Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Treasures of Kenwood House, London


Earth Day, April 23rd, 2013. 9:35 p.m.

I go online and post a paragraph on Facebook, an excerpt from an essay by Walter Benjamin titled “Experience and Poverty,” in which he refers to the joyless properties of glass: “It is no coincidence that glass is such a hard, smooth material to which nothing can be fixed. A cold and sober material into the bargain. Objects made of glass have no ‘aura.’ Glass is, in general, the enemy of secrets. It is also the enemy of possession.”
I add a photo of Dale Chihuly’s Garden and Glass exhibit beneath it to underscore Benjamin’s point. But just to be sure everyone gets the connection, I add “That this aura-less, cold, sober chapel of bourgeois vapidity has replaced the ebullience of the Fun Forest is an injury to the spirit. It speaks to Seattle's sea-change from affordable, art-friendly city to a cheerless, affluent dysphoria of clueless Bobos.”
I loved the Fun Forest. This was a carnival-like zone left over from the Seattle’s World Fair in 1962, the identical place where a 10-year-old Kurt Russell kicks Elvis Presley in the shin in the movie It Happened at the World’s Fair. There were rides such as a jeweled Borrelli carousel, a Windstorm roller coaster offering a smooth fast ride laid out in a multiple figure-eight configuration, Wild River log flume, bumper cars, kiddy galleon, rainbow chaser, and an Orbiter which featured a cluster of cars mounted on arms radiating from a central axis that lifted into a 90 degree horizontal position when the ride was spinning. There were games of skill offering stuffed animals as prizes, stands selling hot dogs and cotton candy, and a Flight to Mars ride whose interior d├ęcor was studded with black lights and glow paint. It’s all gone now, replaced with the cheerless Chihuly exhibit with its strong commercial appeal and shabby pretense at art.

Tuesday, April 24th, 2013. 1:00 p.m.

It’s a bright, sunny afternoon and the temperature is starting to rise into the lower 60s. Roberta and I decide to hop on a bus and go to the art museum to see Rembrandt and a few other Dutch masters. I love 17th century Dutch art. Alas, there will be no Vermeer, but there will be some canvases and techniques similar to Vermeer.
And there are: I’m transfixed by View of Dordrecht by Aelbert Cuyp. The delicacy of the ships, the beauty of the clouds, the feeling of reality in the serene water. The effects of the light are like sweet soft theorems of illumination in paint. He has distorted reality to depict reality. He has obscured reality to illumine reality. Cuyp was skilled at altering the direction of light in a painting, bringing it to a diagonal position from the back of the picture, so that the viewer faced the sun more or less directly. The light appears to be emanating from the paint. This also gave a greater feeling of depth to the space. I could dwell on this one painting for an hour. But I continue. The gallery shines with 17th century light.
I see Family in a Mediterranean Seaport by Jan Baptist Weenix, A Canal in Winter by Isack van Ostade, and Old London Bridge by Claude de Jongh. All the paintings on display are from the Kenwood House collection in Hampstead, London, on the northern boundary of Hampstead Heath. It must have been there when John Keats lived nearby. The collection was once owned by Edward Cecil Guinness, the first Earl of Iveagh, an Irish philanthropist and businessman. He died in 1927, bequeathing his home and collection to the nation.
The highlight of the show is Rembrandt’s Self Portrait with Two Circles. I’ve seen this painting many times before, but the reality of it, and its immense size, is stunning. Rembrandt appears so astonishingly real and present and soulfully available for meditations on art or philosophy or just the dubious ritual of visiting an art museum that one’s own presence becomes unavoidable and real. Whatever shadows and distractions haven been clinging to you throughout the day dissipate. It is you and this old man.
And he is old, no question of that. His jowls sag, his nose has the bulbous fleshiness associated with heavy drinking, his hair is white and long, his body is corpulent and heavy, an effect heightened by the heavy fur-lined robe he wears, and the white nightcap is a clear signal that he has entered the nighttime of his life. It will soon be lights out and sleep forever. But there is still great light and energy in his eyes and the way he holds his mahlstick and paintbrushes and palette is nothing less than regal. His face is highly expressive. There is great sadness and maturity there. He has experienced the inevitable losses and disappointments of this all too mortal life, and he is burdened with poverty and debt. But he is triumphant. He has his creativity. It’s still going strong. This painting is proof of that.
After taking in nearly all the 17th century paintings I entered the adjoining galleries which segued into the 18th century, featuring work by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. I’ve never been too excited about this phase in western European painting, but now that the same disparities of wealth and poverty that led to the French Revolution are in play again, it is particularly galling to see these aristocratic pricks and their progeny. The conventions of 18th century painting with their values of harmony, cool elegance and casual grace, are pleasing to the eye and give one a sense of balance and meaning to the universe, but this is a reflection of aristocratic wealth, the people who employed painters such as Gainsborough and Reynolds. The work of poets and painters such as William Blake during this era give a very different view, a critical perspective that I happen to share. I feel like Jean-Paul Marat wandering these galleries.
My heels are dogged by a tour group that began at approximately the same time that Roberta and I started our viewing. An elderly woman leads a group of some fifteen or twenty people of differing age and sex, though few are younger than thirty. She seems to know her stuff and speaks with enthusiasm about the paintings, parenthetically inserting allusions to the European collections and museums she and her husband have visited on their travels. Her group caught up with me at Sir Joshua Reynolds’s portrait of Kitty Fisher as Cleopatra dissolving a pearl. According to Pliny, in an effort to impress Marc Antony with her prodigality, Cleopatra put out a great feast and at the end plopped a pearl into a goblet of vinegar and then drank it after the pearl dissolved. Reynolds chose this story for a particular reason, and I was eager to hear about it. I was listening to the story of Kitty on the little audio wand the museum provides at the entry to the show, how this remarkably beautiful and charismatic woman rose from a humble life as a milliner to become one of London’s most notorious femmes fatales, known for her affairs with men of wealth, such as George William Coventry, 6th Earl of Coventry, when the elderly woman with her flock of tourists intruded on me and began speaking as if I weren’t standing there. I moved on, and went to find a painting that the tour group wouldn’t reach for a few minutes.
This turned out to be one of the strangest paintings I’d ever seen. Hawking in Olden Time by Sir Edwin Landseer presents a ball of feathers and fury at the center of the picture with a group of medieval hunters faintly represented off to the right margin, riding up a knoll, stunned to see the sight of their falcon bringing down a heron. I couldn’t quite make out which eyeball belonged to which bird, so furious and energetic was this conflict. It looked like a whirling asteroid of feathers. I lingered long enough for the tour group to arrive and listened to the guide explain the nostalgia for the past people felt during the time this painting was achieved, in 1832, right at the beginning of the industrial revolution. I saw something other than just nostalgia. The birds were so engulfed in a frenzy of survival and predation I could not help but feel a high level of anxiety. One world was ending, another was beginning.
I did not expect to see Turner. I did not at first that I was looking at a Turner. When I think of Turner I imagine dramatic atmospheric effects, black engines in radiant mists, imposing buildings engulfed in flames. Dramas of air and light in which the overarching mood is clear as a Wagnerian opera but the specifics of what is occurring are ambiguous. A Coast Scene with Fishermen Hauling a Boat Ashore was highly detailed and offered a very clear narrative: two boats have been run ashore and a third is at the mercy of breakers during a mighty tempest that is pounding the shore with unabashed fury. A group of men struggled mightily with muscle and rope to keep the two boats from being swept back out to sea. I could feel the wind. I could feel the wet salt air sting my cheeks. The dark mingling grays of the sky and the white gnashing waves were sublime and merciless. I was trying to make out the fish and detritus on the beach but the tour group engulfed me and the guide’s opening words capsized my attention. I made for the exit.
When Roberta and I arrived home E was at work on the front porch, scraping it with a stainless steel palette knife and a wire brush. This was the third time in two years she was painting the porch. It’s been a frustration for all of us in the building, but for her especially, since this has been her project. The paint keeps chipping and flaking, resulting in a calico surface of sour yellow cream and battleship gray. I offer to help. Roberta and I go in, change our clothes, and return, each of us provided with a palette knife from my toolbox. It’s hard work. We spend an hour at it. We tell her we visited the exhibit of Dutch art at the Seattle art museum. I tried to describe the power of the Joseph Turner canvas, since her husband K is a fisherman. E tells us she and K visited the Chihuly exhibit recently. She didn’t seem that enthusiastic. It occurs to me to share my recent posting on Facebook, and my opinion about Dale Chihuly’s glass art, but decide to keep silent on the subject, and keep scraping away at the porch. 

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