘Delft,’ ‘The Milkmaid’ exercises more dazzling virtuosity than I quite know what to do with.” What – it’s too good? too close to perfect? Or perhaps a case of too much showy genius in the service of a prosaic subject? I confess, I am well and truly stumped by this statement.
Ah, well – moving right along…
When I arrived at the museum last Friday, my intention was to proceed directly to this exhibit. In order to do so, you must pass through the Greek and Roman galleries. This I proceeded to do. But before I reached the Vermeers, I was stoppped dead in my tracks by these:
“Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time…
Stay tuned for the further adventures of a passionate art lover, who is thunderstruck for the first time by the “Grecian Urns,” objects she first saw at the age of eight…
Thursday night April 10, I took my friend Helene, a balletomane like myself, to New York City Center to see the Kirov work its magic. The program consisted of scenes from four different ballets: Le Corsaire, Diana and Acteon, Don Quixote, and La Bayadere.
How was it? Superlatives fail me. I don’t have the words, but the poets do. I keeping thinking of two passages in particular:: Romeo’s astonished declaration that “I ne’er saw true beauty till this night;” and the final lines of one of my favorite poems, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn:” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” Here’s the entire poem:
Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter, therefore, ye soft pipes, play on,
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never, canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal — yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping song for ever new,
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea-shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of its folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul, to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.
O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity. Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
As a meditation on the age-old desire to stop cruel time in its tracks, this work, for me, has no equal. I wished very powerfully that the performance we saw that night could be frozen in time, like “the marble men and maidens overwrought” on Keats’s vase. But I will cherish the memory. And there are pictures…
Leonid Sarafanov, whose spectacular leaps and light-as-a-feather landings repeatedly thrilled the audience.* (Here’s a “head shot” of the astounding Sarafanov taken last year. Doesn’t he look as though he’s all of fourteen years old?!)
This photo of Diana Vishneva, taken by Andrea Mohin, appeared in the New York Times on Sunday April 13:
The music, by turns robust and delicate, was played beautifully by the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theatre; most of the choreography was done by the great Marius Petipa. Helene and I gazed at the program in awe – such storied names…
Here is the Mariinsky Theatre’s official site. It is very oriented to the here and now – not much in the way of history, except for the acknowledgement, in tiny print, that this is there 225th season. For some interesting background, and great photos of the theater itself, see the Wikipedia entry.
For a fascinating cultural hisory of Russia, see Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes. (I won’t claim to have read through this massive tome; I’ve been using it primarily as a reference work since I purchased it several years ago.)
*For more terrific portraits of ballet dancers, see Gene Schiavone’s site.
So I had returned to my hotel in the late afternoon, after an intense several hours spent at the Metropolitan Museum Art. It had been one epiphany after another: the fabulous Courbet exhibit, followed by the equally fabulous Poussin exhibit – I went through both of them twice – lunch with Helene, one of my dearest and closest friends – a quick walk through the mysteries and beauties of the Asian wing, and finally, a taxi ride back, through the noisy, pungent chaos of the streets of New York. (Please, please institute congestion pricing, Mayor Bloomberg – sooner rather than later. Whence comes the perverse sense of entitlement that impels people to bring their vehicles into a city with such a comprehensive system of mass transit?)
Anyway – as I said, I’m back at my hotel. It’s about five o’clock and my head aches, as do my feet, and I feel grimy and exhausted…ah, New York, playground of my youth, do I need any better proof that I have left that youth far behind me? But wait..WAIT!! The headache abates, the energy flows back, the spring returns to my step.. and lo! I am getting a second wind!
Out I go again, bending my steps toward the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. But before I get there, I hear the siren song, and I am seduced, utterly vanquished…by Bergdorf Goodman’s justly famous display windows!
Bergdorf’s has had a presence on Fifth Ave. and 58th for as long as I can remember. But somehow, it seems to have grown exponentially.
Well, I couldn’t resist: I went inside. And Lo! I was greeted with blazing light, and bags and jewelry and more bags and more jewelry. And so, seeking to establish my bona fides as a smart, sophisticated shopper whose resources, while not exactly unlimited, are not paltry, either, I saunter over to one of the jewelry counters and announce: “I need gold earrings to wear to my son’s wedding in June.” (Aha! I finally found the ideal placement for that incredibly important nugget of info!)
“Oh, here’s a very nice pair, and they’re nicely priced, too,” says the saleswoman – oops, sorry, the sales associate – as she pulls out a nice, decidedly unremarkable pair of gold earrings. “How much?” I ask. The response: “Two thousand -” Please pardon the dash. I never heard the rest. And speaking of dashes, I performed one then and there, right out of that department! I fared no better with the bags, repeatedly encountering four numbers to the left of the decimal point.
Here, for instance, is one of the famous, fabulous Leiber bags. I do love it, but for $3,695.00 ?? Alas, I think not… And so I passed dolefully from the premises. So much for the Sophisticated Shopper!
Farewell, O Temple of High End Consumerism! Now we’re off to MOMA!!
I was eight years old when my mother first took me to this museum. It was then, like me, ever so much smaller. I recall walking up a winding staircasee and finding myself in a room with two paintings by Henri Rousseau, “Le Douanier”: The Dream and The Sleeping Gypsy. For almost my whole life I have carried their images with me in my mind’s eye. So…I wonder..Where are they now?
MoMa has become HUGE!! The lobby alone is a vast, echoing space. Lucky, too, because it was wall to wall people – noisy, crowded, and very festive. This was probably at least partly due to the fact that it was a “Target Free Friday Night,” meaning that admission is free on Friday evenings from four until closing at eight. (As a rule, I’m no fan of big box stores, but I really admire Target’s numerous philanthropic initiatives.)
I go up the main staircase – walking over a delightfully colorful installation – and no, it was not a mistake; it’s on the floor! – and instead of Rousseau’s two dreamy paintings, I see an object that resembles a table fan swinging crazily from the ceiling some six floors above. I would say it was a pendulum, except that it kept changing direction. At its lowest point, it was about ten feet from the floor; when it came toward you, you ducked instinctively, even though there was no danger. There was something inexplicably exhilarating about this installation; I laughed out loud and so did many others around me. Is it art? Well, you could debate that question. Is it fun? Definitely! (Something else that’s fun, and very cleverly executed, is the online exhibition “Color Chart.”)
For whatever reason, I was not able to find the swinging fan on the MoMa site; neither could I find its name in the atrium where it swung so merrily. I believe it’s called Ventilator and that it is by Olafur Eliasson, who is described in Wikipedia as a Danish/Icelandic artist. Eliasson recently had an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art called “Take Your Time.” Here’s the Ventilator as it was seen there, where they apparently had it installed in the lobby of the museum.
There were many other objects of interest in the second floor. (Notice my reluctance to term them “art works.”) Some were intriguing; others seemed simply bizarre. But in this temple to the modern and the postmodern, I found one work with roots that go back thousands of years. I stood before it dumbstruck, with a very strong sensation that I was destined to be standing there in front of it. It is called “Crowhurst;” the image, created by artist Tacita Dean , depicts a yew tree in Surry, in South East England, that is thought to be four thousand years old.
Dean has said that she was fascinated by this ancient tree and also drawn to its name because of the story of Donald Crowhurst. Crowhurst participated in a round-the-world yacht race in 1968. His craft, a trimaran, was found adrift; he himself was nowhere to be found. The mystery of his disappearance has never been solved, although current thinking apparently holds that he committed suicide.
I read The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst when it was first published in 1970, and I have never forgotten this strange, disturbing story. (Neither apparently have many others; see the section on “Literary and dramatic treatment” in the Wickipedia entry.)
After standing for some time before Tacita Dean’s stunning work, I roused myself and headed up to the fifth floor. There, I had been assured, is where I would find my old friends. And, sure enough, there they were…
The Bather, by Paul Cezanne
Bird in Space, by Constantin Brancusi
Picasso’s revolutionary Demoiselles D’Avignon
The Persistence of Memory, by Salvador Dali
Van Gogh’s Starry Night
Gare Montparnasse (The Melancholy of Departure), by Giorgio De Chirico
Broadway Boogie Woogie, by Piet Mondrian (Years ago I owned a dress whose print pattern looked alot like this painting!)
I and the Village, by Marc Chagall
There are many, many more. But I must reserve a place apart for the paintings by Henri Rousseau, as they are so dear to me:
The Sleeping Gypsy; and below, The Dream
I have to say that I’m somewhat disappointed as to the current placement of these works. The Sleeping Gypsy was hung rather unimaginatively on a plain white wall in the middle of numerous other works, some interesting, some not. And The Dream, inexplicably placed alone on a wall near the cafeteria, is now behind glass. While this insures that catsup won’t be inadvertently sprayed on it, the resulting glare makes for difficult viewing.
Possibly due to my (mild) annoyance concerning the above situation, I was especially delighted, when I later got around to reading that day’s New York Times, to find a delicious tale of irreverence entitled, “At the Modern, Art in a New York Minute.”
Nicholas Poussin lived from 1594 to 1665. Although French by birth, he spent most of his creative life in Rome. Read more about his life and art at one of my favorite online destinations, the Web Gallery of Art.
Enter “Nicholas Poussin and Nature” and you enter another world. Strange myths and stories from the Bible come to life; they are set against a backdrop of fabulous trees and sky and monumental structures from antique lands that may, or may not, have once existed.
In the catalogue that accompanies this exhibition, Pierre Rosenberg, in his essay “Encountering Poussin,” quotes the following from an essay by Jacques de Cambry that was first published in 1783:
‘All the Landscapes of this great Man [Poussin] have a character of majesty that is all his own: always simple, he does not divert himself by seeking and assembling so many small effects of light, by drawing small jets of water, little waterfalls; all the riches of Egyptian and Greek Architecture, all the tranquil and sublime beauties of Nature are transposed into his paintings. Always there is an interesting Episode that speaks to the soul, that indicates the emotion that the Viewer should experience; it is Diogenes in the outskirts of Athens, breaking a useless cup, after seeing a young man drink from the hollow of his hand. It is Saint John, amid the ruins and ravages of time, writing the Gospel. It is an old man under a leafy tree, giving himself up to philosophical reflections, after having hung up the arms and the lyre of his youth, in the tree that lends him its shade.’
And now, feast your eyes…
Landscape with Orpheus and Eurydice. She’s about to receive a fatal snake bite, poor thing, but Orpheus, her oblivious lover, just keeps singing and playing.
Landscape with Diogenes
Landscape with St. John on Patmos
Summer, or Ruth and Boaz
Blind Orion Searching for the Rising Sun
And finally, a painting long known to me but never actually seen until now:
The Arcadian shepherds, or Et in Arcadia Ego
Arcadia represents a place of pastoral beauty and peace. The phrase “Et in Arcadia Ego” has been taken to mean “Even in Arcadia, I – meaning Death – am here.” It is what is called a memento mori, a reminder of inevitable death. As in “The paths of glory lead but to the grave,” from Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard; also “In the midst of life we be in death” from The Book of Common Prayer.