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At the end of last week, I managed to view the new Van Gogh exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art three times: Thursday morning, Thursday afternoon, and Saturday afternoon. In other words, I decided to put my membership to MoMA to good use and take advantage of the Member Preview Days in order to avoid the inevitable crowds that will descend upon the museum once the exhibition opens to non-MoMA-Members. Interestingly, it wasn’t until I started drafting this entry that I realized there was a certain poetic coincidence in having the exhibit open on the First Day of Fall, or at least Fall Eve. Van Gogh’s brush strokes in various shades of yellow, brown and red, reflecting and complementing Mother Nature’s own autumnal palette change starting to take place a few blocks north in Central Park.
The exhibit, itself, is quite small in comparison to the usual retrospectives and blockbuster shows. However, it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish with a relative handful of canvases (just under 30 paintings), and a couple of drawings and lithographs. Although there were many masterpieces hanging on the walls of the galleries, I found myself drawn to the contents of some of the vitrines, the display cases in each room of the exhibition. And, so, on this First Day of Autumn, I would like to present the following “excerpts” from the current exhibit.
The first is an actual excerpt from a letter that Vincent van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, which is on display in the first room of the exhibit. Like the early works that surround it, the contents of this letter already begin to hint at Van Gogh’s later, trademark style.
The second excerpt is from the last room of the exhibit. Nothing hangs on the walls in this room, instead, contained in two vitrines (I just really like that word right now) are various books, both poetry and prose (in French, German and English), that were a source of inspiration for Van Gogh. While some of the books on display are “merely” original editions from various libraries and collections, some of them are the actual copies that belonged to Theo — which, more than likely, were given to him by his brother. When Van Gogh would come across a passage or a poem that piqued his interest, he would copy them into his journals, as well as in letters to his family, friends and colleagues. This particular poem happened to pique my interest too.
November 2, 1883
. . .
When dusk fell — imagine the silence, the peace of that moment! Imagine, right then, an avenue of tall poplars with the autumn leaves, imagine a broad muddy road, all black mud with the endless heath on the right, the endless heath on the left, a few black, triangular silhouettes of sod huts, with the red glow of the fire shining through the tiny windows, with a few pools of dirty, yellowish water that reflect the sky, where bogwood trunks lie rotting… The day was over, and from dawn to dusk, or rather from one night to the other night, I had forgotten myself in that symphony.
. . .
Pensée d’Automne (Reflections on Autumn)
Jardin du Luxembourg, November
. . .
Before the end of the day there is a time
When the sun, a weary pilgrim nearing home,
Turns around and looks back
And despite the toils of the day, is sorry it is evening.
Under its long gaze, mixed with a tear,
Muddled nature takes on a new charm
And pauses a moment, as in a goodbye.
The surrounding horizon turns fire red;
The quivering flower receives the dew;
The butterfly flies back to the rose it kissed,
And the bird in the wood sings in bright birdsong,
“Isn’t it morning? Isn’t that the East?”
Oh! If for us too, in this human life,
There were an evening hour, one moment that reignites
The loves of morning and their fickle flight,
And the fresh dew, the golden clouds;
Oh! if the heart, returned to thoughts of youth
(as if hoping — alas! — that it could be reborn),
Could stop, rise up, before faltering,
And give itself over, for a single day, to dreaming without growing old.
Let us take pleasure in the sweet day;
And let us not disturb this fortunate hour.
For the fields, winter is but a good short sleep;
Each morning the sky brings sun.
But who knows if the grave will have its spring,
And if the night will be relit for us by the dawn?
-Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869)
Translation by Jeanine Hermann and TransPerfect Translations
I still remember that morning. I think we all do.
Even though I had just returned from an out of town trip the night before, I was actually up and out of bed before 9:00am. I headed to the living room, watching “The Today Show” while eating my breakfast. They were about to end their broadcast for that morning – and I was about to head back to bed for a few more hours of sleep – when the first plane flew into the Tower…
The rest of that day was filled with panic, tears and confusion. I tried calling my parents, but the phone lines were jammed; however, I did eventually get through to one of my aunts and my mother. My father was still in his office in DC, but he was out of harm’s way. I called my brothers. Don had just left his daughter with the baby-sitter, and was getting ready to head back to pick her up. Mike had not heard of that morning’s news until I had called him. Jay had already been told to stay home since his office building in L.A. was a “possible target”. Thankfully, most of my friends in New York City had already contacted me via e-mail, or were chatting with me online. Don’t you think you should get off your computer to free up the phone lines up there?
Eventually, I made my way out of the apartment – away from the TV – and headed over to the hospital to meet Steve for lunch, and some hugs.
I had expected a bit more angst at the hospital regarding what had happened that morning in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania, but things were strangely calm. In fact, it almost seemed like some people there – patients and staff – had not heard of that morning’s events yet. It was both calming and confusing at the same time.
A few months later, Steve and I drove up to New York City with some friends for a weekend of fun in the Big Apple. It was their first trip to New York City. As we neared the end of the New Jersey Turnpike, I turned to my right, and noticed What Was No Longer There. If I hadn’t been the one driving the car, I probably would have broken down in tears right then and there.
-Did you guys ever go to the top of the World Trade Center?
-Actually, we did go into the Towers, but since it was cloudy that day, we didn’t go up to the Observation Deck. I guess we should have.
-Well, at least you got to see them.
In the spring of 2006, my friend, Andy, came up to New York City for a visit. Somehow, during the course of our wandering around the city, we ended up around the World Trade Center site. We decided to walk over. I think that was only my second or third time down there.
I could already sense the anxiety building up inside of me when I was just a few blocks away, and as I approached the sidewalk… The tourists having their pictures taken in front of What Used To Be There, smiling and waving and laughing… The streets vendors selling framed pictures of the Twin Towers before, during and after the Event… I walked over to Engine Co. 10… I started to read the Names…
I grabbed Andy’s hand, “I need to get out of here.”
I did sleep in this morning, and when I turned on the TV and saw and heard the reading of the Names… Yes, I cried again.
A few months ago, I found myself heading back from a friend’s place during the early morning hours. He happens to live just a few blocks from the World Trade Center site. I guess I decided to test myself, so I walked over the fencing and barricades. I started looking around. I even read the Names. No tears this time, just Acceptance. There were no vendors, no tourists – although, I guess I was a tourist at the overnight hour. There were a few security guards, construction workers and policemen walking around, but, for the most part, it was just me and What Used To Be There. And my camera.
It was comforting and encouraging to know that there could still be moments of Calm and Peace and Respect amongst all that steel, concrete, machinery and scaffolding. Nothing will ever be able to replace what We lost seven years ago, but it’s good to know that Life has gone on since then. And still does.
Always Remember, Never Forget.
This post is, more or less, a follow-up to my previous post. More or less.
First of all, I am 40! So far, so good. Very good. It seems like I’ve been celebrating almost every day for the past two weeks. My Birthday proper was filled with friends, food and ice cream, of course. More precisely, the Blueberry Crumble Frozen Custard from Shake Shack.
However, during the rest of my Birthday Week – Hey! I turned 40, I deserved a Full Week! – I also happened to make a couple of return visits to that yellow truck parked on Broadway between 74th and 76th Streets. So, without further ado… And in order of appearance, consumption and enjoyment… (all flavors listed from the cup/cone on up)
And just to bring some “humanity” to these proceedings…
To be continued next Summer. More or less.