Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Dutch Painting Triathlon

It has been a week of major developments in the Fifteenth Arrondissement, as we prosecuted a cultural triathlon that leaves me nearly too exhausted to get on a train in the morning—as our madcap pace requires—to go south to the Var to hang out for the week-end with our dear friends from Oxford days, Andrew and Edith Seth. In the middle of the week, at the invitation of Nick Chriss, we had a luncheon visit to the École de la Légion d’Honneur at Saint-Denis. Nick, who is one of the friends we have made at the American Cathedral, teaches English there. The school is among the great cultural and architectural treasures of France. It is a girls’ school, founded by Napoleon to provide an education for the daughters—and especially the female orphans, of whom his activities guaranteed a continuing abundance—of his most trusted lieutenants. The school takes the adjective “elite” to an altogether new level. To be considered for admission a girl must be the daughter or granddaughter of a légionnaire. And that’s the Légion d’Honneur, not the French Foreign Legion. The school was created atop and amidst the remains of the medieval monastery attached to the cathedral. The dining hall in which we lunched with a table-full of intermediate students of English was the old monastic refectory. The school buildings have managed to include, as well, a good bit of the original cloister plan.

Bright and early the next morning it was off to the Gare du Nord to catch a comfortable and speedy train to the Netherlands. The mission here was to give an after-dinner talk to the assembled Princeton Club of the Netherlands, meeting in the Hague. Our delightful host was Henk Gajentaan, a retired Dutch diplomat of ambassadorial rank, who awaited us on the train platform in an orange-and-black scarf of the kind normally donned only for the P-rade. The dinner took place, and so did the talk. The Princeton Club of the Netherlands has the distinction of being the most erudite such group I have yet encountered. But there was an entirely different high point to our visit, for Henk had arranged a special treat for us.
Some years ago one of my professional colleagues was a professor of politics, Leon Gordenker, a Dutchman eminent for his work on the United Nations and other international organizations. I had a friendly acquaintance with him, but his daughter Emilie actually became real friends with both of our two elder children. She was fixed in my mind as a smiley, freckled, bicycle-riding teen-ager. Well, there have been certain developments in the last quarter century of which I was not entirely aware. Emilie Gordenker went to Yale, where she studied Russian. Then she spent some time in the world of New York fashion and design. After a while, she did a Ph.D. at the Institute of Fine Arts of New York University, with a dissertation on the great Anthony Van Dyck,
portrait- painter to the stars. She then became one of the curators at the National Gallery of Scotland. But now she is the director of the famous Mauritshuis in the Hague, a museum that is itself an exquisite museum piece, and that holds one of the world’s greatest collections of Dutch and Flemish art, including more famous Rembrandts than you can shake a stick at. (And, yes, I know—that number is very small, unless you want to be carted off to jail. It’s a figure of speech.) Ordinarily you have to be the queen of Sweden to get a personal tour of the Mauritshuis from its
Emilie Gordenker and Dutch painting (left); the Queen of Sweden and Somebody Else (center & right)
director, but Emilie made an exception for the aging parents of her old school chums. Actually this was my second directorial tour. I once happened to be in the National Gallery in London when I came upon Sir Kenneth Clark in the course of giving a private little tour to three friends. I shamelessly followed them, always pretending to be looking at something in the vague vicinity of the painting before which they had halted, but actually eavesdropping. I could hear every word that the great Sir Kenneth uttered, and they were roughly as follows. "I like this one." "I really like this one." "I've never much cared for this one." "It sort of grows on you, don't you think?" Etc., etc. Emilie Gordenker's erudite but sparkling comments were of an altogether different sort, rather like a really fine seminar presentation.
The heady dose of the seventeenth century at the Mauritshuis should have been enough for any man, but you must recall that in my day job I am a medievalist. As it happened there was at that very moment, and hardly an hour away by train, a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of the paintings of Rogier van der Weyden and his extensive atelier. This was in the fine little city of Louvain, site of one of Europe's great universities, and a famous center of international medieval studies. It has a special personal interest as the old stomping grounds of one of my distinguished graduate students, Professor Stefan vander Elst, now in California. I should probably say "the former Louvain". The Flemish language police have taken over in recent years, and the place is definitely Leuven, not Louvain. No exceptions are made even for Flemings who don’t speak Flemish. Like some other mysterious towns one encounters, Leuven has a vast train station, seemingly out of proportion with the modest size of the place. It is as though half of Grand Central had been plonked down in, say, Trenton, though in other regards that pairing doesn’t leap to mind. Nonetheless its numerous tracks and platforms seem in a constant state of bustle, and we were assured that there were so many trains each hour going to Brussels that it was hardly worth trying to fine tune our return.
The town itself has many lovely parts, and I would one day like to spend a whole day or two there. On this occasion we had timed tickets and didn't dawdle on our way to the spectacular and recently completed town museum. My expectations could not have been higher, nor more fully met. I had been made just a tiny bit skeptical by the Internet advertising. They had labeled the show something like "Rogier van der Weyden--Master of the Passions". This was a play on words, and indeed on ideas. Many of Rogier's paintings find their subject matter in the Passion of Christ--Crucifixions, Depositions, Pietàs. But in a much more general sense he and his followers bring a new and powerful sense of human emotion to the whole repertory of Gothic art. Perhaps the most haunting half-line in world literature is Virgil's Sunt lacrimæ rerum. If you want to know what the "tears of things" look like in pigment rather than poetry, Rogier is
your man.The exposition, though inexhaustible, was exhausting. One can consume only so much caviar and champagne. I bought the lavish huge, heavy expensive catalogue, but I have yet to cut into the shrink-wrap. I am going to have to wait at least another week, until I have been able to tame the experience in my memory and imagination. But then I hope to study is closely. From the purely stylistic point of view Rogier--along with Jan Van Eyck and one or two others--most closely approximates the Gothic vision as I find it in the medieval writers I most admire--Dante, parts of Boccaccio, the Chaucer of the Canterbury Tales, the Pearl-poet. One of the books that got me started on my own life's work was Panofsky's still magnificent Early Netherlandish Painting. In the last few days I saw many beautiful things that I had previously known only from that book.
We still hadn't quite finished the art marathon. There is yet another amazing exhibition of Dutch painting on, right here in Paris--"L'Age d'Or Hollandais"--with several score of the finest items from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. This was a more athletic event, since the Pinacothèque had sold far too many tickets for each time slot, and since your average Parisian museum-hopper is likely to be, well, assertive. The little earphone-guide things are now causing serious mischief, as they guarantee that there will be a rugby scrum around every major piece on display. Here my sheer body mass, so often an encumbrance or an embarrassment, was my friend. There's more, such as my discovery of a wonderful pictorial anti-Franciscan satire by one of the Saftlevens, but I am beginning to feel like one of those American aesthetes in early Henry James novels. You, on the other hand, may be feeling like the reader of a late Henry James novel. Either way, it's time for me to quit.