Julie Butcher: “Feasting on Art”

Last time I was in USA I was looking for love! This time, thirty-eight years later travelling with ‘the current husband,’ we are looking at art. Feeling some marital pressure to get value for our below parity dollar, I have booked a number of guided tours through galleries, museums and memorials.

We begin in Washington DC, a capital not unlike Canberra, spread out and car infested, where everything appears big but not high-rise; a touch of Paris with its radial roads and circuits.

A bus tour of Vietnamese, Korean and Lincoln memorials seems a sensible way to begin. The story of a Chinese student of architecture – a 21-year-old female – winning a design competition for the Vietnamese memorial appeals to me. Specially sourced highly polished stone becomes a mirror to those reflecting. The Korean memorial, with statues of soldiers creeping through vegetation, is eerie. Roosevelt’s, with its evermore-relevant proclamations, is so compelling.

Our guide shares much trivia, not least of which that Trump’s helicopters fly above us in packs of three (two for decoy). It is a hot day and we are grateful for iced water.

The National Portrait Gallery in Washington is laid out in such a way that we spend a day engrossed in the history and development of the American nation while the courtyard and adjacent café invite further respite and reflection – with reasonable coffee to boot.

Next, in New York, we are booked to take the 90 minutes City Skyline Cruise on the Hudson River. One helpful New Yorker explains that to buy subway tickets you can only use your credit card twice in one day, and that to find Pier 78 a weekly ticket is the simplest solution. Despite it being a warm Sunday afternoon, the tour provides a breather with some much-needed distance and a better sense of perspective from the crazy streets.

Days later we will explore Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the MET), the Guggenheim Museum, the Frick Collection and a particular Smithsonian industrial design history museum. But for now the shops are calling!

Having mastered the subway we visit the Neue Gallery, home to the famous Klimt Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also called The Lady in Gold or The Woman in Gold). Even though three quarters of it is closed for an installation, we are still enthralled by one floor of Austrian works and it being our wedding anniversary, we adjourn to imbibe serious coffee, sacher torte and kugelhopf cake in their classy Viennese themed cafe.

Only a few streets from our tiny flat in Lower East Manhattan, a tour of the Tenement museum details the miserable lives of two immigrant families in early twentieth century New York. Our guide tells the story of a young couple that meets, marries and has four children in the dire conditions evident here. One day the husband simply disappears. The case is considered closed when, years later, a will finds its way to the wife via Ireland and, in a court of law, he is deemed dead and she the recognised heir. But in 2006 or thereabouts, on a tour such as ours today, somebody recognises the husband’s name and thus confirms that the scoundrel had indeed left his struggling family, to re-appear decades later in a nursing home in Ohio.

An early morning tour of MoMA proves quite the contrast to those Tenements. We are marched around the building by a fervent guide to iconic pieces that represent significant events or major movements in art history. I am feasting on Cezanne’s still-life apples and find the extensive Picasso collection illuminating. For the first time I understand the majesty of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, 1907, oil on canvas. Five prostitutes gave their time, and probably services, to pose for little reward. The painting then rested in Picasso’s studio for ten years before it was recognised as a significant work of art. Glass of Absinthe, 1914, painted bronze with spoon, also depicts something else that “… was a subject of fierce debate. It was prohibited in early 1915 as a threat to French health and moral vigor. Picasso’s sculpture can be seen as a tiny monument to a disappearing culture.”

With so much to choose from in The MET, including an extensive Rodin exhibition, it is great to learn more about American artists such as Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollack and Elaine de Kooning. However, I am constantly drawn back to the modern European works: walls covered with wonderful paintings by Cezanne, Van Gogh and the Degas collection – to name a few.

Having read the historical fiction of Degas’s ballerina model, Marie van Gotham, a bronze sculpture – of her petite form showing the disciplined pose of her ‘resting’ ballet position, the fine musculature of her thin legs and the grace of her arms – is totally mesmerizing.

Another day, visiting The Frick, I am elated to see Vermeer is represented by three of his 34 paintings. These paintings exude light and colour such as no other – the bold blue of a maid’s cloth, the rich yellow of her mistress’s cloak and the lustre of that famous pearl earring – and four hundred years hence they are remarkable for their power to draw you in.

I love browsing the museum/gallery shops pouncing upon postcards and bookmarks of my favourite works. One day I lunge at a small book called Women Who Read Are Dangerous, that looks at the social history of women who read, and it ponders the question why artists so often choose a woman reading as the subject of a painting or photograph. Almost every double page shows quality colour prints of female readers caught unaware in the act of reading by artists mentioned above and many more. “Probably it’s the voyeurism that interests some artists,” writes Karen Joy Fowler in her Foreword. For me it is sublime.

Meanwhile fifty people are gunned down in Las Vegas and Trump and Kim Jong-un continue to bait each other while we revel in the art and riches of USA. It seems incongruous.


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