Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Washington, D.C. 24.10.2009: Luminous Turners and Fake Gelato

Steve had two meetings today near the National Gallery of Art, so after the meetings were finished, we walked to the museum. Didn’t have any particular objective in mind in going there. That is, there wasn’t a current exhibition that had particularly caught my eye.

If anything, I wanted to have another look at the Turner seascapes, which never tire the eye. And it occurred to me that I had never tried to find the few Winslow Homers that are at the National Museum. I don’t have a thing for Winslow Homer. But I realize as I age that I haven’t done as much to familiarize myself with American painters over the years as with European ones, so I wanted to fill in some of those gaps.

We found the Winslow Homers, and they were nice to look at. But what really caught my eye in the same series of rooms in which the Homers hang were Thomas Eakins’ paintings.

He hasn’t been on my radar screen, though now that I know a bit more about him, I realize he did the famous homoerotic “Swimming Hole” work that has appeared—I think—on some editions of Whitman’s poetry. In fact, Eakins and Whitman were friends, something I surely must have known already somewhere back in my mind, since I’ve read a number of Whitman biographies.

“Swimming Hole” isn’t in the National Gallery. But several other of his works there rang a bell for me—to be specific, a homoerotic bell. I’m not sure what it was in the sensibility and composition of these works that said “gay” to me, but something did, and I wasn’t surprised, as a result, to see in the Gallery bookstore a number of biographies of Eakins noting a debate about his sexual orientation. I bought one of these, William McFeely’s Portrait, and have begun reading it with great interest.

We did happen on the Judith Leyster exhibit, and I am glad to have seen it, though I can’t say I was bowled over by her work. It’s technically superb, but derivative in a way that most of the Dutch old masters seem to me—derivative, in particular, of Rembrandt and Vermeer, though Rembrandt was almost precisely Leyster’s contemporary and Vermeer somewhat younger than she was, so she can’t have been imitating their work.

That’s not precisely what I mean by “derivative.” What I mean is that when you’ve seen what Rembrandt and Vermeer excel at—the play of light and shadow in precisely drawn, evocative portraits of people posed in interior settings—any other painters of their time and place employing similar techniques seem less imposing. Worth looking at; technically astonishing. But not world-shaking in the way Vermeer and Rembrandt are.

Leyster reminded me, strangely enough, of some of her Spanish contemporaries—Velasquez in particular. I don’t believe there was any intersection of influence between her and Velasquez or other Spanish court painters of their period. But something about the way that they pose their subjects and then study the play of light on their countenances seems similar. Not surprising, I suppose, to find interplay of Spanish and Dutch cultural influences in this period, given the political ties between the two countries.

What will long remain in my mind, though, from this visit are Turner’s seascapes, with their luminous, gloriously transcendent blues. I will never grow weary of looking at them.

After our stroll through the American and British 19th-century galleries and the Leyster exhibition, Steve and I had coffee and gelato in the café below the museum. As we sat near the waterfall that cascades down outside a window there, it struck me how essential places like this are to the human spirit—how they ought to exist in every city.

Places to sit amidst and look at art in various media, to hear and watch the play of water and light, to have coffee and pastry, listen to music, talk, dream. Humane cities and towns build such spaces into their cultural landscapes as a matter of course, as essential needs of the human spirit.

I wish I could recommend the gelato that accompanied this restful, soul-building experience. It was horrific, though. Without my prompting him to comment on his raspberry-cherry choice, Steve exclaimed, after tasting a spoon, that it was totally artificial. As was my dulce de leche choice, with its cloying synthetic (and probably petroleum-based) rum flavoring.

Why, I have to wonder, do we Americans produce such monstrosities and then try bill them as “authentic” culinary compositions? Why try to pass off what is so screamingly fake as the real thing? Why do we not demand better—especially in our national capital, in a place people from many different cultures will be visiting in the expectation of having an iconic American experience?

I have to conclude that we don’t ask for better because we don’t know better. And because sham often attracts our attention more than the real thing does.

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