Hubert Robert (1733-1808), The Old Bridge (1775) — or The Stranded Pussycat
Dear friends and readers,
On Boxing Day we again went to the National Galley as we have for a couple of years now (see Wiseman and Warhol. (We’ve gone to the Philips Gallery also.) Boxing Day is the second day of Christmas, Victorian and modern style, and the explanation for the custom and name is this was the day people who owned and governed great houses, gave their servants presents in boxes the next day. (They showed this in last year’s Downton Abbey Christmas special.) Our way of doing this is to have fun at museums which some years ago now we learned are ready for us: the National Gallery regularly has a blockbuster show, and side-shows too, are ready for the crowd, which, even in the pouring ice of this past Dec 16th, obliged by coming in great numbers.
I admit we waited until after 1 pm when the sky was merely pouring out rain. So it was an abbreviated Boxing Day, without lunch out in the the museum’s cafe. But when we got there we managed a whirlwind tour by 4 or so, when we decided it looked awfully dark and windy out there, and feared that our Jaguar (with its front-wheel drive) would not be happy if we returned to it in the cold dark.
I cannot say we felt inspired or that anyone’s spirits soared as we went through the rooms of Lichtenstein’s pictures. OTOH, the paintings were compelling in their unexpected mimicry of every day forms. Like the marbled composition book: Laura and Izzy wrote in such books for years; Izzy still does.
There were recognizable washing machines, trash cans (the hinge not open and then open with a woman’s leg in high heels next to it); balls of twine. He seemed to us to be making fun of other artists especially: there was cubism outdone, Picasso exposed (as Lichtenstein first gave us a cartoon-yet-real version of a girl, then half-way to cubism, and then an over-the-top imitation). He redid Monet in his cartoon-y style, and even did seasons (hairy-cupcakes or haystacks in all the seasons).
He’s know especially for his imitation cartoons:
Most of them have lugubriously sentimental cries to “Brad”. This one caught my eye because of the scary hands: limp well-manicured large hands are ubiquitous in these cartoons paintings, making them after a while creepy. This one has thick swirling lines while others have dots: hundreds & hundreds in the three colors used by printers all in straight lines. He was once dubbed “the dot man.” In many of these painted cartoons the women — or girls — are supposed sexy. Really they are bland is probably what Lichtenstein shows us. There were a great many of violence action-adventure.
But here and there one glimpsed a love of art and art objects.
I enjoyed the rooms towards the end of his career where he did his studio in this heavy-line bright single color way, projecting a given decade by a familiar object. Very inventive and very autobiographical too.
Artist’s studio, foot medication (1974).
There were a couple of beautiful frames of intense color in waves, all shiny (one turquoise blue, the other a pink) that Izzy noticed. One Laocoon with his sons devoured by serpents which emerged from brush strokes of paint.
The show takes you step-by-step through Lichtenstein’s life and works, and milieu. It’s difficult to say what was the original impetus. Lichtenstein had come from a Manhattan family, but transferred to Ohio art school for college, and after WW2 returned to the mid-west to teach. When he came to NYC, he is described as undermining the abstract expressionists, but this seems to me not enough explanation. Lichtenstein did have a financial success using pop –like Warhol — and possibly he found to keep up this kind of ridicule of supposedly pop and cultured art paid well, and his art dealer kept him at making what would sell. The provenance of many of the items was neither the artist’s estate or a museum, but “private collection” (undisclosed). Perhaps later on he felt he could not break out of being “the dot man.” I can’t say. But the exhibition left me cold. Think of how Seurat used dots and one can measure the distance from most of Lichtenstein’s art to visionary painting.
We spent much less time in front of the Michelangelo statue now called Apollo-David — because no one knows which figure the artist had in mind). The statue, though, projected a depth of feeling even in or maybe because of the deliberately unfinished state. There was no hype; it was just in the center of a room. Tellingly, there was hardly any one there. Yet the museums must have gone to intense trouble to move it from Florence to hear. Jim thought maybe they had someone personally carrying it in some super-wrapped package. Handle with care.
You can walk very close up and behind and make up your mind whether the figure has a stash of arrows at his back or not.
Two exhibits (one near Lichtenstein) were intellectually stimulating and we had the fun of feeling we came upon them by chance. We hadn’t: “The Shock of the News” was next to the Lichtenstein. The stuff wasn’t shocking but it was an exhibit of newsprint, starting before WW1 when there was a fad for putting newsprint inside a frame or making it part of a painting and bringing the exhibit up to the 1980s or so. Again I was startled to see famous and familiar headlines and pictures (as Lichtenstein startles me). The point of the exhibit was to show the viewer how central newspapers were in our experience at the time — today they’ve been partly replaced by the Internet. You had to take time to read the fine print and look at the images and also read what the curators had to say.
It was a trip through recent history from the angle of what would sell to the general public, what could attract attention.
There was an exhibit of camera work where artists took photos of people or places at intervals over the years was where last year we saw a marvelous exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite landscapes which taught me I had very narrow and distorted views of Pre-Raphaelitism. I watched individuals grow old, sometimes sad; places change or remain the same; one series of four sisters covered a wall – them when teenagers to them in their sixties. They looked like they loved one another, at least stayed together through many an ordeal and some happy moments (at beaches) too.
The National Gallery museum (like the Met in NYC) also practices replacing or changing around permanent exhibits so as to bring up from storage art objects they used to keep hidden in the basement. One large one (it seemed to us) was of American art: furniture, paintings, objects of all sorts (from chess sets to book holders to various instruments). Much of it from the later 18th century into the middle 19th. It was fun for me to recognize Martha Jefferson Randolph’s son (I just read Kierner and Gordon-Reed’s books). Some of the paintings were unexpected good psychological studies. I got an especial kick out of things like an early 19th century chess set.
We didn’t neglect some of our favorites of the permanent collection. Wm Turner, a turn of the 19th century landscape, some Corot, other landscape artists of the later 17th century. For example, this one with its sweet dog:
For me the best art experience of the day was to come upon the original of Hubert Robert’s The Old Bridge, a favorite of mine, a copy of which is scotch-taped to one of the walls in my workroom — and to discover for the first time the top rung has an old woman reaching out for her tiny cat. Look again, dear reader. You see see a cat crouched on a narrow gate-looking iron. The old woman is trying to reach the poor creature, fearful it will fall.
Nowadays I see cats everywhere — and keep confirming they are in a lot of paintings.
At Christmas the National Gallery becomes a building filled with genuinely stimulating art objects, with good cafes to eat at. It’s not wildly over-crowded (like the Met). Many (but not too many) people enjoying either the exhibits and art or the flowers and furniture arrangements and music in various garden-courts. If you’re seeking some tradition, some habit to enable you to get through this winter holiday season with good memories to cling to, I advise Boxing Day at the National.
I’ll be away for 4 days, at the MLA Conference in Boston. When I come home I hope to have a lot to write about again — as Jim likes to go the modern sessions, all about the movies, is not Eurocentric, looks to understand history. He says we will go to one “unfogged” dinner of bloggers on the Net. I hope we won’t be too cold. We stay at the St Botoph’s Club, a place with a good restaurant, nice rooms, with a long tradition of having music concerts and art lectures and the like.