Back from Paris, Brussels and London

I’m back from London. I did have a root canal after all, but it was fairly painless. The night before, I saw “The Mousetrap”, which also was fairly painless, but that’s not the adjective you usually want to use when describing theater. “The Mousetrap” has been running for 56 years -my visit was performance #23,264 and it felt like it. It’s hard to believe that even the audiences of the 1950s were willing to sit through such a contrived plot. Another first-hand example of the difference between the world view of Americans vs. Europeans was when I held a conversation with a woman who decided she was “sympathetic to Chavez” after seeing a documentary.

I saw a lot of art while we were away. In addition to seeing the brilliant Musee d’Orsay and the Orangerie (Monet’s Water Lilies) in Paris, we visited the Pompideau Center, and I shall rant a bit about the Pompideau Center. While there is a lot of 1950s-1960s modern painting that I find lovely and thought-provoking, there’s also a huge amount of self-indulgent pretentious crap being churned out as well. I can’t even quote some of the descriptions – “obliviating the boundaries between representation and abstraction”, “turning directly to the unconscious to guide the painter’s hand over the canvas”, “refusing to be bound by a profound lack of talent”, that kind of thing – without gagging. Look at, for example, Cy Twombly’s Achilles Mourning the Death of Patroclus from 1962:

What the hell is this? Yet the actual canvas is about six feet by six feet, so I think the secret of modern painting is: if it’s really big, people will think it has to be good. Hence you can paint a canvas white, paint a blue square on the edge, and as long as the whole thing requires five men to mount it on the wall, it’s art. There are also the installation pieces – big chairs, stacks of pots under a table, etc. At one point my eye was drawn to a cannister with a collection of pipes and hoses suspended from a wall, but it proved to just be fire-fighting equipment in the hallway. But all it needed was better lighting and a label.

There wasn’t much to see in Brussels – not surprisingly, a lot of the work there was influenced by the French, and the collection of moderns works was bad (except for the guy who works in mussel shells), but London’s Tate Modern added to my outrage and bafflement against contemporary art. Again, I’m not knocking the whole collection – there are many modern painters and sculptors whose abstract or crudely-shaped images are weirdly brilliant – but one of the pieces on exhibit is a large, irregularly-shaped paper octagon that is pasted onto a white wall. The artist, Richard Tuttle, has created a whole series of large irregularly-shaped octagons cut out of paper and stuck onto walls, sometimes even when the wall is nearly the same color as the octagon (for added artistic value). Take that, Alex Calder.

So I am baffled by the art world. Yet there are aspects of classical art that also mystify me, albeit for different reasons. Take this piece of information on display in the Victoria & Albert Museum about painting on ivory:

Since it is more difficult to work on ivory than on vellum, miniature painters learned to prepare their watercolours differently. They used more gum arabic to make it stickier. They also discovered that adding ox-gall, the liquid from the gall bladder of a cow or bull, made the watercolour flow more easily. This allowed them greater freedom when using the brush.

How does someone think to look in a cow’s gall bladder for the solution to making paint stick to ivory?

Meanwhile, in the art world here at home, the National Gallery is under renovation. They had an exhibition while we were away in which the creators of Socialist Realist masterpieces reinterpreted their paintings directly onto the walls of the gallery hall where they hung; the Gallery then painted the reinterpretations over, to literally immure them in the gallery walls while at the same time symbolizing the end of Socialist Realist art. Also, Playboy magazine is finally for sale in Albania, thus creating a whole new market for nudes heretofore unrealized.

I’ll post the trip photos eventually, but this is one of my favorites: