This Saturday, I decided to go to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It was a bit of a whim: I was on my way to Prospect Park in Brooklyn when the weather turned a bit grey, and I completely changed tack. (The thing I love about wandering cities alone, is that I have nobody I have to explain my abrupt and irrational decision changes to. I can be put off restaurants which have a single crying baby in them, or a space in a park that has an unpleasant view of a building across the street, or a wait for a subway train that is more than 5 minutes in duration. I have walked out through turnstiles that I’ve only just paid to get into, more times than I care to remember).
So I navigated to MoMA, a bit erratically as I got unreasonably enraged at people who weren’t walking across roads fast enough or blocking corners. I’d have to duck into shops to rifle through pretty summery skirts and calm down (I’ve only been in NYC two weeks and already I want to take a sniper rifle to most tourists).
The Museum is placed on what feels like a quiet side street, though obviously it isn’t really. It feels swish and classy. Struggling up the steps out of the subway nearby (this is like coming out of a really big stinky dead animal that’s lying on a hot beach, but is still unaccountably full of yabbering tourists) into the fresh air, I felt almost close to tears- like an overtired toddler who just wants to go home and be put to bed. I walked towards the glossy entrance purposefully.
Give me some air-conditioning and some modern art, I thought. Preferably an entirely blank canvas (maybe a blue one with a brown stripe on the side), with some pithy and enigmatic labels that I can read and go ‘hmmmm.’ to myself. Maybe some acceptably blue eyed and tanned stranger who I can trade knowing glances with, while we both silently muse on our own intelligence, attractiveness and general soulfulness.
I’ll accept that it was a mistake to go on Saturday on Memorial Day Weekend. What actually happened was this:
There were people everywhere. And given that MoMA has a $25 entry fee, I was kind of surprised at this. But this is great, I thought, so many people want to see art. There’s 5 floors of it, so no worries…I’ll just start at the top (Impressionists and other famous shenanigans) and work my way down.
I muscled my way up 5 heaving escalators and emerged at the top, to find a Gauguin exhibition that reminded me of a Primark shop floor on the weekend before Christmas. It was like a busy bus station terminal which had unusually high quality art on the walls. I found one small etching in a corner that I liked and stared at it, being buffeted by people’s bags, trying to hear the etching speak over the murmur of other people’s conversations.
I couldn’t hear it at all. The etching just sat there mutely, as if to say “I don’t know what you want ME to do about it.”.
I moved on to this one, which was trying to get a word in over the loud conversation two loud-mouthed girls next to me were having about their awesome spring break:
Unfortunately, the more I looked at this painting the more I started to become annoyed with Gauguin. I listened to the idiot girls behind me and managed to work up quite a loathing for this painting and for P.G.’s patronising fascination with ‘savages’ (as according to the labels, he would drone on about in letters he wrote home to his mates). I don’t know anything about you, Paul, I thought, but it’s probably time to pop home, get a job, and stop swanning about getting sunburnt and objectifying Tahitian women.*
So I turned around and walked out of the Gauguin exhibition having seen a total of two artworks and feeling more annoyed with myself than anything- annoyed that I couldn’t work up the requisite absorption and reverence. I went downstairs, turning up the music on my earphones, and found myself in a glorious little quiet space staring at a painting I have always really liked but never really knew much about.
It’s by Andrew Wyeth, considered a classic piece of Americana. And, while I’d always thought on seeing it previously that it conjured up a sense of eerie foreboding- sort of like “I can never go back to that house- I’ve just awakened the Evil Dead by reading some forbidden words from a book I found in the basement”- it turns out it’s actually a portrait of the author’s friend, Anna Christina Olsen, who suffered from polio and used to routinely crawl to get around the fields- where Wyeth and Olsen both lived. It’s supposed to be a testament to her spirit and her strong character.
I was standing quietly, music switched off, just absorbing Christina in some new-found peace, when a woman in glasses and brightly coloured linens wheeled around the corner and swooped into my personal space, like a seagull when it notices you have chips. She stood and peered at the label for a bit and then called “Greg! Greg! Come back here.” (I gathered that Greg was making a run for the exit, possibly from the marriage). “You need to see this. This is ABSOLUTELY a famous painting.”
“Oh yeah?”, came Greg’s voice from a safe distance. I could feel him slowing down but keeping one eye on the prize (pressing the lift button).
“Yes. Absolutely famous. You know. The girl, in the field. It’s a Wyeth. Andrew Wyeth. It’s really famous.”
Greg walked in, inspected the painting for a moment like he was trying to decide whether the windows needed cleaning or could wait til next week, and then said “Come on. The kids are in the cafe.”
They walked off without a backward glance. So did I.
I just found after that that I couldn’t get out of myself. My own internal monologue is one of the most irritating voices I can imagine hearing; I find myself small-minded, pernickety and insufferably lacking in a sense of humour. I can only put up with being in my own company for any length of time with a podcast or something to distract me. However, unfortunately, I also don’t like my personal little world of self-loathing being disturbed by others, not until I take out my earphones and invite it to happen. Being in this crowded space with all these works of art I wanted to enjoy was the worst of both worlds. I was trapped with listening to myself- who I don’t like much- but forced to physically rub shoulders with, it seemed, the loudest, most inconsiderate, pushy and insensitive tourists that New York could throw in my direction. I walked from painting to painting, not really seeing them, mainly wondering whether MoMA would suffer enormously if they just put a limit on how many people could go in every day. Surely when you have paid $25, you have a right to enjoy the paintings in peace?
What sent my rage levels through the roof was Van Gogh’s Starry Night. I could tell I was getting close to the painting because there was a crowd with the same general air as if a minor pop star was arriving at a movie premiere; people knew they were supposed to be impressed, so they dutifully gathered around and tried to remember whether or not they gave a shit. (If Justin Bieber had appeared at another doorway, they’d have sprinted off and kicked Starry Night whirling to the kerb).
A museum guard was making sure that everyone got a turn to have a selfie taken with Starry Night, thus ensuring that nobody could ever actually just look at the painting and enjoy it. I’m going to say one word:
And when it comes to taking a picture just of the painting itself, I’m going to say it once again.
WHY DAMMIT WHY?!!
It’s a super famous painting. It’s not like you just discovered some little known gem in a back alley gallery in Portugal, or Burkina Faso. No picture that you can take of it is going to be better than the images you can find on the museum website or in the museum shop in a print. And are you really going to sit and look at your picture of Starry Night in a low quality JPG, and muse on the beauty and transience of nature? No, you are not, you annoying kid with a backpack and high-top Converse. I hate you.
I imagined Van Gogh stumbling, happily tipsy and a little bored, into a tavern one night. An ancient crone beckons him over to have his future told. “You will paint great paintings.” she says, as they look together into a crystal ball. “You will paint pictures such as make the heart grow tight in the chest and will make the soul of kings soar. Your work will be known all around the world, and hung on the walls of the most eminent in the land, loved by man, woman and child alike. Oh…but wait… there’s something else. Not sure I understand what’s going on here- hang on a minute.” Later, Van Gogh will emerge from the tavern- cross-eyed and crazy with absinthe- head home, and start looking around for the sharpest knife he owns, and a mirror.
I left Starry Night behind and went into another room and suddenly I was alone with a small, wondrous little black and white photograph. It is by a Czech artist called Josef Sudek, called My Studio. *
It was taken in 1956 but it looks so gloomy and old-fashioned I initially thought it might be from the turn of the century. It shows a nightscape: a snow covered patch of earth, crowded in by buildings, a silent path, a small wooden shack with a single light burning to show you where home is. My studio.
I was struck that Sudek took this picture knowing that nobody else in the world would see- could ever share- what was behind that door waiting for him. He and he alone was the occupier of that space, that viewpoint and perspective, on that night. Isn’t that the fantastic nature of a photograph? It’s simultaneously everyone’s, and it only belongs to you. Other times and other nights, perhaps, other people would visit the studio and drink wine with him and laugh and look at his photographs together. But that night, he had his camera, and he felt safe and lucky, and he wanted to document the space that he had created for himself, shivering in the cold outside; then return to it, like a warm snail shell. And nobody else could touch that space or intrude on it. Certainly not me, standing there, gazing at his studio many years after he died and took all his secrets with him; fingering the mobile phone in my pocket and lifting the sweaty shirt away from my back.
I stood and stared at the photographs of Josef Sudek for a long time. When I went out onto the New York City streets, I felt somewhat at peace.
* The Wikipedia entry for Gauguin contains the following line, which makes me like Gauguin a lot more:
“By 1884, Gauguin had moved with his family to Copenhagen, Denmark, where he pursued a business career as a tarpaulin salesman. It was not a success: He could not speak Danish, and the Danes did not want French tarpaulins.”
God, I hope nobody ever has to sum up my crappy life decisions in a pithy sentence on Wikipedia.
**An image of My Studio is not available online. A picture from the same series is here. I kind of like that I can’t just look up the photograph. It means the moment I had in the gallery is, in itself, a moment in space and time which I can never recapture- unless I go back and stand in front of the photograph itself.