Cole Porter's feigned modesty ("At words poetic, I'm so
pathetic...") made me chuckle as I listened to Ella Fitzgerald
sing the prelude to "You're the Top," his list of
"the best and most famous" in the world. The familiar
lyrics struck me in an unfamiliar way, and I sat down in my
studio and played the song again.
Courtesy of Mr. Porter, the Coliseum, the Louvre Museum, the
Tower of Pisa, the Mona Lisa, Whistler's "Mama," and
the National Gallery glided by, making me realize how travel
to these icons of art and architecture was not even an option
for much of my life. But by dint of hard work, intense desire,
meager savings, and "special deals," I managed to
go to each of those places and be just as overwhelmed as Cole
Porter. And, more often than not, I was standing there in my
clunky, old, beyond-comfortable, black museum shoes. I never
could have predicted how this pair of plain, ankle-high boots
would exceed their worth on museum trips to New York, Hartford,
Chicago, Cambridge (Massachusetts and England), Boston, Rome,
Paris, Florence, St. Petersburg, or London.
If my shoes could talk, they would tell about places I had
begun to levitate or had gasped with astonishment. For the sake
of space, I will limit myself to ten descriptions and hope that
you will share your "the top" art experiences
with me (firstname.lastname@example.org).
1. The Art Institute of Chicago: I rounded a corner
and walked into a gallery, only to see Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks
1942" with its quartet of figures in a diner, wedged in
yellow light. I think it was the surprise of suddenly encountering
this icon of American art, as if coming upon someone famous
in an elevator.
2. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia: It was a warm
August day, and many windows had been opened. Screens and air
conditioning were not part of the museum's standard operating
equipment. While studying Goya's "Portrait of the Actress
Antonia Zárate," I saw a fly land on it. My impulse
to shoo the fly away from this priceless painting was hard to
overcome, but I managed to control myself by thinking how the
guards might interpret my movements.
3. The Sainte-Chapelle, Paris: Climbing the narrow corkscrew
staircase from the lower chapel into the upper chapel, I was
unprepared for the soaring, narrow space, with its seemingly
unbroken expanses of stained glass. It literally took my breath
4. The Louvre, Paris: When I saw artists at their easels
in galleries and sensed the confidence of their belonging, I
became a witness to their part in the tradition of copying the
masters. I began to imagine those who had set up their easels
in earlier times.
5. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY: Standing
in front of Matisse's "La Musique, " I remember how
I had been entranced by it as a kid (Judy's Journal/November
2004). The leaves on the wall behind the figures were like nothing
I had ever seen. I thought that they were imagined. A few years
ago, on a visit to the Chapelle du Rosaire in Vence, France,
I noticed the foliage outdoors and finally learned where Matisse
found the shape of his leaves.
6. King's College Chapel, Cambridge, England: Our tour
group was herded into Christopher Wren's masterpiece at a moment
of sudden and sublime sunshine when the choir began to rehearse.
I burst into tears.
7. Museo Nazionale Romano - Massimo, Rome: Years ago,
I clipped a tiny picture from a magazine and put it in my scrapbook.
I loved looking at the image. I didn't know where or what it
was. Sitting in the corridor on the second floor of the museum,
waiting for the guide to begin, I glanced into the gallery across
from me and saw what turned out to be a fresco of the garden
room from Livia's villa (30-20 BC), the very section I had in
my scrapbook. I leaped up and started toward it, but was told
politely and firmly, "Wait, Signora."
8. The Pantheon, Rome: This was a place I didn't think
I needed to experience, but it was in the list of "must
sees" in every guide book. When I walked into the space
created by its vast hemispherical dome and looked up 140 feet
at the blue sky showing through the oculus, I was spellbound.
This 2000 year old building left me entirely at peace. I think
about the Pantheon when I cannot sleep at night.
9. San Marco, Florence: First, it was Fra Angelico's
"Annunciation" at the top of the stairs that rooted
me to the spot. The colors in the Gabriel's wings were mesmerizing
and begged to be closely scrutinized. Later, as we roamed through
the former Dominican monastery, I was struck by how much Fra
Angelico's scenes in the dormitories were reminiscent of 20th
century surrealist paintings.
10. Mont Ste. Victoire, Aix-en-Provence, France: The
mountain obsessed Paul Cézanne, and he painted it repeatedly,
so I recognized it immediately when we rounded the curve on
the super highway. I felt the same flash of recognition when
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis walked by me in a Boston hotel lobby---I
knew that I knew that face. To give you some idea of the mountain's
size, 200,000 German invaders were pinned against its base by
the Romans in 100 BC. I will never understand why Cézanne
wanted to tame it with his paintbrush.
Finally, I have to admit that I'd love to witness Cole Porter's
"purple light/of a summer's night in Spain," because
I know I'd finally get to the Prado in Madrid or see Gaudi's
buildings in Barcelona. If I do get there, it will not be during
high season when it's hot, expensive and crowded with other
tourists, but in off-season, when I can slip on my museum shoes
and board the plane.
February's journal will be about a particular creative phenomenon
I call reciprocity, in which a painting and poem inspire
each other. For poem/painting previews, go back to "Books,
Poems, Articles" and click onto the second paragraph link.
Have a happy and healthy New Year!