“. . . the questionable quality of light on her face. . . “

Mrs. Matisse's Hat

Mrs. Matisse’s Hat

An old friend (she was old then, and 1985 was the last time I saw her) used to say, “There’s no accounting for taste.” She was usually wondering why some young stud was (apparently) coupled with a woman who was not his equal. She never bothered to wonder why a beautiful young woman was with a bubba.

She had been secretary to the president of a New England university (I won’t say which one on the infinitesimal chance someone might know her). In fact, she had been secretary to more than one president of the institution.  She loved to say she “had served under five presidents” with the twinkle in her eye that could mean only that she thought she was making a double entendre. By the time I knew her she was no catch, believe me, except for her razor-sharp tongue.

Of course, she’s right that there is no accounting for taste.

The Kimbell Art Museum in Ft. Worth—I’m always amazed (still, after nearly 20 years here) that one of the premier art museums in the country is in “cowtown”—currently has an exhibition, “The Age of Picasso and Matisse.” It’s a tiny percent of the paintings of that time from the Art Institute of Chicago. Of course, I went to see it and plan to go back and spend an entire afternoon looking at about a half dozen of the paintings.

I have no idea where I got my taste for Matisse. It seems highly unlikely. His work is so brash and colorful that it hardly seems an introvert and living-in-his-head type like me would find his stuff interesting at all. My taste for Matisse began sometime in the far distant past, and his “Woman with a Hat” is the painting I always think of when I hear his name. I think I must have seen it decades ago at the San Francisco Art Institute when I wasn’t paying attention to much of anything because I was a young(ish) gay drunk.

Shall we "Dance?"

Shall we “Dance?”

At any rate, the “Woman with a Hat” was not in the Kimbell exhibit because she lives in San Francisco and not Chicago.

The more’s the pity. When I was at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg this summer (there, is that impressive, or what?) and the guide told us we had an hour (or some length of time) to see the museum on our own—right, The Hermitage in an hour (a year might do)—I went directly to the Matisse room. The best Matisse the Hermitage has is “Dance.” OMG, I love that painting!

At any rate, I was Googling Matisse and “Woman with a Hat” sometime after my visit to Cowtown a couple of months ago, and I found the poem  “Why knowing is (& Matisse’s Woman with a Hat),” by Martha Ronk. I’ve been meaning for a long time to Google Martha, but haven’t had time. I don’t need to Google the woman with a hat because I’ve looked her up before. My favorite thing about her (besides her hat) is that Gertrude Stein once owned her. That and the fact she’s actually Matisse’s wife.

Two days ago my surgeon’s assistant said to me in an email, “But if it is affecting your quality of life, Dr. Thornton can surgically repair the problem.  We can proceed either way you choose.  Let me know what you think.” He had reason to say it because the minute we scheduled surgery on my left shoulder, the pain began to lessen. That was, I suppose, predictable. I’ve lived with this pain through all through 2013 (and before). It was one reason I stopped going to yoga classes (just do a Down Dog when your shoulder feels like it’s ripping out of the socket). And much else—working out with my trainer using only my legs and core (what there is of it).

So finally I scheduled surgery with Dr. Miracle Worker (his name after he fixed my hip—and I mean fixed it: the pain was gone when I woke up and has never returned, and I never took one of the pain pills they gave me), and immediately my shoulder began feeling as if it was all a big mistake and there’s no reason even to poke the little arthroscopic holes in it that Dr. Miracle Worker makes.

So his assistant says “quality of life,” and I don’t know what that means. I suppose picking up a 20-pound container of kitty litter in Kroger with my left hand without thinking and dropping it because of the shooting pain in my shoulder is a tiny diminishment of the quality of my life.

I don’t know for sure.

There’s no accounting for taste.

And somehow I remembered Martha Ronk’s poem (I don’t remember anything these days, so my taste for Matisse must have over-ridden my “sometimer’s disease”) because she poetizes about “quality.” I guess it’s because I copied the poem into a Word document for safe keeping (on this old computer?) and have read it several times. “. . . and not remembering who knows or recognizing the questionable quality of light on her face. . . “ The questionable quality of light on her face somehow morphed into the questionable quality of life on my shoulder.

What one does at the Hermitage. At least these folks are my friends.

What one does at the Hermitage. At least these folks are my friends.

So if the surgery were scheduled for Tuesday, I’d insist on talking to Dr. Miracle Worker on Monday to see if the quality of life on my shoulder is questionable enough to go ahead. But since it’s Monday at 7 AM, I guess the only way to stop it is to not show up.

The poll is open. What do you think?

If you followed me from serving under the president of the University of Maine to wondering whether or not to show up for surgery, you are exactly the person whose opinion I trust.
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“Why knowing is (& Matisse’s Woman with a Hat)”
by Martha Ronk

Why knowing is a quality out of fashion and no one can decide to
but slips into it or ends up with a painting one has never
seen that quality of light before even before having seen it
in between pages of another book and not remembering who knows
or recognizing the questionable quality of light on her face
as she sits for a portrait and isn’t allowed to move an inch
you recognize the red silk flower on her hat
and can almost place where you have seen that gray descending
through the light reversing foreground and background
as the directions escape one as the way you have to
live with anyone as she gets up finally from her chair
having written the whole of it in her head as the question
ignored for the hundredth time as a quality of knowing is
oddly resuscitated from a decade prior to this.

If it’s Tuesday, this must be Rembrandt

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci - one of fourteen

Madonna and Child, Da Vinci – one of fourteen

Last Sunday I attended the exhibit “The Body Beautiful in Ancient Greece: Masterworks from the British Museum” at the Dallas Museum of Art. It is a comprehensive retrospective of the British Museum’s holdings of ancient Greek sculpture, with commentary about the development of the Greek artistic (and cultural) understanding of the human body. The exhibition is touring museums world-wide. Of course, all of the statues, all of the art, belong in Greece. That the British Museum “owns” these works is some kind of bizarre cultural and national hubris that I (just me, uninformed as I am) find difficult to justify.

A week ago I wandered away from our group which was making a mad dash through as much of The Hermitage, the Palace of Catherine the Great, in St. Petersburg, Russia, as we could manage in one afternoon (not much of it, let me say). I wandered into a large gallery of sculptures of human figures from ancient Greece. Two experiences of seeing somewhat overwhelming collections of statuary from ancient Greece in less than a week, both worlds away from Greece.

More statues than in Greece?

More statues than in Greece?

It may be (although I don’t know for sure) that in a week I saw more sculpture from ancient Greece than I could have had I been in Greece.

I wonder about the cultural integrity that allows that to be true. Surely neither the Russian Tsars nor the British Museum can (could) lay claim to “owning” that art. Why shouldn’t Cambodia come to New York and drag away the Statue of Liberty? Or Greece make off with the Crown Jewels from the Tower of London?

Of course, some benighted and totally discredited “communist” theorist would say these affronts to culture are the result of “imperialistic capitalism” or some such nonsense. I suppose “imperialism” accounts for the British carting off statues. I don’t know Greek history, but I do know that Britain had great influence (if not absolute control) over Greece during the 19th century and up to WWI, and that the German states also wielded power during that time (I don’t have time to do proper research). Catherine the Great of Russia was German, as was King George I of Greece, and they were both somehow related to Victoria of England. Boundaries of weaker European nations were pretty fluid, and there was no reason—is my guess—for the British not to have assumed that “your antiquities are my antiquities.” And Catherine the Great certainly had the money and power to buy up just about anything she wanted. Every country’s treasures were up for grabs by the countries with the strongest armies and monarchs and other venture capitalists with the most money.

I know, I know. I’m not a historian, and that may be all wrong, but it’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. (Not really. If anyone wants to bother to correct my theory, go ahead. I’ll post your correction.)

Should the Prodigal be returned?

Should the Prodigal be returned?

All of that is getting in the way of what I intended to write about.

The Hermitage is Catherine the Great’s private palace. At least the beginning of it was. She didn’t want to live a public life, so she built a small palace where she could hide away as a hermit. Of course it’s a lavish example of the most ornate styles of 18th-century architecture and decoration. And she (and her heirs) collected the greatest art of Europe. While I may be uneasy that these great works of art reside together in one place because it requires great wealth to “own” them, I have no un-ease at having the opportunity to get a tiny glimpse at a tiny percent of the works in The Hermitage.

Two of the fourteen extant paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci. “The Prodigal,” the intense and affective painting by Rembrandt, as well as his “Portrait of an Old Jew.” Two large paintings by Matisse.  To say nothing of the building (much expanded after Catherine’s day) itself. It’s overwhelming. I don’t have the words to explain the magnitude of the experience.

As a side bar, I point out that we have a parallel example of a collection of masterpieces gathered by a captain of capitalism, Alice Walton. Her Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Alice Walton’s collection is smaller than Catherine’s, but the idea, the impetus, I’d guess is the same. Should I never see the art in Arkansas because of my feelings about Walton’s billions? I don’t know. I’ve been to both museums, and I would go back in an instant (to the Hermitage in February when thousands of Japanese, American, and Uzbekistani tourist would not be braving the St. Petersburg winter to see it).

The fact is, I was at The Hermitage as part of a group of people of whom, by the time we were there, I had grown exceedingly fond. Being with them mitigated my discomfort. Perhaps the only way to see—to  feel oneself part of—our shared cultural history is in the company of those with whom one shares a personal history.
group RR

Cultural or personal history?