The Greatest and Most Natural Movement

Good article by Robert Hughes on Rembrandt, in honor of the 400th anniversary of the artist’s birth. It turns out that Hughes likes one of my least favorite R. paintings, The Polish Rider, which I saw at the Frick and was convinced was a joke.

Discussing the majesty of Peiro, Raphael and Poussin, he writes

But what you are not likely to feel is a sense of community with these magnificent products of human thought and imagination. Were there really people who looked like this, who could be seen walking the streets of Rome, Arezzo or Paris? Who could be spoken to, and answer your voice? It seems implausible. We look at them for quite different reasons. We admire their difference, and their distance, from us.

But then there are artists whose work is not like this. They are the ones who acknowledge human imperfection and mortality. And not only acknowledge it, but in some sense glory in it, making it the prime subject of their art. For if men and women were perfect, mentally, physically, morally, spiritually, why would they need art at all?

For that, we need Rembrandt. I’ve written about his paintings a few times in the three years I’ve been keeping my virtual memories (I missed my blogiversary a few weeks ago), but I’ve only done so tentatively. The best of it was probably in this Interminably Long Ramble.

If you’re going to be in Amsterdam in the next few months, you should check out the Rembrandt-Caravaggio exhibit that Hughes’ article is plugging.

If you’re a fine art aficionado and a NASCAR fan, check out the Rembrandt 400.

Night Watch

Today, I saw Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum.

There are moments for which we spend all our lives waiting, and there are moments for which we don’t even know we’re waiting.

* * *

The Rijksmuseum’s undergoing a massive renovation, so the masterpieces of the collection have been put on display in the Philips wing. I’m immensely thankful that I’m in the midst of the Baroque Cycle while I visit this place. It’s providing me with an amazing context for this place and the short period in which it became the center of the world.

That said, this is the most confusing city I’ve ever walked in, even worse than Boston. I’m not sure what it is, but I lose track of street names almost instantly, and barely recognize previously traversed intersections (a key method of finding one’s way around). The sheer number of canals has something to do with it, of course: something that, in a single instance, should be an easy landmark, multiplied becomes confusion.

I’ll probably catch hell for this, but I didn’t visit the Van Gogh Museum, around the corner from the Rijksmuseum. I used to feel quite passionate about Van Gogh’s paintings, but that’s just not the case for me anymore. When I look at reproductions of his work, nothing awakens in me. I recognize the genius of his work, but I’ve somehow lost the enthusiasm I once had for it.

Maybe my past enthusiasm for Van Gogh tied more into the biography and my old identity as Misunderstood, Partially Insane Artist. As I’ve grown into a different world, that vision of color and shape doesn’t resonate in me. I’m drawn more to the darknesses and ambiguities of Rembrandt’s best work.

Perhaps it has something to do with why I loathe most modern art. Maybe this is it: I don’t like the Lowest College Denominator context to which Van Gogh’s been reduced. The cheap clones, the too-easy “I don’t need training! I’m expressing myself!” method that many visual artists employ: maybe that’s what Van Gogh’s come to represent in my psyche. Not that he was practitioner of that method, but that yahoo-artists use him as a champion.

Or maybe I’m just getting older and my classics-background means more to me.

* * *

Walking through the “Rembrandt & his pupils” section of the museum, I thought about how much it must’ve sucked to be Hals, van Hootch, et al., painting in the time and place of Rembrandt. Doing your best work during a time of someone else’s genius must be a major bummer. The obvious version of this is that Amadeus movie/play, but from what I gather, the relationship between Mozart and Salieri was more complicated than the fictionalized version.

* * *

Last night, I walked around in the Leidseplein for a bit. Lots of bars, restaurants, shops, etc. Here’s a funny-looking building. I didn’t have my map with me, so I didn’t know how near or far I was from the Red Light district. I thought I might be close, because I saw numerous women who were absolutely phenomenally/pneumatically built, dressed in some of the most sex-oriented clothing I’d ever seen in public. When I looked at the map this morning, I realized I was nowhere near that section of town, and that some women in Amsterdam just dress like that.

* * *

Some pictures from this afternoon’s jaunt to the museum:

The view from a canal near my hotel. When the Meridien Apollo’s website said that the hotel had a view of five canals, I thought that meant it was pretty amazingly located. Now I realize that, in Amsterdam, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting five canals.

Still, it’s a nice hotel, and in a pretty quiet location, which is good for me.

Here’s a section of the Rijksmuseum.

Thank you, sir! May I have another?

Same place, different side.

A statue on the grounds, commemorating the back strain suffered by the guys who had to move it there.

Always with the museum pix!

At least we’re coming up to the entrance.

I didn’t want to use the flash, for fear of scaring the 10 million Japanese tourists in front of me. (Note: as a goof, I took a photo of a totally dull building this afternoon, because a ton of Japanese tourists were walking by. They immediately stopped and began taking pictures of the same building.)

I got to the museum when this guy was getting his “uniform” on. I gave him a euro for dressing like a homo.

Not many people know that Rembrandt was also a killer ‘boarder.

The big concert hall.

They have these strange birds here, which have white bills, black feathers, and black eyes, and look like they have no faces. I’ll try to get a better pic later. Sadly, I made this observation and I haven’t even tried the hash yet.

Interminably Long Ramble

[No, I’m serious. This thing goes on forever and doesn’t make much sense. You’d be MUCH better off just skipping to another post. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.]

Yesterday offered me a different catharsis than the one I was expecting.

I took a half-day off from work, so I could go into NYC for a showing of photos about the attempts at reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda. The one-day showing was at the Salander-O’Reilly gallery on 79th St., and would include short speeches by Samantha Power and Philip Gourevitch. I read the latter’s book a few weeks ago, and was destroyed by it. As any reader of this blog can tell, I’ve been pretty death-obsessed in recent weeks/months. It’s been a combination of two things: current events in Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere, and the stresses of the day-job (three consecutive issues have had weird production schedules, so I’ve been going without any decompression-time till we finished the June issue last Thursday). Both of these factors have a lot of attendant effects.

I got to NYC early, so I stopped at the gallery (come back around 6pm, they told me), then walked across Fifth Ave. to Central Park. It was an absolutely gorgeous day: 75 degrees, a nice breeze, not a cloud in the sky. I put on my iPod and walked for a ways. It was around 3:30-4pm, and there were plenty of little kids practicing sports. Lines of kids threw undersized footballs to opposing lines of kids. Out in the Oval, some softballers were practicing, but there was plenty of open area. I settled under a tree, and a trio of college kids started playing frisbee nearby. Someone flew a blue-and-white checkered kite. It was idyllic. I read a book for a while, and otherwise just breathed in the spring.

Eventually, I decided to get up and visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, back on 5th and 81st. I hadn’t been there since January 2003 (a month before I started typing up these virtual memories). It was my birthday (the 11th, for those of you who’ve been thinking of throwing a surprise party for me), and I got it into my head to spend that day at the Frick & the Met, checking out the paintings by Rembrandt. I wrote about my feelings for some of Rembrandt’s paintings in April 2003. It was a really wonderful birthday, even if I did spend it alone. I’d only seen a few of his paintings in person before, and the ones we have in NYC are just wondrous.

So yesterday, I went back to the Met. Like last year, I saved the Rembrandts for the end. This time, though, I lingered in the modern art halls, in the Lila Acheson wing, I think. I stared at several paintings by Mark Rothko. I’d never seen his paintings “in person” (you know what I mean) before, but I do remember goofing on them on principle, back in college.

I’ve been pretty biased against modern art for a while now, but I am man enough to recognize that some of that is just stupidity on my part. So I stared at several paintings by Rothko, not quite hearing that The Thievery Corporation was busy mixing and matching elements of the world’s musical traditions on my iPod. I felt enveloped. I thought about my old friend John, whose girlfriend once bought him a massive Rothko print that he couldn’t afford to frame. Normally, that sorta thing would’ve sent me tripping over a whole web of thoughts and associations, but it didn’t happen this time. But that’s not my unexpected catharsis. It was a heck of an experience, and I want to seek out more of his paintings.

Time started to slip, and I wanted to get back to the art gallery before too many people showed up (there was a writeup about the Rwanda event in Sunday’s New York Times, which meant a lot of people (relatively speaking) were likely to arrive. So I tried to hurry through the museum to the Old Masters, where I could commune with my best friend for a little while.

Unfortunately, I got lost in Byzantium (or at least the new exhibition on religious art of the Byzantines). Eventually, I made my way back to 19th century Europe, which gave way to August Sander’s photography (and memories of the time when I liked Richard Powers’ novels). Then the Old Masters. The Flemish style. The color and the shape arising out of darkness. R.’s mid-career portraiture, with its unnaturally vivid lighting, following the violent Bible tableaux. Out of the corner of my eye (just like Jan. 2003), I saw a self-portrait of R., through a doorway. Waited on it, gazing on Brueghel, van Eyck, Hals, etc.

He looks at me, ancient man forever alive.

The self-portrait at the Met doesn’t have the impact on me that the great one over at the Frick does. But that’s a more intimate space to begin with, and has those lovely Whistlers, Goyas, El Grecos. There, I see R. in golden robes, and it’s like seeing an old friend.

But that wasn’t it, either. I looked at the self-portrait, after contemplating Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer. A Japanese man stood next to me, expertly sketching the self-portrait. I wanted to tell him how amazed I was by his drawing, but elected not to. I sat down and wrote for a little while.

Shortly, I headed for the exit, so I could get to the photo-gallery. On the way out, my eye was caught by a wing of the museum that I hadn’t visited since I was a child, and a dream from several weeks ago caught up with me. It was the Egyptians and death.

Earlier, walking from Park to Museum, I passed Cleopatra’s Needle, read the translated hieroglyphics, all praise to sun-god Ra. I thought about the circuitous route that its sister took to get to London, the trail of accidents and death that it blazed. I thought about two Saturdays ago, when thoughts of mortality just dominated my mind. Not hard to imagine: I’d finished Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide, and would soon start Murakami’s book on the Tokyo subway nerve-gas attacks.

The Egyptian wing drew me in. Celebration of the dead. Sarcophagi of gold. How it would contrast with the photos of lines of skulls in the Ntarama Church, 20 minutes into my future. I know this narrative isn’t making much sense, but I still haven’t caught up on sleep, and I need to get all this out. These are virtual memories: almost the real thing.

It was Anubis, the dog-headed guardian of the dead. That’s what I saw symbolically in a dream, weeks earlier, culmination of an evening freighted with death.

“Freighted with death.” Puts me in mind of another myth: The Nordic gods, and their end-of-the-world. A boat bearing fallen warriors comes out of the underworld, and it’s built of dead men’s fingernails. Death, traveling freight. I tend to draw these significances, these parallels of myths. It’s sorta the subject of a novel I want to write (but am too much of a pussy to sit down and work through).

When I came into the museum, I walked through the sunlit, white rooms of the ancient Greek art & artifacts. A passage from Thucydides graced one wall, quoting from Pericles’ funeral oration on the wonders of Athens. [It elides over the part where Pericles mentions the terrors that Athens has to inflict. I’ll talk about that more extensively sometime, as the election approaches. Remind me.] In contrast, the Egyptian wing was darkened in parts to keep fabrics and parchments from fading. With nearly no visitors, it was almost silent.

I felt like a shadow, and Rwanda still awaited.

I got to the gallery at 5:30. Photos were mounted, but no-one was in the main room. So I took my time, absorbing the images. The photographs weren’t of the massacre itself, but of the country eight years later, as Rwanda struggled (and still struggles) to reconcile itself with the presence of so many genocidaires.

I kept returning to one photo. Not of the carefully organized lines of skulls, nor of shed with shelves of femurs. Not the men in pink shirts and shorts, facing village-wide tribunals called Gacacas. Not the tall, trim-bearded prosecutor, holding a microphone and calling on townspeople to offer evidence against a woman accused of genocide. Not the Tutsis, holding old photos of murdered family members, alongside Polaroids of their remains.

The photo that caught me was from the prayer hall of the Ntarama Church. It was a color photo of a brick wall, with a window in the top left. The bricks at the bottom of the window frame were missing. Having read about the genocide, I could only imagine how those bricks were knocked out.

In the middle of the photo, there are two sacks. They look like linen, or a woven plastic, several feet tall, leaning upright against the brick wall. They are filled with bones. From the top of the sacks, skulls and pelvises protrude. To the viewer’s right, sitting on the floor beside the sacks, is a framed wall-hanging, in relief, of the Last Supper. It’s stylized, full figures sitting at strange angles, contorted to face Jesus, who’s breaking bread.

It’s the sacks. I look at them, and they contain these lives. I don’t know how to express it. I mean, most of my coworkers look at me sympathetically when I talk about this stuff, but they still seem to think, “But these are a bunch of Africans, you idiot.” I don’t mean to be unkind to them. They have families, and homes, and much more by way of roots than I have, and the time I spend thinking about this stuff is time they could spend doing something called living.

So I kept coming back to these sacks, and thought about the lives that were stuffed into them. The artistic/synthetic experiences I’d had at the Met were submerged now, overwhelmed by death in Africa. Walking among the Egyptians was a good preliminary, it seemed.

After a while, I went to a coffeeshop around the corner, and read the catalog for the exhibit. I came back to the gallery around 6:15, and found it filled with people. I was gratified that so many people turned out for something that we could all just easily have glossed over (thanks, NYT!). The speakers were supposed to “go on” (you know what I mean) at 6:30. I walked among the photos again, surrounded by a throng of people. It felt wrong to me that they were happy to see one another. The room felt like an antechamber of death, not a place for smiles.

I immediately felt guilty for having that reaction. Who was I to complain about someone else’s feelings? As you can tell, I was in a serious bind, or an emotional death-spiral, as I like to call it. I was second-guessing everydamnthing, feeling utterly out of place in the room (for no good reason), and otherwise suffering from the heebie-jeebies.

Ms. Power walked in, and I thought for a moment about introducing myself to her. I’d sent an e-mail to her Harvard account last week, asking for advice/suggestions about what a normal (ha-ha) person could do regarding the genocide in Sudan. I haven’t heard back from her, but I figure she’s a busy woman. In addition, many people in the crowd knew her and wanted to talk. So I walked among the photos, heard snippets of conversation, and felt soul-heavy. I was utterly adrift, staring at that photo of the sacks of bones, when the thought struck me, “Wouldn’t it be great to be out on the lawn in Central Park right now?”

And this huge smile broadened my face. That was it: The weight lifted away. I walked out of the gallery, went to the Park, relaxed in the evening breeze, watched people play softball, and listened to some music. The catharsis struck. All the tumult built to a head, and then dispersed in this realization that I need joy, too.

On the way back to my car, I called an old friend of mine who works in the city. I thought he might be working late and, as it turned out, he was. He thought I sounded strange (I did) on the phone, so he decided to stay a little later and we met for drinks. It was a great time. We caught up on the past few months, goofed around like we did 10 years ago in grad school, and rambled about sports, culture, art, and war.

I thought about all the friends I’ve fallen out of touch with this year. The war’s had something to do with it, as has the exigencies of our day-to-day lives. I’ve made several good friends this year, but last night I remembered how good it is to spend time with old friends.

So this is what I do when I take a half-day off from work. Sorry to ramble so much, but if I stop to edit this, I guarantee it’ll never get posted.

Spring Fling

[There used to be a slideshow that accompanied this post, but my old ISP went down and took all my files with it. Stupidly, I never backed that stuff up. Oh, well. Them’s the virtual memories. . .]

Sitting on the PATH train into NYC from Hoboken, I look into my overnight bag and see a bottle of Tanqueray and a full prescription of Vicodin. I thought, “Wow, if I had some grass and a bottle of ether, I’d feel like Hunter S. Thompson’s intern!”

Friday was, to put it mildly, an eventful episode of The Gil Show. I had the day off from work (thanks, Christendom), but was suffering pretty mightily from an gum infection around one of my wisdom teeth. It’d been going on since Monday, but I was too macho/stupid to go to a dentist (there are two about 20 feet from my apartment). So, by Friday morning, I was suffering insanely from this pain, thinking, “Y’know, Gil, this is how They got David Lindsay.” Because that’s how I think, alright?

Went to one of the dentists at 9am. She got me an antibiotic prescription and told me to get back to her office at 1pm, so she could cut out a fold of my gum and clean out the area. I did so, and got to have Fun with Novocain, which I haven’t experienced since around 1987 (I don’t go to dentists much, unless it’s an emergency). Then she handed me a prescription for Vicodin. Before the minisurgery, I told her, “I plan on drinking pretty abusively this evening; is that a problem?”

“No. But don’t take the Vicodin if you’re drinking. And don’t drive or operate any heavy machinery when you’re taking the Vicodin.”

“Not even my forklift?” I asked, despite not owning one.

I was a bit worried about missing out on the evening, in which I planned to go to NYC to:

a) see one of my favorite singers perform;

b) attend my friends’ Spring Fling party (despite the 40 degree weather); and

c) get absolutely annihilated on gin & tonic and have some fun conversation with people I don’t get to see often.

Even though it wasn’t a huge amount of dental work, I was pretty wiped out by late afternoon. Didn’t feel like trying to eat anything solid, so I had an Atkins strawberry shake. Problem was, my mouth was still numb from the Novocain, which led to that curious sensation of drinking something and having no idea how much was in my mouth. It was pretty freaky.

The numbness wore off while I was driving to Hoboken, where I took the aforementioned PATH train to the 14th St. stop. It was a block away from the home of my friends who were throwing the party. I wanted to drop off the overnight bag (with “springtime clothing” for later in the evening) before getting some dinner and listening to some music.

Walked from their place on 13th St. to Crosby St., a block into SoHo. Not having eaten, I began getting some pretty intense chills, which worried me a bit, given that it was only 6:30 and I was planning for a pretty long night. The venue for the gig wasn’t open when I got there, so I went to an Australian restaurant called Eight Mile Creek, and ordered the soup of the day. It took awhile, so I ordered up a G&T, which meant I probably wouldn’t be having any Vicodin that evening.

Thing is, without the Novocain, I was back to experiencing some pretty intense pain in my mouth and my right ear. It hurt terribly to open my mouth much, and yawning was agony. Not fun. So I slurped my soup pretty ravenously, not having eaten for about 10-11 hours. Drank my gin. Saw Michael Imperioli walk down the sidewalk (because it’s New York, that’s why).

After that, I headed over to the gig, which was at a used bookstore that functions as a fundraiser for homeless people with AIDS. Do you call them AIDS patients? AIDS sufferers? AIDS victims? Every term carries a certain set of connotations, and I’m not sure which ones are inappropriate. I don’t personally know anyone with AIDS, although I recently published one of Samuel Delany’s novels on the subject (as well as a collection of his letters from 1984, a time when AIDS was still pretty much unidentified and wreaking havoc in parts of the queer community).

The gig was a triple-bill, but I was only there to see the first performer, a singer named Lori Carson. I first heard Lori’s singing back in 1994, when I lived in Annapolis and WHFS was a great indy (or Alter Native) radio station. She was with a band called the Golden Palominos, a rotating lineup sorta thing, led by a guy with the great name of Anton Fier. She sang on two GP records (which I consider two of the greatest get-it-on albums of all time, if you’re into a techo-rock-sex-funk vibe), then went off to do solo records. I have a tough time describing her voice, so let’s let these guys do it instead:

“…a super-high range that gives the effect of a young girl on helium…”

“…breathy, delicate vocals…”

“…a rawness beneath its soprano highs that make her songs resonate and tremble — she’s an unaffected singer who sounds like the bitter kid sister Joni Mitchell never had…”

The bookstore was SRO by the time I arrived. But the caf” area was open, and they were serving soup, which made me happy, since I was still afraid to risk solid food. So I noshed, bantered with a couple of women who were in a songwriting workshop that Lori Carson run out near her place in Long Island, and was given a second-row seat when the organizers decided to lift the “reserved” tags from those seats.

One thing about Lori Carson, and I don’t mean it in any looks-biased way, is that she photographs REALLY well, and doesn’t look as good in person. The proof of this is the cover of “Everything I Touch Runs Wild,” which has some pretty glamorous photography. In the flesh, she’s much earthier, though still strangely beautiful. I saw her play a few years ago at some music festival sponsored by Intel (ha-HA! No link for you!). Only about a dozen people came that night. Probably about 30-40 people at gig Friday (although some may”ve been there for the other acts).

She played a stylish-looking electric guitar, accompanied by an acoustic guitarist named Paul Pimsler. They only had about half an hour to play, so she only got in 6 or 7 songs. Most were recent, quiet, acoustic folk tunes. But she also played two older pieces: the title song to her second album, “Where It Goes,” and the very first song I ever heard her sing, “Little Suicides.”

I love certain pieces of art in a way that I don’t really understand. I think it might border on nostalgia (not a joy, but a having had joy). It was only in January, when I spent my birthday wandering through the Frick and the Met, staring at works by Rembrandt, that I started examining this feeling. A particular painting at the Frick, a self-portrait, caught me off guard. I was elated, looking at it, but the feeling more than just that of seeing a beautiful painting. It was like seeing an old friend, and perhaps it reflected the feeling of who I was in that moment of seeing Rembrandt the first time (the first Rembrandt picture I remember seeing (except for that cigar box one) was a philosopher meditating, on the cover of Gershom Scholem’s book on Kabbalah (not this edition, but a remaindered one that I bought years ago)). I’m not sure how to characterize that peculiar joy.

But I felt something similar when Lori started playing “Little Suicides” that night. “It happens in the smallest ways / It happens all the time . . .” she sang, and I was just transported, shedding years, remembering joy. (That last phrase puts me in mind of the closing lines from one of my favorite movies, where the narrator asks, “Is a memory something you have, or something you’ve lost?”)

The other old tune, “Where It Goes,” always made me think of a girl from college whom I knew as my One True Ex (you’ll have to find her tree in this forest). Our relationship, even when we were both involved with others long-term, was a strange affair. It was like a tango in which one of the partners is absent. For most of a decade, we continued to dance without the other. By the time we finally met again, we’d each become so familiar with our own steps that the other one seemed alien to us. The realities of who we’d become were not only superfluous to our dream-lives, they were inimical. And so we rapidly crumbled.

(Also, she was batshit and petty, and the last time we spent together was absolutely misery-inducing.)

But I thought of our old feelings while Lori sang, “I don’t know where it comes from / I don’t know where it goes / But clearly it’s going, gone / It’s time to let it / Time to move on…”

Then Lori was done singing, and I left for the party. I should write more about that, but the details are already a little vague (and somewhat boring). The things to know are:

a) I stuck with Tanqueray and tonic, eschewing the Vicodin;

b) One of my best friends came (at my invite), met people, and got hit on;

c) I impressed a girl by being able to discuss Churchland’s emergent principles of consciousness while personally bordering on unconsciousness;

d) I spent time in the company of friends, which always brings me joy;

e) I spoke the words, “Dude, I couldn’t stand up right now if you paid me”;

f) I put on a pair of bunny ears and tried to make a cartoony expression that REALLY didn’t photograph well; and

g) I got back to my friend’s place at 4am, crashed on her spare mattress, woke up at 7am, and decided to head back to NJ so I could sleep in my own bed.

And now the weekend is over and I’m trying to write an editorial for my magazine where I compare China’s coverup of SARS to the T-virus in Resident Evil. I’ll letcha know how it goes.