Monday, July 23, 2012
The Consolations of Art
While we were in Boston, My Dear Sister took us to Mrs. Gardner's Museum. It was very beautiful, of course, but they have a draconian no-photo policy, which means that I snapped only this enigmatic view of a statue and some orchids.
It was the first time I'd visited the Gardner in more than 20 years - closer to 30, really. Some things had changed, of course - mostly the empty frames, left from the robbery not all that long after my last visit (and no, I was not involved - I would have taken the Sargents), showing where the Vermeer and the Rembrandt and the others had been (a nice, melancholy touch, to have left them there), but much had stayed blessedly the same.
Although I'd dreaded seeing it (loathing change and all), I rather liked the new visitors' center, a surprisingly successful addition by Renzo Piano - respectful and separate from the main building, connected by a glass passage that acts as a sort of umbilical cord between old and new, adding such inevitable modern conveniences as a shop and a (painfully organic) café, as well as a handsome small concert hall, in which we heard a very earnest guide give a potted history of the place's admirably eccentric founder's life and times. The whole thing looks just a tiny bit like an all-glass junior high school, but at least it appears to be both functional and unobtrusive.
Wandering through Mrs. Gardner's beautiful rooms - filled with everything from perfect Renaissance portraits to signed photos of Nellie Melba and notes from Henry James, masterpieces and ephemera - I relished the feeling of immersion a place like the Gardner gives. It's a sensation something akin to what I imagine deep-sea divers feel, the rest of the world very far away, the strange feeling of finding another world at one's fingertips. It was restful and yet at the same time somehow alarming. In a place like that, one comes face to face with, for instance, Mor's portrait of Mary I, so familiar from biographies and texbooks, and she seems infinitely more present, in a way, than she would in an ordinary gallery. Her glance, reproachful and oddly shy for so formidable a lady, seems personal, directed. She knows you don't care about her as much as you do her sister, that she's on the wrong side of history, even that her brown velvet gown is a touch dowdy. What does she care? She is, nonetheless, "Marye the Queene." And you move on, but she remains, as do the letters and the portraits and the autographs and the odd bits of antiquity.
In the courtyard around which the salons and galleries revolve, there is a small patch of lawn. Laid casually on it, as if by chance, is an amphora, one of those utilitarian vessels used by the Greeks and Romans for transporting wine and olives and such. It's the perfect touch, an object of the kind more usually in a glass case, nestled in the green grass, laughing at the passage of time. In trying times to come, I think I'll aim for something of that amphora's calm insouciance, along with something of Mrs. Gardner's idomitability.
Although I doubt I'll ever be up for anything as daunting as corresponding with Henry James...