Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Madeleine Moments — My mother, Museums, Massachusetts, Monet & Memory

After the performance of Romeo and Juliet with the NYCB tonight, my dear friend, flutist, Laura Conwesser invited me to her apartment for some wine and cheese. (The 2003 Canon-Fransac was a real pleasure.)

As she arranged the table, I thumbed through the impressive catalogue of a show we had seen this summer at The Clark. (The museum is a pleasurable 90-minute drive from Saratoga Springs where the New York City Ballet has its summer home.) The exhibition, called "The Unknown Monet," was a rare survey of the painter's works on paper, including sketch books, prints, and pastels. Leafing through the pages, I slipped through memory's secret passage to my experiences there this summer.

My parents made a cross-country trip to visit me in Saratoga. They wouldn't disagree if I said visual art was not one of their abiding interests. Museums were not a part of our lives growing up; my parents' prefered leisure pastimes are solidly of the out-of-doors variety: gardening, fishing, boating, motor cycling, water skiing, etc. (Wasn't it Annie Leibowitz who said that the outdoors was the space between your apartment and a taxi? If she didn’t, I might have . . .) Nevertheless, I thought an outing to The Clark would be enjoyable and on a day off we made the scenic drive through New York and Vermont countryside to Williamstown, Mass. ("MA," still doesn't sound right, apologies to the USPS.)

After lunch in the museum café, we took in the Monet show. Shortly into the exhibition, my mother tugged my arm. She had found a picture that particularly spoke to her and she wanted me to see it. It was an early pastel drawing of a farm scene. A barn was in the background and a pond took center stage. Reflections of trees and animals shimmered on the surface of the water. "What do you like about this picture?" I asked. My mother answered, "It has depth, but mostly I feel emotionally drawn to it. I feel like I know this place, it's like I've seen it before." This museum visit was becoming very interesting.

A little later on she asked what made pictures by Monet more famous and more valuable than other art? I suggested that in a single-artist show it could be hard to put the work into context, but that when we visited the permanent collection, we could look at other French pictures from the same period and see what we thought.

Sure enough, there came a moment when we were standing in front of two small French paintings from the 1880s, one by Sisley and another by a lesser-known artist. I asked my mother to compare these paintings to the Monets. In my recollection, this was the first day I heard my mother share an opinion about a work of art. "Well, these painters don't use color the way that Monet does. In fact these pictures are a little flat in comparison." My eyes widened, and my mother moved on to another painting. "But this one, this one has real depth. I love it, I feel like I could walk right into this picture." "Mother, you have very good taste," I said. "That picture is by Vincent van Gogh."

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