Saturday at the Met

Saturday at the Met
‘I like painting best when it looks eternal without boasting about it: an everyday eternity revealed on the street corner: a servant-girl pausing a moment as she scours a saucepan and becoming a Juno on Olympus.’—Renoir.

  1. Don’t go hungry to the Met. Wandering around the still lives yesterday, Claire kept saying. ‘Mmm. I’d love a peach.’ We gave one painting of dripping Brie far more attention than it deserved. ‘God, I’d love some cheese now. Do you think that’s Camembert?’ Jason wasn’t impressed at our suggestibility. ‘God, I’d love a bonnet right now,’ he said, ‘Or maybe some really large milkmaid breasts.’
  2. I am lazy about fine arts. I spend most of my time in galleries—when I can be dragged in—reading the little plaques. I want to know who the subjects are or what story is being told, and I need it explained in words before I can appreciate it. Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa has stayed with me because of Julian Barnes’ chapter on it in A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. When we saw those familiar muscular buttocks in another painting yesterday, Jason told me that Géricault claimed he couldn’t paint women. Every time he tried, it turned into a horse.
  3. At sixteen, I worked a summer as a jeune fille au pair in Quimper, Brittany. My host family was very dutiful about exposing me to Culture, and we trekked to Pont l’Eveque to see the Gauguin hometown museum. Lots of paintings of Breton women fetching water. The colors were subdued; the grays and browns of Brittany, and the strange birdlike black-and-white headdresses of the women. To see Gauguin’s riotous Tahiti paintings is like watching the Wizard of Oz when it bursts into Technicolor. That Tahitian Madonna is worth death from syphilis.
  4. In Corot’s Hagar in the Wilderness, an angel flies like Superman, face down, wings overhead. This bothered me. Angels fly standing up, as if they had jet packs. Everyone knows that.
  5. A man and woman argued in front of Van Gogh’s Irises. I was drawn in by their Indian accents.
    ‘Why is this good? Why is this great? Look, it’s so simple. Easy. Why do you say this is great when anyone could do it?’ His male friend nodded.

    ‘You can’t assess it just as one single painting. I mean, you have to take it as part of a body of work…’ She trailed off, and he was unconvinced.
    Van Gogh has the same marketing problem as Shakespeare. They taught us a whole new way of seeing, and they taught us so well that we can’t remember what it was like before.

  6. Irving Penn’s Nudes are extraordinary, good enough to cut through the curator’s cloying prose about ‘yeasty breasts and thighs’ (ugh!). The square Rollei prints cut off the women’s faces, but they are still vital as they twist from one frame into the next, not so much posing as dancing or rolling over in bed. The photos are sometimes monumental desert landscapes, sometimes portraits. Once I was taken aback by the Mona Lisa smile of a woman’s navel creased in fat, topped weirdly by the ‘eyes’ of her nipples. The skinny New Yorkers who wandered around the exhibition fixated on the mounds of fat. ‘Oh my God,’ they kept saying, clearly terrified by proximity to these cinnamon rolls of flesh. Could such abundance be catching?