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Metropolitan Ramble: Scrolls, Photographs and Lots of Post-Impressionism

Having spent the week so far reading and writing, and finding absolutely nothing to write an entry about anything but books, I felt restless this morning. Despite the light but persistent rain, I decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum. I'm crazy about the cafeteria in the basement; the cheeseburgers are awful in just the right way, and the fries and onions aren't bad, either. It is high school, but without adolescents. I went and returned in taxis. 

The museum was fairly busy. I hadn't been alone in it in some time, and wandering about among old favorites without having to think was a pleasure, albeit one that I wouldn't want to repeat very often. Alone, I can stand in front of the vitrines just to the north of the grand staircase, upstairs, and gaze to my heart's content. The pieces of porcelain there arrayed are very pretty, but what makes them interesting is their globalism. The painting on a Japanese plate mimics a Chinese bowl, as does, in another instance, a Meissen saucer. Then there's the Chinese stuff that's made to look Western. Plates were the T-shirts of the eighteenth century, with everyone vying to have the right one from right source, thus encouraging knock-offs. No automation, no phones, no Internet, no container shipping - just human nature doing its thing.

Then I went to the Dillon Galleries, to look at a current exhibit - rearrangement, really - of scrolls and fans and other Chinese writings. It's called "Brush and Ink: The Chinese Art of Writing." Thirty-four years ago, I saw, in the same gallery, a show that was entitled "Chinese Calligraphy," and it knocked me out. I resolved to teach myself how to write Chinese and how to read Chinese poetry. You'd be surprised at how far I got, too. But in the end my shaky hand dampened my enthusiasm. I practiced hard, but not hard enough. Looking at the scrolls today, I wondered how long it would take me to fire up the Chinese in me - to regain my proficiency with the dictionary and refresh my vocabulary. But I wasn't serious; I've got too many other things to do, namely, French - I wish that somebody would drop me in the center of a friendly French town for a month or two, because I'm sure I'd come out dreaming in the language.

The scrolls, then, were somewhat melancholy, a revisiting of the ashes of a long and passionate love affair. I did, however, spend some time with the star of the show, Huang Tingjian's Biographies of Lian Po and Lin Xiangru. It's difficult to believe that anyone could actually read this string of scribbles, which, as Holland Cotter pointed out in his Times review of the show, "out-Pollocks Pollock."

Then I went upstairs to the Wang Galleries - an almost secret part of the Met heavily visited by Asians. This is where all the Ming and Ching loot is kept. The miles-deep lacquer. The finely-chiseled Luohans in malachite and jade. And, best fun of all - when they're on show, which isn't always - a pair of cloisonné ginger jars from the 1790s, wrapped with trompe-l'oeil fabric tied up in bows. They represent one of the few things that the Jesuits taught the Chinese how to make, and they couldn't be more exuberant. They're vulgar, even - at least, if you're in the wrong mood. I wouldn't like to own them, but I'd like to have them around for a while, just to see if I'd ever get sick of them. And it would have to be the pair.

Then I threaded my way back and pushed in the opposite direction, toward the Tisch Galleries. I didn't know what was on exhibit, because I am a very stupid person who completely forgot mailing a "We will attend" card yesterday in response to an invitation to a member's preview of "Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde." The rooms were packed, but I thought I'd take a spin anyway just to have an idea in advance of what I'd be looking at under more favorable circumstances on Wednesday night.

What a blockbuster show! There are goodies from all over. A Starry Night on the Rhone, by van Gogh, from the Orsay, I think. There are two Derains, paintings of London, that, unlike the ginger jars, I'd like to steal. Difficult to see but mightily seductive is Picasso's copious Suite Vollard, a series of for the most part simple line drawings. Kathleen will be returning from Washington in the afternoon, and I hope that she'll be able to go with me to the preview. More about this show to come.

On my way to and from the Tisch, I had to pass the Gilman Galleries, which is where photography exhibits are mounted unless they're very large. Currently in the installation phase is a show of about twenty images. That number isn't very big, but the photographs themselves are. Six of them are already hanging in the corridor outside. They're huge, but very quiet. The catastrophe speaks for itself in limpid, heartbreaking detail. "New Orleans after the Flood: Photographs by Robert Polidori" will open next Tuesday, and my mouth will still be agape at the power of these pictures, some of which I've seen, I believe, in The New Yorker.

Near one of the pictures that I'd seen before, or thought I'd seen before - Mr Polidori can't have been the only photographer to be arrested by the sight of cars leaning against brick houses, as if they were ladders - I overheard a mother explain to her little girl, who may well have been too young a year ago to register the storm, that it was the force of hurricane winds that put the cars up against the houses. I wanted to smack her - the mom. It was not the force of nature that rearranged those vehicles, but the negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers. How appalling it is that people still don't get this. How convenient for the government. At least the show is properly titled - no mention of Katrina.

All that in two hours or less. Took me longer to write it up! (September 2006)

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