This piece by Mary Ann Caws, a distinguished scholar, poet, and translator and also, importantly, a teacher, mentor, and an inspiration to a great number of future and current scholars and poets, inaugurates our series of discussions and reflections dedicated to the reopening of New York City’s museums and galleries.
I want to hover over the notion of repetition and its seductive appeal. So many items in the Met pull me in over and over as if each one had a special pull — and yet, of course, they all do, for differing (not just different) reasons. Differing, because those reasons change as we the observers, change, in our looking and our being. Everything is in motion, in unfinishedness, in alteration. So is art.
Not quite at random, because, even over time, my impassioned viewing selects its objects and clings to them. Here are a few, each of which has mattered to me over time. Then there was, and still is, now that we can once more enter the museum, a small medieval statue, Saint Hilary of Galeata with an unforgettable face, that you pass on your way to the Lehman Wing, or, or rather and, the cafeteria you might visit first. Strangely comforting in its oddness, this face welcomed and welcomes me each time I go that way, or then, returning, to go to the Watson Library to the right, past the wood-paneled door, and into its space, sacred to me for its silence and its possibilities for ordering and delving into whatever documents might be useful for whatever I might be working on, surrounded by others delving into their own chosen documents: books, manuscripts, articles, catalogs.
Do we remember the head once we have passed it? Certainly not, and that is also the point. It marks the way. It dwells where it exists and has done so: it does not dwell, as we do, in the place we are heading. Yet I remember it each time I go by and have done so for the last I won’t say how many years.
When I was a child, my painter grandmother would ask me to decide — when we were in New York for our brief visits – which three works of art I would like most to see when we were about to enter the museum. For us, then, there was only one museum, and it was, of course, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Should I hesitate, it would be Rosa Bonheur for sure, and it was only a few years ago, now quite out of my child years, that I grasped the greatness of Rosa Bonheur. Having to get permission to wear pants, bearing up against almost all odds, and painting those animals, living that free life in a constricted time…
In any case, I would each time settle for one Paul Cézanne still life, Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants of 1893-4, the ginger jar so exactly like the one we had at home, and the rest. In my Modern Art Cookbook, this was the frontispiece, and I rambled on a bit about Eggplants, how to prepare them, and how they increased the possibilities of Provençal cooking. (You char the eggplant in a hot oven, peel off the skin, scoop out the flesh and serve it alongside a bit of “tapenade” —green or black, depending on the color of the olives you toss in the blender with olive oil, a few anchovies, and capers if you choose, serve alongside the crucial pastis with its licorice taste mixed with five times its quantity of iced water. Actually, after this, you might not need dinner.) The many ways of fixing up the eggplant reflect various angles of gazing at this painting, which, for me, has always taken over the room in which it is displayed. So, over and over, I would visit this painting, to be calmed (if it was a period of stress) or then a kind of joy in its reassurance. Later, it became the holding point of a book I was to write on the art colonies and schools my grandmother had visited and lived in and loved. The ginger jar held a fragrance all its own but spreading out.
Perhaps the least surprising of my anchoring works of art to return to is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Harvesters of 1565, for ah so many reasons. It is a celebrated work to which my beloved painter friend Frieder Danielis — now in Vienna, having left his sometimes lengthy stays in Manhattan with his cellist wife, Susan Salm (whose face when she is playing speaks as loudly as the music) — would lead us, frequently when we would be together as we often were in the Met. That made our repeated visits full of their own entwining excitement, bringing so much together. We would read to each other, in all seasons, the William Carlos Williams poem on this “Corn Harvest” from his Pictures from Bruegel, and find ourselves smiling at the sprawl:
the painting is organized
about a young
reaper enjoying his
from his morning labors
in fact sleeping
on his back
To end on another note, there are some films that gather me in this same sense, such as Notting Hill, in its madness, its real-feelingness, and its final reassurance that the public and the private can merge in our vision and our minds. Hugh Grant, fearing the publicity that haunts Julia Roberts and turning her angry when she is photographed with him at his front door, then rejects her simple and overcomingly moving declaration when she stands before him, without her ordinarily elegant garb, just in an everyday outfit, saying” I’m just a girl in front of a guy, asking him to love her.” -His group rescues the situation in a mad car rush (necessary for almost every film in many epochs: try ‘what’s up, Doc?” and other loopy versions of love enduring or and passing) and an intrusion into a publicity gathering, improbably and so wonderfully working it out.
I see it each time in the fore-knowledge and in the reassurance that some things can end wonderfully. She, pregnant and relaxing on his lap, he reading to her, as would the owner of a bookstore, it seems just right. As so few things do, these days, and as art of many kinds can manage, repeatedly.