Wednesday, April 30, 2014
The Beaux Arts, on the Spur of the Moment
I have developed a new answer for the casual inquiries of the genre of “And what do you do?” I tell people that I am a natural-born retiree. This doesn’t mean that I don’t do anything, or even that I don’t do very much. I do a fair amount, actually, but more and more I feel that in doing it I am the one in charge of my schedule. In particular there are fewer and fewer non-negotiables inhibiting me from jumping on a train to New York for a day at the galleries or museums.
We had a particularly exhilarating triple-header at the end of last week. In recent years we have spent a good deal of time in Paris, so that we noted with interest some months ago the announcement of a forthcoming exhibition of photographs of Old Paris to be mounted at the Metropolitan Museum. Most visitors to the French capital learn that the distinctive shape of New Paris is largely the visionary work of G. E. Haussmann, who supervised a gigantic urban reinvention project under Napoleon III in the middle of the nineteenth century. What did Paris actually look like before Haussmann? When I was living in Paris I read several of the books by the historian-antiquary G. Lenotre, so that I knew how very little of Old Paris was still there to see. We had already tentatively planned to see the photography show last Friday when late-breaking news altered the course of our planned outing even as it now must alter the course of this essay.
There is a terrific weekly PBS program on NY channel 13 called NYC-Arts (formerly Sunday Arts) , a weekly review of what is new and happening in the visual arts, drama, and music in the Big City and its environs. It has two hosts. Philippe de Montebello, the former and nearly permanent Director of the Metropolitan Museum, is an aristocratic art historian with successful aspirations to be a popular television personality. Paula Zahn, a Middle American beauty queen, is a popular television personality with the qualifications of an art historian. They meet in the middle of NYC-Arts. There is considerably more brain-power on display in any Thursday half-hour of this program than you will see in a month on Meet the Press.
On Thursday night NYC-Arts had a brief review of a current show at the Asia Society: “Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery”. Densatil is an ancient and remote religious site dating from the twelfth century CE, destroyed only quite recently by Mao’s political vandals in their ludicrously misnamed “Cultural Revolution”. We had become fascinated by Buddhist temple architecture and practice during our still recent visit to Sri Lanka, and I knew I had to see this show. Then on Friday morning itself Joan found a write-up in the Times of a new mini-expo at the Met devoted to four and a half Goya portraits of members of the hyper-aristocratic family of Altamira. One of these is among the best known pictures in the world: the child portrait of Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zuñiga (1784-1792), alias "Red Boy." ("Red Boy" is probably even better known than Gainsborough's "Blue Boy"!) For this show the Met has briefly reunited "Red Boy" one of the treasures of its permanent collection, with borrowed portraits of his father, mother, and two brothers. One of the brothers is by a collaborator and imitator of Goya's: hence, only half-credit. I cannot remember another instance in which I learned about a New York show at eight in the morning and was visiting it by eleven-thirty.
So we did enjoy Charles Marville’s photographs of Old Paris, though they were not the high point of my day. If you really hurry—the show closes on May 4—you can judge for yourself. I generally find really old photos rather creepy. That may be because one reproduced photo I saw as a child—of the condemned members of the Lincoln assassination conspiracy standing hooded on the gallows moments before being hanged—has the power to haunt me still. Marville’s photos have nothing overtly sinister in their content, of course, but for me there’s still a bit of the old creepiness about them.
It was a beautiful sunny spring day in the city, and we enjoyed the short walk downtown from the Met to the Asia Society at 70th and Park Avenue. We had been vaguely looking for a place for a modest late lunch—not very likely in that particular neighborhood—only to discover the perfect place in the dining room at the Asia Society itself. Then we mounted the elegant stairs to the rooms in which the Densatil show is temporarily housed. Golden Treasures, indeed!
We had seen many fine Buddhist stupas in Sri Lanka, but nothing so gorgeous and lavish as Densatil must have been—to judge from recollected relics and photographs taken on a scholarly mission in 1948. No western analogue is likely to be particularly useful, but what it brought to my mind was Iberian baroque, with the dazzle of unrestrained gilding on everything. American Buddhist friends have in the past told me that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. It may simply be a matter of terminology, but I had trouble crediting that after my visit to the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy and participating in the ceremony of the display of the relic. Coming face to face with Mahakala, the Destroyer in the Densatil show has done little to change my impression.