Archive for May, 2011

On the fourth floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum, tucked away in a small room off the staircase, in a case inviting you to figure out what its objects are for, I found my favorite artifact.  A mustache spoon!  For eating soup.  Half way across the bowl of the silver spoon runs an elegantly scalloped plate—to hold a gentleman’s facial apparatus our of the liquid as he sips his first course.  Fabulous!  It made my evening.


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Ah! Sweet home! The room of 15th-century Netherlandish masters at the National Gallery in London.  It is, for me, like Rome (and I do not mean to sound conceited – just in love):  no matter how many time I’ve been here, I never tire of the place, and it welcomes me back warmly with its familiar faces.

This time my return is particularly happy, because I’ve just visited the Gossaert show in the basement. Working in Flanders in the first half of the 16th century, Gossaert was, naturally, steeped in the tradition of his predecessors.  But there is something missing for me in his panels, despite all the meticulously detailed surfaces and newly spacious classicizing compositions.  He tries too hard: to impress you with his antiquarian knowledge, his technical mastery, his pomp and splendor.  Although he wants you to come close and admire his work, somehow he keeps you at bay.

Wondering what’s lacking for me in his paintings, I go upstairs, to pay my homage to Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Petrus Christus.  They make me smile the moment I walk into their room.  I see what’s different about them: they are not showing off (though their command of the minutiae of the world is as fine as Gossaert’s); they are gentler, treating their characters with affection; their mood is more contemplative.  These painters inhabit the stillness they project onto their panels; Gossaert gets swept up in the whirlwind of the forms he stirs up.

One of my favorite pictures is Rogier van der Weyden’s “Magdalene Reading” (a fragment of a larger altarpiece, but a universe onto itself).  The young saint is so fully and quietly absorbed in her book that the activities on the margins of her vision seem like isolated notes, or occasional drops of water—the soft clank of the crystal prayed bead fingered by St. Joseph behind her, the shout of the hunter drawing his arrow outside the window, the murmur of the voices of the other figures in the room.  Magdalene does not notice them as she reads, her head inclined, eyes lowered, the chartreuse expanse of her dress forming an island of peacefulness.

Even the “Arnolfini Portrait” nearby—though full of its owners’ pride apparent in his fur cloak, her ornate dress, the ostentatious ceremonial bed behind them, the signature of Burgundian court artist they could hire to immortalize them—still does not to lose track of these people, the solemn dialogue between them, the details that make up their world. Gossaert with his busy mind and brush, I think, would have dispersed this moment and our attention in his bravura.

As I stand before my beloved van der Weyden and van Eyck, I realize that while Gossaert fusses with the surface of things, Rogier and Jan seek to convey how people and things feel.  And they invite you to do the same.  I fall in love with them all over again.  Besotted, I leave them reluctantly, mentally making my next date with them.

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Playground for the mind

Vitra, the furniture manufacturer outside Basel, is a marvel.  It’s enterprising and open-minded founders have invited architects from around the world to design various buildings on the factory’s campus.  A two-hour guided tour takes you on an excursion into several drastically different minds.

Frank Gehry’s Vitra Design Museum is his early exercise in angles and protrusions, though on a small scale, compared to his later constructions, and all plastered in white.  His ego is fully present, though:  the Museum floats on its own lawn, with no distractions from its performance.  The site was originally a cherry orchard. Gehry requested the trees around his creation chopped down so as to leave the space fully clear for his design.

Tadao Ando, in his turn, insisted that the cherries be left intact around his conference pavilion to give it beauty and serenity:  one walks past the trees on the way to his hall and sees them through the glass walls inside.  Ando is no less willful than Gehry.  He defines a precise path a visitor must follow en route to his building, a journey intended to create a contemplative frame of mind; and constructs a controlled environment in which the starkness of concrete, wood, and glass compel one to hushed seriousness.  His rise to fame was symbolic of this determination:  to support himself as he strove toward his goal, he made his living as a boxer.

Zaha Hadid’s contribution to the Vitra grounds is a fire station (necessitated by a devastating blaze caused by a lightening that wiped out 60% of the factory).  This was Hadid’s first actually constructed project, and you can see why no one dared to take a risk on her beforehand.  Her vision is resolutely cerebral, and her forms look like cardboard models, insisting on their unsettling shapes regardless of structural plausibility or human needs.  From the sharp, elongated, irregular spaces, to tilting floors, to stark cement or metal walls, the building is not for the faint-hearted.  Interesting to visit, it is harsh to inhabit.  It challenges you with every step and site-line, without giving you any comfort.

A far quieter, though subtly playful pavilion by Álvaro Siza gallantly gestures away from itself and toward its neighbors.  Its red brick walls echo an earlier building nearby, but their plainness is subverted by joist beams used as a decorative dado course.  The exquisite bridge shading the passageway to the adjacent factory floor chivalrically frames Hadid’s firehouse, instead of obscuring it.  Siza inscribes his hall into a harmonious and intriguing ensemble of buildings, rather than loudly insisting on his own uniqueness.

The real delight, though, is Herzog & de Meuron’s showroom—an uneven stack of long black boxes ending in huge house-shaped windows facing in three directions, though fluidly, without rigid geometry—toward Switzerland, Germany, and France (Vitra sits close to the meeting point of the three countries).  Looking out of these windows from inside you see the surrounding lush green vineyards.  The combination of these gorgeous views with the open spaces of the showroom and the different perspectives offered by each floor made me feel like a kid in a toy house—delighted, carefree, curious to run all over and explore.

Vitra is definitely my favorite thing about Basel now:  compared to the staid feeling city, here all is spirit and adventure.

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Lessons from a museum

My day starts with a heartbreaking e-mail from a friend—about the treachery of the world, the baseness of mankind, the pain of violated trust.  Reeling, I go to a museum, wondering whether art has, as they say, a capacity to heal.

Wandering through the Renaissance halls, usually my favorite places, past panels of the German and Swiss masters at the Basel Kunstmuseum, I get no consolation, but some perspective.  In these pictures suffering is inescapable:  Christ is betrayed and hideously tortured on the Cross, the Virgin swoons in death and is mourned by her followers, vibrant maidens are attacked by avaricious skeletons, who, vampire-like, suck the life out of their young victims.  Whatever one might feel about Christian narratives, they capture human torments in relentless detail.  I find this strangely reassuring:  the fact that our individual anguish is not a uniquely meted out punishment, but a condition of existing in this world.

The rooms of those early chroniclers of misery lie next to an exhibition of Giacometti’s small bronzes and paintings.  Here I get relief and pleasure of abstraction I’ve never experienced as intensely as this morning.  Giacometti’s stylized figures grant me a respite from death and pain.  He comforts me with his cerebral world and lifts me out of the rawness of emotion.  I hungrily embrace this escape.

But a show of prints of 19th-century French masters returns me to the visceral.  Daumier’s Abandoned Ariadne, sitting on the shore of Naxos unadorned and no longer loved as Theseus’s ship grows small on the horizon, shows me again that our sufferings are millennia old, and unlikely to go away.  This utter unoriginality of our individual travails has a calming effect on me.  Perhaps it’s my Russian fatalism, the sense that life, like those voracious skeletons in Hans Baldung Grien’s pictures, always lies in wait for us with something awful.  This knowledge does not heal the heartbreak, but it reminds me that my friend today, I yesterday, another soul the day before are not alone in our hurt.  Somehow that helps, just a little bit.

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An unexpected gift

There is no better moment to become acutely aware of your humanity than when you find yourself in a position of privilege (however deserved of serendipitous).

Flying to England to give a lecture, I am, through a lucky set of circumstances, bumped into business class (the joy is heightened by the preceding disappointment of a messed up reservation and a prospect of a lousy seat on a ten-hour-long flight).

As much as I’d like to be accustomed to luxury — and really, I would take to it in a flash, though not flashily, I promise — I am, sadly, not used to it.  At least not on its business class incarnation.  So I notice keenly and gratefully every gesture which would be unattainable to me in the coach.  I have seen elite passengers sipping champagne as I wrestle my bag past them to the back of the plane.  But I was not aware of warmed nuts served with cocktails, crisp tablecloths spread over folding tables by patient hands, the whipped- cream softness of the blanket in its astronomically high-cotton-count sheath. Nor have I ever been treated by flight attendants like a queen.

And then came their greatest offering to me:  humility.

Would I lose track of its sweetness if I were flying like this all the time, my eye turning jadedly away from the minute ministrations of these men and women, bending low over my armchair?  I hope not.  I hope I would retain the acuteness of this sensation that descended on me like a gift—like that glass of Spanish wine recommended by one flight attendant, or the smile of the purser addressing me by my name as he took my dinner order.

Somehow, by being so solicitous, they made me aware and appreciative of the fact that were just like me, not servants to cater to my whims, nor inferior beings for  hovering over me while I lounged in my recliner.  They were normal people doing their job well.  And the more they fussed over me, the more kindness and respect they invoked in me.

I hope I can carry this feeling back to the coach on the return journey (for miracles, alas, do not happen twice in a row) and retain that generosity of spirit as hassled and unsmiling flight attendants on the other side of the magic curtain rush past without a glance in my direction as I sit there, crammed into my sardine can, and tell me curtly that my meal choice in no longer available. I will, I am pretty sure, be very acutely aware of my common humanity then, as for the bigness of heart, I might have to try a little harder.

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