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Peeks and Piques Index

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Peeks and Piques!


ART TIMES March 2009

I DON’T KNOW what goes on behind the closed doors of fine art galleries, auction houses, or museums. How, for example, do curators, restorers — even delivery men — feel when they handle some old masterwork that has just come into their possession? Nor have I had the good fortune to experience the once-famous  “Fogg Method” (alas, now no more), in which Harvard art history majors had first-hand exposure to the Fogg Museum’s considerable treasures of major artworks (which, thankfully, do still exist). The closest I came to holding the “real thing” was during a trip to the Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulterbesitz’s Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin and was allowed to hold (properly attired with white gloves, of course) one of Rembrandt’s ‘Hundred Guilder Prints’ (“Christ Healing the Sick”). For the most part, we mere mortals — art critics included, I might add (who, in some estimates, are the ‘merest’ of all) — are used to “keeping our distance” from masterpieces that hang on museum or gallery walls. Even at press openings, where the only visitors are (presumably) art critics, viewers with pens or pencils in their hands are warily watched. Get too close to examine texture, for instance, and bells and gongs and whistles bring on the storm troopers to warn you back and away. In one instance, the pen I was plying while jotting down notes was replaced — with a slight frown on the face of the uniformed guard — by an ‘approved’ museum pencil (they did give me my pen back as I left, though). Protection of old masterworks — the extreme, perhaps, the extensive roped-off area surrounding the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre, where there is little chance for anyone — critic or otherwise — to get a close look at da Vinci’s brushstrokes — is, of course, understandable. Too many times deranged individuals have slashed paintings or hammered on statues, disfiguring them forever. But how does it feel to actually touch a masterwork from the past, to hold one in your hands? Well, I have finally found out! A couple of years ago, I chatted with a woman who had attended one of my lectures on “The Art of Art Criticism” and that chance meeting led to lunch some months later at a restaurant in New York City. During our conversation, she told me that she had “some wonderful old paintings” that her father had brought to the United States. from Europe. I was of course curious but, not being an appraiser or dealer, I took the information as just that — a casual aside that this woman had chosen to share with me. Luncheon over, as we were leaving the restaurant, she said, “I’d like to show them to you some day.” Look, I’m a writer who spends most of his time holed up in a studio without phone or computer, happy in my enforced solitude and surrounding shelves of artbooks. I read, I write — I am no social butterfly, a middling conversationalist, and most assuredly do not travel in the social circles that this lady seemed so much a part of. So, would I really get to see those paintings? To make a short story long, I did, and not only see them, but to touch them and to hold them this past January! I received a note (snail-mail, of course) to come and see — see what? — a Courbet, a Diaz, a Corot, a Gerôme, a Utrillo, a Vlaminck, and a Roybet, all set out for me to gaze at, to run my fingers over, to lift and to hold in my own hands! And not just any Corot or Courbet or Gerôme, but all first-tier works, paintings that my gracious host told me had never been publicly exhibited! I turned them over, looked at how they were fitted to stretchers, noted in what manner they were framed — but mostly I just looked at how they were painted, my eyes and fingers following brushstrokes (or how they were obliterated, especially in the Courbet — “licked smooth” as they once phrased it), noting touches of light, color, trees and shrubbery in the Diaz, Gerôme, Corot (with, of course, its tiny signature touch of red buried in the motif) and Utrillo. Though of less interest to me, the turbulent sky in the Vlaminck and the painterly flourishes that delineated collar ruffles and hands in the Roybet, were still special to see up close and at first hand. The experience was both awesome and thrilling (hence the long preamble here, since I really cannot put into words what I was feeling at the time), the afternoon playing over in my mind as I rode the bus back to my upstate studio, a never-ending reel of pleasure that continued to loop back upon itself as images flashed behind my closed eyelids. I do not know how curators or restorers feel, but I know that I felt privileged, honored, trusted, my breast so filled with emotion as I picked up or touched each of these masterworks that I could not adequately thank this lady for the gift she had given me. I still can’t. How fortunate I was to have her come to share a few words with me after my lecture that day! At the age of seventy-five — over thirty-five of those years devoted to writing about art and artists — I simply have no comparable experience to equal that afternoon.



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