Vol. LXIII, No. 1
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
AT THE LAPIN AGILE: Picassos oil painting from 1905 is among the works acquired during the 30-year directorship of Philippe de Montebello that will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum through February 1. Thats Picasso himself in harlequin attire at the bar of the Montmartre cafe. Standing next to him is a model and femme fatale named Germaine Pichot. The man with the guitar is the owner of the Lapin Agile, where this painting hung even into the 1940s. Complete images of the show can be viewed online at www.metmuseum.org/home.asp.
You can celebrate anything you want … penetrate any place you go … radiate anything you are … imitate everyone you know … indicate anything you see … syndicate any boat you row … Everything has got to be just like you want it to .
John Lennon, “Dig a Pony”
When asked in a 1980 Newsweek interview if he’d been to a certain disco, John Lennon said, “I’ve never been to any rock clubs. It’s like asking Picasso has he been to the museum lately.”
The in-your-face attitude is vintage Lennon, but what made him so special a talent was something wiser and more subtle than his audacity. Change the gender in “She’s not a girl who misses much” from his song, “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” and he might be singing about himself. That line, which touches on a quality essential to his vision and his music, kept resonating during a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum, both in terms of the works that I imagined Lennon would give special attention to and in the expressions and attitudes of three females, two of whom were in paintings, the other one a real-life girl who wasn’t missing anything.
Remembering December 8
In Manhattan several hours ahead of a 7:30 dinner engagement with friends on 115th Street, we parked the car nearby and waved down a cab on Amsterdam Avenue, across from St. Luke’s Hospital. It took a minute before I remembered that this was the place to which John Lennon had been rushed, bleeding to death in the back of a squad car after being shot by a deranged fan the night of December 8, 1980. Every year on that date people come to the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park to celebrate his life and his music, as they did once again this Monday.
On the way to the Met I was thinking about another date, February 7, 1964, and of the iconic image of Lennon and his mates, the Lads from Liverpool, waving to the crowds on Fifth Avenue from the windows of the Plaza Hotel. Although the Beatles’ choice of Apple for the name of their own record label (and corporation) is said to have been inspired by a Magritte painting, the group, and Lennon in particular, must have approved of the symbolic connection with the Big Apple, John’s adopted home and the scene of that inaugural American moment.
Art at Night
The sky is darkening over the Hudson as we take a left turn and head east toward the park and across the transverse from 86th Street to Fifth Avenue and our destination, the floodlit palace that feels like the center of the world, which is an impressive idea, to think that art should be the center of anything in 2008, let alone looming like a place of worship with multitudes of paying pilgrims climbing the great expanse of stairs outside and then proceeding up the grand stairway inside.
It goes without saying that an evening visit to the Met when it’s open late and decked out for the holidays has a quality not to be found on a typical museum Sunday afternoon. It’s also easier to imagine John Lennon scouting the galleries at night and slinging Lennonesque jibes at certain of the works on display. Even without that glimpse of St. Luke’s and the thought of December 8, 1980, I’ve got reason to be in a John Lennon state of mind as I wander through the Lila Acheson Wallace galleries and the exhibit showcasing the wild and wondrous melange comprising 30 years of treasures acquired during the directorship of Philippe de Montebello. The previous Tuesday, November 25, having been the 40th anniversary of the White Album, I’d been absorbed in Beatles music for days while preparing an article on the album for this week’s record review. So why not imagine which works would speak to Lennon when his most famous song asks us to join him and imagine the day when “the world will live as one.” It’s also true that his strongest lyrics are generally more open, intimate, and personal than McCartney’s. In “Strawberry Fields Forever,” he makes music of uncertainty by registering the casual movement of his thought (“I think, er No, I mean, er Yes but it’s all wrong. That is I think I disagree”) so that you seem to be sharing the give and take of a “real” moment with him.
And it’s not as if he’s a stranger to galleries. It was at a Yoko Ono exhibit in London that his life (and that of the Beatles) changed forever. He and Yoko must have paid this palace of art at least one visit over the years, and Lennon was here in spirit in 1999 when the Met’s Rock Style exhibit featured the uniform he wore on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, along with the Edwardian suit he sported (“brown wool with black velvet collar”) on the cover of the EP, The Beatles Hits.
Lennon’s “She’s not a girl who misses much” and the point of view implicit in it first came to mind when my wanderings led me to John Singer Sargent’s Lady with a Rose, otherwise known as Charlotte Louise Burckhardt, who was 20 in 1882 when the picture was painted (she died of tuberculosis at 30). Her expression is one of barely veiled discomfort, a pained impatience; she’s not holding the pose so much as enduring it, and the way she’s handling the rose of the title between thumb and forefinger, you’d think that she’d either just pricked her finger on a thorn or that she felt the flower had been foisted on her, more a distasteful artifice than a glory of nature. Her other arm is bent at her side in the age-old female I-mean-business attitude, implying that if Sargent doesn’t get it done soon, she’ll drop the rose and flounce out of the room. Not only is she not a girl who misses much, she’s in definite possession of an attitude. Even more so is Rebecca H. Whelan, an American beauty from Philadelphia (Charlotte’s mother was American, her father Swiss) in Thomas P. Anshutz’s no less full-sized A Rose (1907). Rebecca is attired in a fabulous floor-length red dress, and although she’s sitting (Charlotte’s standing), she looks if anything even more fed up with the pose she’s been placed in by the artist. Her version of the sternly bent elbow is performed by her right hand, which seems to be toying with her hair. Her left hand is at rest in her lap, but you can see that under the voluminous skirt one leg is crossed over the other in a not very ladylike manner. Her expression is somewhere between a grimace and a sneer. Never mind the fancy period dress (a work of art in itself), she’s glowing with a modern light and simply radiating attitude. Though it’s some distance away in the Montebello exhibit, A Rose makes an obvious companion piece to Lady With a Rose, except that this time the rose is sitting on the table by the subject’s side: as if Rebecca had spurned it in defiance of the artist’s command. If you think I’m reading too much attitude into her body language, take a look at the Met’s website and see if you don’t think this woman is capable of telling the artist what he could do with his rose. Nor was she someone to be trifled with, her father having been a trustee of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts, where Anshutz earned his bread as a teacher.
Surely someone has written about the way museumgoers occasionally and often inadvertently assume poses similar to the ones they’ve been staring at, particularly in paintings that have a special hold on them. Since photography is permitted at the Met, you see people on all sides taking or having their pictures taken against the backdrop of this or that artwork. My imaginary companion would definitely relate to the rock star arrogance of a girl in her twenties who’s missing nothing, not an ounce of phenomena, not an instant, as she lounges strikingly on one of those big circular grey sofas the Met provides for weary pilgrims to rest on. Clad in a skirt as long if not as formal as the one on the dress worn by Rebecca in A Rose, she’s got one leg propped on the cushion, knee bent at an angle that should appear awkward but looks like art in action while the other leg is thrust straight out as she holds the pose, making eye contact with the world, openly daring an artist, any artist, to get real and appreciate her. John Lennon would have taken the challenge.
Walking wide-eyed through Montebello’s treasure house, I listen to my inner Lennon and give special attention to a bizarrely fashioned stringed instrument with the head of a Moorish king atop the fretboard; a viola da gamba from 1680; a guitar owned by Segovia; and a long, fabulously embellished Tibetan trumpet or rag-dung (Lennon the punster would have fun translating that one), but with all the rugs and sceptres, statuary, Olmec masks, and Turkish swords, what holds me are faces like the fresh, open, serenely attentive one in Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman from 1665-1667, probably one of the painter’s daughters. As someone who understood the wages of fame, however, the author of “Working Class Hero” would be more interested in Richard Avedon’s 1957 photograph of Marilyn Monroe, which resembles the photo of her used on the cover of Sgt. Pepper. Avedon says he caught her when her defenses were down after she’d spent hours playing her movie star self. Hers is a face bereft of attitude. She’s lost, and she’s not missing “much”; she’s missing everything.
Given Lennon’s matter-of-fact reference to himself and Picasso in the Newsweek interview, you have to believe he’d have spent a long time gazing at the scene depicted in Picasso’s 1905 painting, At the Lapin Agile, into which the 24-year-old artist has painted himself as a harlequin standing at the bar with one hand around the stem of a wine glass. And if you believe that “you can penetrate any place you go,” as Lennon puts it in “Dig a Pony,” you can imagine him imagining himself in there with Picasso, out of the museum into the deathless realm of art “where the world will live as one.”
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