Roma Holiday #4: Pleasant Surprises

(1) We got what I would call an ideal viewing of the Sistine Chapel.

We had long been warned to start a Vatican tour as early as possible and zip right to the Chapel in order not to be distracted and even overwhelmed by a sea of crowds. We went with the 7:30 AM tour done by The Roman Guy and indeed did motor pretty much right into the Sistine Zone. I expected the  groups to be as small and scattered as they were, but I worried that we would be more or less hustled through the room. Instead (though our guide said she was not allowed to say much, she would answer questions — I noticed a couple other guides kinda ignored the silencio requirement) we got absolutely enough time for a full examination. And no question, it’s a pinnacle of human achievement.

Three sub-points and I’ll move on. I’ve always thought “God Separating the Light From the Darkness” looked oddly murky and unfinished (even in the cleaned reproductions I had seen). Observing the work itself, it was plain Michelangelo intended this deliberately. The primal origin is the murkiest moment in the history of the universe — and I think every religion as well as science would agree on this truth. Next, no matter how many dozens and dozens of times I have scanned the “Final Judgement” I never appreciated how horrible and emotionally tempestuous is the figure of Minos. Nightmare.

Minos

Finally my favorite non-Michelangelo work in the Sistine is on the right of the back wall. Shows angels chasing demons away from the corpse (and soul) of Moses, who had a very sordid set of later years, of course. Very demony demons (as I say, you can tell when the artist believes) and a knockout presentation of the principle that the good you do can redeem the bad. I flopped attempts to track down who painted it.

(2) The modern art we saw offered serious competition in wonderfulness to the classical masters.

(And my biggest complaint is that you could do a well-researched visit to Rome and hear next to nothing about the Modern treasures.) The Time Out of Joint exhibition was a thorough treat — well, a few dull rooms — and we would say a must. One of the best aspects is that, while there are themed sections, there’s no right or wrong way to put together your path through the building. Just make sure you take in everything. The Hercules in the link, btw, is the only 19th century mythology-themed statue that rivaled the glory-years works. The others were warnings about how trapped in a wondrous past a country’s traditions could become. And even this Herk is an obscure if intense moment I had to look up to remember.

The Botero retrospective was a surprise treat among surprise treats. We got in during a special-discount late-hours session on Saturday and enjoyed a crowd with more art-devoted locals than usual. Particularly strong on showing how turning pre-existing themes into you own language is potent. The blow-my-heart-and-brains section was the one on circus performers. Only gripe: 80-year-old Botero oversaw the selections himself and chose to present his work as a bit more above politics than it is. Even one of these would have made it a perfect survey.

(3) Food and taste cheerys.

We had forgotten that not just eggs but milk — and cheese and ice cream and yogurt etc. — was richer and more complex in Europe than in the US. I yearn for one of those yogurt and fruit snacks to this minute. Also, sticking rigidly to my new eating schedule felt half deranged and half impossible. Especially as I caved on carbs for unforgettable pasta and even bread sometimes, I worried. We were quite active — walked at least two miles or more every day — I was sure I would gain.

Stepped on the scale the day after we returned: not a single pound added. Joy oh joy. The only change I’m going to make in my routine is to be a tiny bit more forgiving about an occasional slice of bread that seduces me. Should be offset by my reluctance to settle for the lesser pasta hereabouts.

Eternal question: where has Italian wild boar been all my life? Over there, waiting for me to flip out over it.

(4) The stunning clarity of the cleaned-off artwork banished all regret at taking so long to visit the Eternal City.

The freshened stone and canvas and even paper are what to see. An indisputable argument was the Coliseum — where you almost wish they would leave the grime-removal incomplete since the compare-and-contrast was so fascinating.

Speaking of the Coliseum, another pleasant surprise was the extensive temporary display that traced the history of the giant structure in reproductions and reconstructions, including representations in paintings and illustrations.

There was yet still more, but I’m outta poop.

William Hjortsberg — Somebody You Should Read, Hear?

Official site of one of the writers who fundamentally changed the character of my home town.

The musts? These —

Alp (belongs with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Catch-22 and more playful and funny than either)

Grey Matters (forgotten even among his fans — sure as hell deserving of the next lost-marvel-of-science-fiction revival)

Toro! Toro! Toro! (the “bullfight novel” the ghost of Hemingway wishes he had written)

Falling Angel (at least this was seen right away as a noir as sharp and inventive as Grey Matters in sci-fi was not)

Nevermore (unclassifiable as Alp and as much, if darker, fun).

MOVIES:

Angel Heart (a perfect adaptation of Falling Angel)

One I’d most like to see made: Morning of the Magicians

 

The High Days —

 

Gatz 1

Paradise Players production of Twelfth Night in Emigrant, MT, 1974 —

 

Feste the jester is “Gatz” — in the middle. Grand artist Russell Chatham who designed the sets, in white shirt in back.

 

R.I.P.: Robert B. Silvers

The New York Review of Books and the Village Voice were the bookends of my literary fantasies about New York and the East Coast in general, back when I had never been out here. Brainy/wild — lively/civilized … they could make you feel less lonely out in the thickets and ranges. One aspect I most admired about NY Review is that it was thorough.

Hey, a Jackson Pollock I Actually Like!

Finished the Sebastian Smee book The Art of Rivalry (highly recommended) and one payoff of reading top-notch art books is that you are almost certain to find a work that you did not know that matters a bunch.

Now, with Francis Bacon (another subject in the book, paired with Lucian Freud) I’ve had an interesting evolution. He was dissed in John Berger’s The Art of Seeing in part because Berger claimed Bacon painted the way he did because his limited drawing skills left him no choice. When I read Berger 40 years ago I thought he maybe had a point — I had seen only reproductions of Bacon’s paintings. But about 20 years later I saw an actual Bacon retrospective and Berger was fried. The Irishman’s[*] paintings are shattering, harrowing, stupefying and intoxicating to look at. I agree with Berger it would be tough to have one in your dining room, but not because they are insincere, grotesque cartoons. It matters not a whit that Bacon “had” to paint the way he did.

It does make a difference that Jackson Pollock, even more technically challenged than Bacon, finally found an outlet all his own despite his limitations. I can’t get past the surface of almost all of his stuff I’ve seen — not because it’s “decorative” or whatever, but because it’s simply a chronicle of skittering mental chaos. This is not as dismissive as it might seem — every painting is a portrait of the artist’s mental state. But there’s no way into Pollock for me. Doesn’t help that Smee confirms how obnoxious, hateful, violent and deranged he was too much of the time. I’ve never bought the argument that you have to be a wild person to make wild art. (I do accept the weird rituals and routines of the ’30s-’50s art world in New York that Smee describes.)

But behold — suddenly in the midst of this, I am directed to a Pollock that is just a flicker before his breakthrough into his fame-gaining style. And I can read it emotionally. This work — not in his most famous action-drip mode — conveys torment and confusion with one’s own mind that moves me. It’s called “Stenographic Figure”:

pollock

There’s actually two figures, of course, but their postures, distortions, and above all the racket of forms scattered in front and behind and everywhere on the canvass feels exactly right to me. In this one, Jackson Pollock made you sense what he had to deal with every day, and even merge with it.

  • Reading more about Bacon I smacked my forehead as I reminded myself that, while he was born in Dublin, both his parents were English.

R.I.P.: J.S.G. Boggs

If your Mom appears as “Margo, Queen of the Jungle” I’m sure an eccentric career is in the cards and the genes.

Another point is that only one artist can do the counterfeit-bills-are-art routine, or at least only one artist can make it his primary bit and become quasi-famous. Boggs lived at the right time to make this work. And, hell, I think his art did provoke interesting questions. But I bet a lot of the time him using his artworks as money got him called a motherbucker.