Monday, July 30, 2012

Hunting the Unicorn

Mixing of cultures is not new.  A few of us from Montclair, the retirement home where I live, went to the Meadows Museum in Dallas to see tapestries woven in Belgium in the 16th Century to celebrate a Portugese king’s victorious campaign in North Africa. 

Part of the exhibit was a movie showing how tapestries are woven.  A school in Great Britain teaches this ancient skill.  A group of students, women and men, are duplicating the Unicorn Tapestries from The Cloisters Museum in New York.  These tapestries, like room-size rugs but meant to be hung on the walls of a very large room, show Medieval men and women hunting a little white unicorn.  The final scene has the unicorn captured, lying down surrounded by a little white fence, against a background of hundreds of colorful flowers, with a few charming little rabbits here and there among the blossoms. 

I saw the Unicorn Tapestries on my first trip to New York, when I was 22 years old..  The Metropolitan Museum displays its Medieval collection at a separate museum called “The Cloisters”.  Monastery buildings, including several cloisters, were brought from Europe and reconstructed, stone by stone, on a wooded promontory on the northern tip of Manhattan.  Wandering through those quiet halls and gardens was like walking back into the Middle Ages.

I thought, “Nothing could display Medieval art better than this place.”

Then I went to Paris with David, and, a few blocks beyond the Pantheon, we found the Musee de Cluny, housed in a former monastery.  The old building, which for centuries housed monks of the order founded by St. Bernard of Cluny, is the perfect setting for art from the Middle Ages.

Surprise! Paris also has a set of unicorn tapestries. 

How did this happen?  Today’s young people do not realize that there was a World without color television or cell phones.  Before there was a printing press, people copied out books by hand.  Before there were photographs, hack artists copied portraits of royalty to send to other kings.  If a visiting king saw tapestries he liked in another castle, he would send to Brussels or some other place in Belgium, and order copies. 

That is, if he were rich.  While a painter could copy a portrait in a day, it took months to weave a tapestry.  They always cost fortunes.  Today peasants like me pay for a ticket to a museum and enjoy art once owned by royalty.

I bought a needlepoint kit for a tiny section from the Unicorn Tapestries.  I worked the wool through the canvas, creating two little brown bunnies surrounded by dainty flowers.  My very own bit of the Unicorn Tapestries, now framed, hangs in my bathroom beside the mirror where I brush my teeth.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Who's Your Daddy?

Watching Queen Elizabeth II open the Olympics, it struck me that she keeps her throne because she is queen, not only of proper English gentlemen, but of black Zulus in Africa and brown-skinned Arabs in London.

Our U.S. team is made up of athletes who come from many different backgrounds and are in varied shades of white, brown, and black.  We say America is “the melting pot.”  It was not a bland brown mixture but a kind of stew, where our varied people kept some traditions from “the Old Country” while in a broth where we all speak English and proclaim our “individual rights”.

Unfortunately, some people do not want to add chili to our British beef and Irish potatoes.  I think it will make the dish more tasty. 

When I moved to Chicago, I heard old people talk about “the Old Country.”  My in-laws came from Denmark, and where many people in the next neighborhood had parents or grandparents from Poland.  Wally’s parents thought they were thoroughly Americanized.  They never spoke Danish at home, and my mother-in-law spoke with contempt of the “Pollocks” and old women who wore babushka.  Yet she treasured her Royal Copenhagen china and celebrated Christmas by baking “julekaka”.     

Growing up in Texas, I never heard the phrase “the Old Country.”  In Texas everyone considered himself a “Texan”, as if God created Texas at the same time he created the Garden of Eden and made Baptists the younger brothers of the Children of Israel. 

In their false pride, Texans are like the French.  When David and I were in Paris, the hostess at our hotel refused to speak English.  The guide at the Pantheon did not feel any need to communicate with foreigners.  That is changing.  By 1992, when I made another trip to Paris, the young people staying at the hostel came from all over Europe.  They all spoke English; none spoke French.

The French had to learn English to talk to the Japanese tourists.  Like the Poles and the Hungarians, the Japanese learn English, but not French.  

I am just glad that I was born an American and that English has become “the Language of the World.”   None of us can choose our ancestors.   Each of us must become the best person we can be, regardless of our background.  Also, recognize that whether others are “bad” or “good” does not depend on where they come from. 

The fun of watching the Olympics is seeing athletes from many countries competing against each other – and learning that many of them come from very different backgrounds.  A young woman born in the U.S. is on the team from Iceland.  A blonde Brit competes for Kenya. .

And how did a that Danish tennis player get a name like Wozneiack?   Historically all Danish names end in “sen”.   (After being married to one for 27 years, I joked that “All Danes are sinners.”)   Then I married a Pole, with a typical Polish name sending in “ski” – and discovered that a first-generation American, whose parents came from Poland and never learned proper English, was a wonderful husband!   

As for the Olympics, I am glad when an earnest young American wins at medal.  I also cheer for talented athletes from other countries.  I hope that this time a few medals will go to young people from some of those 81 countries whose contestants have never won a medal in the Olympics.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dead Frenchmen

With the Olympics starting this week, the Dallas PBS station is broadcasting a whole series of programs focusing on England.  A “Globe Trekker” program “toured” London in 45 minutes, spending 30 seconds each at the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.  David and I spent days in Paris and saw the city’s famous “sights” – the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral – plus some that were “off the usual tourist route.”   

A few blocks from our hotel, near the underground garage where I left our rental car, was an imposing domed building with tall columns in front. Napoleon ordered this mausoleum for heroes of his Empire, replicating the Pantheon in Rome, except the Roman one has a hole in the top of the dome, letting in light (and rain), while this building had a closed dome, making the interior dark and gloomy, appropriate for burial place of French heroes.  Some were entombed there during my lifetime.   . 

David and I took a guided tour.  A thin little man in a gray uniform with a gray face and gray mustache (he looked like a half-starved refugee from World War II), lead a small group around the circle of tombs, pointing out names inscribed on sarcophagi.  I was unfamiliar with most of them.

I recognized Emile Zola; defender of the Jewish Army officer falsely convicted and sent to prison on Devil’s Island.  A handsome boxed edition of Zola’s novel “Germinal” sits on the bookshelf in my living room. The hardships of workers in 19th Century Europe, described in  “Germinal” and Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital”, helped me understand why Europeans became Communists.  David never heard of Emile Zola.

Our guide stopped at the tomb of Jean – or was it Jacques? – Moulin, and gave a long talk in French.  I understood enough to make out that Moulin was the hero of the Resistance to the Nazis during the German Occupation of France in World War II.  Moulin was tortured and murdered by the Gestapo.  David did not understand a word the guide said.

We escaped from that dark, gloomy place and had one of our best Paris adventures.  On the street in front of the Pantheon we found a sidewalk cafĂ© where we lunched on “gratinee”.   Onion soup with cheese.  If you’ve had French onion soup at Applebee’s, it is like a plastic rose compared to the real thing.  In Paris the waiter brought us deep bowls with a layer of cheese on top so thick that it dripped down the sides. 

From then on, every day at lunchtime David said, “Let’s go back to that place where we had the gratinee.”

As often happens, we went to see one thing and ended up with an unexpected, different, and delightful experience.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Of Cabbages and Queens

After a few days at the hotel in the Rue de Gay-Lusac, I began to think of the Paris Left Bank as “our neighborhood.”  Some days David and I never went further than a few blocks from our hotel. 

I had always thought of the Left Bank as haunted by the ghosts of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and those other ex-pat Americans who lived here in the 1920's and met Picasso and Matisse at the apartment of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas.  Instead, I found myself evoking other ghosts. 

David and I spent an afternoon in the Luxembourg Gardens with its grassy lawns and flower beds, Parisians (very much alive) relaxing in the sunshine amid marble statues of dead Frenchmen. 

I paused before a statue of a woman in period dress.  The label identified her as “Marie di Scotland” and I realized this was a memorial to Mary Queen of Scots, who grew up in France and expected to live her life here.  She became Queen of France, but when her young husband, the king, died, she was shipped back to Scotland, where she was totally inept in dealing with the unruly Scots.  Her own foolishness lead inexorably to her being beheaded in England during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. . 

Mary’s life is a lesson in the necessity of adapting to changing conditions.  Having grown up in the autocratic French court, she never understood how limited her power actually was. 

In recent years the World changed dramatically, and we must adjust to a global economy.  Contrary to what some idiots believe, no Chinese or Arabs are coming to chop off our heads, but some Americans have “lost their heads” figuratively, by failing to adapt and insisting we should persist in an “every man for himself” independent system. 

So much for thoughts while lolling in the park.

The park was an adjunct to the Luxembourg Palace, former home of French royalty..  That series of Rubens paintings extolling Marie di Medici, which I saw in the Louvre, were commissioned originally to decorate the Luxembourg Palace.  

Which brings me to talk about two other queens of France.  Marie was never as famous or powerful as her cousin, Catherine di Medici, but from what I have read, I think she was happier.

Catherine was a schemer who usually succeeded in controlling everything but fate.  She couldn’t control her husband, but she controlled her sons who succeeded him.  Also, she gave a hard time to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I and Prussia’s Frederick the Great.  Her sons died, and she had to relinquish control to that wily son-in-law, France’s Henry IV.  Not a happy life.

Marie also was left a widow with a young son as king.  Rubens painted her as the ideal queen.  She happily sopped up the flattery and let others run king and country.  A silly woman?  Perhaps.  Not a good example for feminists.  But was it not better to be remembered as a happy fool, rather than a shrew and a witch?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Our Guide to Paris

David and I stayed in a shabby hotel in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Paris. Our narrow little street, the Rue de Gay-Lusac, was lined with tall, old buildings in which the ground floors were small shops with dusty windows and faded signs. 

David, watching from the window of our fourth floor room,  called to me, “There’s a library across the street.”  

In Paris a “library” is different from the public libraries we have in the U.S.  It does not lend books.  It is a shop that sells newspapers, cigarettes, lottery and metro tickets.  On our first day in Paris I went into a library to buy a city map.      

The Paris map outlined in bright colors the Grand Boulevards. In between were blotches of green, indicating parks, surrounded by pale lines showing every little street and alley.  Symbols marked the major “points of interest.”  In one corner was a smaller map of metro lines spreading out like a doily pattern from the center of the city. 

I appointed David as our “navigator”.  My 13-year-old got a kick out using the map to devise routes for our daily excursions.  When we used the Metro, he figured out how we were to change trains.  He used the electronic map in the central “station” to memorize the names and number of all the stops before we reached our destination. 

Sometimes he found a more direct route using city buses.  Or we simply walked to nearby “points of interest.”  The Rue de Gay-Lusac was just off the Boulevard St. Germaine, with a 20 minute walk down to the bridge across the Seine River to Notre Dame Cathedral. 

With that map, and David to guide me, we never lost our way. . . and were able to help the hapless American tourist who stopped us on the street and asked frantically, “Do you speak English?”

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pride and Prejudice

I must make amends for saying the French were arrogant.  When David and I were in Paris the individual French men and women we met were invariably kind and helpful.  It was only in the museum that we saw evidence of inflated national pride.  All our contacts with the French people were pleasant.  

The French take pride in their country.  But who are we to condemn them for that? 

No people are more arrogant and boastful than Texans.  And I am a Texan.  But I have traveled and lived in other places, and I’ve learned to take a broader view.  I cringe when I hear a friend say, “There is no more beautiful place in the World than Texas.”   I can name a dozen states that are more beautiful than Texas.   

How many times have you heard someone blast anyone who criticizes anything about the U.S. as “un-American”?  “My country right or wrong.” 

Let’s face it.  Some times the United States is wrong.  We were wrong the go to war in Vietnam, devastating that country and wasting 58,000 American lives.  We were wrong to go to war in Iraq, killing thousands of American boys and maiming many thousands more.

The Iraq-Afghanistan War, plus the decline in revenue due to the Bush tax cuts, caused the National Debt to zoom. Don’t blame Obama for “wasteful spending” when we’ve thrown away billions in Iraq, not to mention more billions to Pakistan and Egypt to prop up corrupt military regimes.  Who can be proud of that?

I’m getting off track.

Still: Ignorance is not bliss.  Ignorance is ignorance.

Which brings me to the subject of Al.

Al is the 85-year-old man who used the “N” word to one of our black friends.  He boasted that if any black man signed onto a ship on which he served during World War II, “In the first storm, he’d go over the side.”  He says he hates the Japanese because of the war.  That is just an excuse. He also hates the Chinese and all other Asians and anyone who is not white. He made his views known in a loud snarl with a string of foul epithets.

I recognize that his denigrating of everyone else was an attempt to compensate for low self-esteem due to his lack of background and education.  It explains but does not excuse his racism. 

Wonder of wonders: Al has calmed down.  He spent a couple of months in a nursing home.  Since he came back, he comes to lunch and is downright nice.  He rolls his electric wheel chair up to the table opposite me.  He greets Becky and tells her how pretty she looks.  He makes innocent jokes with John Turner.  He keeps his voice low and has uses no indecent language.

He does not speak to me.  I spoke to him.  I told him I was glad he rescued a cat belonging to a resident who had to move to a facility where she could not keep pets.  Al said, “She is a sweet kitty.  I like animals more than I do people.”

Al may be as prejudiced as before, but he conceals it.   I always disparaged people who were “two-faced.”   Now I am re-thinking that.  Lunch is a lot more pleasant since Al changed his ways.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lost in Translation

After David and I spent hours looking at Napoleon’s horse, armor, and other French military stuff at Les Invalides, we went into the chapel which connected the two museum buildings.

Entering the main floor of the round, domed church, we confronted a marble balustrade encircling a big, round hole in the floor.  Leaning over the marble railing, we looked down into the basement, where Napoleon is buried in an ugly red marble sarcophagus.  The French honor their greatest man by putting him in a tomb the color of stale blood.  .

One glance at that was enough.  I looked around the circular chapel.  Jutting out like four corners were side chapels.  I walked around, green Michelin guidebook in hand, peeking into the alcoves where four of Napoleon’s associates are entombed in marble sarcophagi, imitating Ancient Romans. 

I paused before the tomb of Napoleon’s unfortunate brother Joseph.  When Napoleon was at the height of his power, crowning himself Emperor and putting his brothers and sister on thrones, he made elder brother Joseph King of Spain.  Wellington put an end to that, and Joseph ended up here, still a sidekick to his younger brother.    

A short, dumpy woman, looking more like a housewife than the typical Parisian, approached and asked me in French who was buried there.

“Le frere de Napoleon,” I said.  Then I realized her French accent was no better than mine.  I said, “Do you speak English?”

“A little,” she said, in a heavy German accent. 

I asked where she was from, and when she said, “Bamberg”, I told her my son and I were in Bamberg a week ago.  “Fine cathedral.” etc.  She asked where we were from, and when I said, “Chicago”, she said her daughter had worked in Chicago.  I told her that my older son, David’s brother, was stationed in Frankfurt. 

“Now you and your son make a . . . “
She made a circular motion with her arm, “. . . around Europa?” 
“I visit my daughter in Chicago, and we make a tour around the U.S.   We go to New Orleans.”
“New Orleans is great place to visit.”
“We go to Padre Island.”
“That’s in Texas!”
Her eyes grew big, and she said, “Texas is gross!”

So: I had come to Paris to hear a German tell me that Texas is gross!

In German, “gross” means “big.”   But maybe she was right.  Texas is gross.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Knights and Napoleon's Horse

The French are arrogant.  Everyone “knows” that.  The French think they are in all ways superior to everyone else, especially Americans.  In the Les Invalides I saw exhibits from Medieval days to World War II that demonstrated that arrogance. 

If I had been alone in Paris (as I was five years later) I would not have gone to the miliary museums at Les Invalides, but when I went with David, we spent a day there.

Les Invalides is a complex of buildings built by King Louis XIV for men who were wounded in his wars, “the invalids.”   For the next two centuries it provided retirement homes for French veterans.  Into the 1950's a few old men, pensioners from World War I, still occupied apartments there.

The buildings are arranged in  “U” shape. From a domed chapel at the top of the “U”, two long three-story buildings face each other across a wide green lawn.  Beyond the buildings the grassy area opens out into a park which stretches down for half a mile or so to the Eiffel Tower   A perfect “photo op” and I did not take out my camera.

(Ten years later John and I ate dinner in a restaurant on a side street near Les Invalides. Afterwards we walked down the park to the Eiffel Tower.  It was a gentle, balmy evening and we strolled slowly towards the Tower, brilliantly lighted against the dark sky.  As David and I had done ten years before, John and I took the crazy, 45-degree angled elevator to the upper deck, where we ate ice cream.  A magical evening, my “We’ll always have Paris.”)     

David and I entered one of the long buildings where we found ourselves facing an army of Medieval knights, enough suits of armor to outfit a regiment.  A row of stuffed horses, also sheathed in metal, carried knights on their backs, lances ready for a tournament.  Most of it was “dress” armor, beautifully engraved with coats of arms and heraldry, more suitable for wearing at court and on parades than for battle.  The French were always better at dressing up than fighting.  History tells us that cumbersome metal armor contributed to the French being defeated by the English at Agincourt and Crecy. 

David and I crossed the grassy lawn to the opposite building.  The first floor was devoted to Napoleon.  We saw his big tent, which he took with him on his various military campaigns – although I suspect that, rather than sleep on that narrow cot, he often appropriated a nearby palace.  I know Josephine joined him during the Italian campaign, staying in a beautiful marble villa on an island in Lake Maggiore.

I was fascinated by his traveling dressing case.  The size of a trunk, it was fitted with a silver basin, holders for toothbrush and razors, scissors, and whole variety of glass bottles and jars.  Did the Emperor perfume his face after shaving? 

Napoleon’s saddle was displayed on the back of his favorite horse, stuffed and looking very lifelike.  Maybe he was on the back of that horse when he fled back to Paris after his defeat at Waterloo.

Upstairs the second floor was devoted to showing how the French won World War I without any assistance from the British or the U.S. or anyone else.  Even more ridiculous was World War II exhibit on the third floor, where a photograph showed the Japanese surrendering to a French admiral on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri.   I had never heard about any French fighting in the Pacific, but there was that photo to prove to the French that their admiral managed to be there after it was all over. 

C’est les Francaise.  I stammer when I try to speak French.  I can’t spell French words either.  I was trying to say, “That’s the French.” 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

My son David

My son David was a good kid.  He was a good kid when he let me haul him around Europe when he was 13-years-old.  In 2012 he has become a good man.

On July 16, David will be 47.  He is a computer geek and designs traffic control for cities throughout the U.S.  Watching television during some disaster I saw the room with many  computer screens displaying highways in Atlanta.  When I commented to David on how complicated it looked, he said, “I’ve been in that room many times.  What you don’t see is all the equipment in the room behind that one.” 

He’s a clever guy, but being smart does not make you a good person.  David is a devoted father, taking the children to school and usually cooking supper in the evening.  On weekends he takes Adam, 12, and Alli, 10, with him to the Farmer’s Market, They bicycle to the parks near their Irvine home.  About once a month they go family camping.

David’s family lives in California.  Several times a year he flies into Dallas for a weekend with his Mom.  He takes me to fine restaurants, updates my computer, and does any chores I need help with.  Last time he was here he bought a new vacuum and cleaned the carpet in my apartment, moving furniture, getting into all the corners and making sure to get the lint along the baseboards.  

As David took charge, I remembered the young boy who got excited about the electronic map in the Paris subway.  As a 13-year-old, without protest, he let his Mom drag him around all over Western Europe.  In return, while indulging myself in all the places I wanted to see, I also tried to find things to do that would amuse him.  As we rattled around Germany, for every church we went to, I found a castle for David to explore. 

At 13 David was interested in all things military.  In Paris we went to Les Invalides, France’s premier miliary museum.  We spent one whole day there.  It will take two more blogs to tell all that we saw.  It ended with my encounter with a German. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sightseeing in Paris

By the time David and I finally arrived in Paris, I had given up any idea of finding the city of my dreams – Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dancing around the fountain in an “American in Paris”, Ingrid Bergman’s hair blowing in the wind as she and Humphrey Bogart drove around Paris in “Casablanca.”

 “We’ll always have Paris” became “I’ll have Paris but without you.”

So what did we do?  All the usual tourist things: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame.  We walked up the Champs Ellysee toward the Arch de Triumph and through the narrow alleys on the Left Bank.  We lunched on onion soup in sidewalk cafes without any encounters with the likes of Hemingway or Sartre. 

Notre Dame Cathedral looked just like the pictures engraved on my mind.  The facade with its triple arched doorways and twin towers was gray, as in the movie “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”  Then we stepped inside. In the dim foyer was a sign: “Notre Dame n’est pas un musee” (“Notre Dame is not a museum”).   Organ music, undoubtedly piped from a recording, set the mood.   The vast nave was cold and damp.  Candles burned before a small statue of the Virgin Mary.  At the rear and in the transepts, huge “rose-shaped” windows, in brilliant blue stained glass, were glorious. 

Then I took David to a place I’d read about, not included in the usual Paris tour.  Near Notre Dame, behind the Palace of Justice, is the Sainte Chappell.  St. Louis – the French king for whom St. Louis, Missouri, was named and also the cathedral in New Orleans – built this small church to display the horde of relics of saints which he purchased or purloined from all over the Middle East.  The church is empty now.  Many of the relics were of doubtful authenticity.  Some, such as the Crown of Thorns, are in the Notre Dame treasury.  

All that remains inside the Sainte Chappell are the windows, the most magnificent display of stained glass which has survived since the Middle Ages. In multi-colored vignettes they picture the entire story of the Bible.  David was awe-struck.  “Wow!  Isn’t this beautiful!”

His Mom was impressed that this teenager from the cultural waste land of the Illinois prairies responded in this way, not because he knew – or cared – anything about medieval glass or St. Louis – but simply because the windows were beautiful. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Art vs. Entertainment

Life could become pretty hum-drum living in a retirement community.  Weeks go by without my leaving except for my trips three times a week to the dialysis center to have my blood cleaned.  A big adventure was when Imogene and I went down to Mesquite to the Black Box Theater to see a play that was, on the surface, a bit of sheer nonsense.  It was good to laugh.

Looking back on going to Europe with David and writing blogs about the trip give me a mental escape.  Otherwise, I spend a lot of time in my recliner watching television.  The news is so depressing that I spend my time laughing at “Family Feud” and “Wheel of Fortune” instead of watching Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper. 

I also watch movies and documentaries from Netflex which I play with the Roku that David gave me.  When he installed it, I thought, “I’ll never bother with that.”  Now I have whole series of BBC programs in my “instant que” and choose a different show every night. . 

A friend watched movies with me, as long as they were historical romances.  But she got upset and stopped coming when I said I thought real events in history were more interesting than the lovey-dovey movie versions. 

I am endlessly fascinated about how the human mind works and how a person’s background shapes how they think.  I look for the “story behind the story.”   Perhaps that is why I am so engrossed in history, the complex personalities that have shaped our World. 

Looking at art, when I look at a painting, I can’t help thinking about the painter and how the times in which he lived shaped his art.  I don’t like non-objective art because it seems to be done in a secret code that only the “elite” can understand. 

The class I took when I was 20-years-old shaped my reactions many years later when I saw paintings in the Louvre. Which brings me to my recent experience with paintings in the Louvre.  

Recently I succumbed to an ad in the Smithsonian and ordered “Museum Masterpieces: The Louvre” from Great Courses.  The DVD series showed a professor standing in front of a classroom lecturing and showing slides.  I could have been back in that wooden chair at Texas State College for Women 63 years ago!   As I sat in my living room in Garland, Texas, the prof offered no new insights.  I wished I could see a real documentary to take me on a tour of The Louvre. 

The weird thing about this experience was the man who taught the “Great Course”.  He is Richard R. Bretell, Ph.D.   He is Distinguished Professor of Art and Aesthetics at the University of Texas at Dallas.  A Texan lecturing me on the Louvre!  You could say he’s my neighbor. 

I’m sorry, Dr. Bretell, but your lectures bored me.  I would rather watch Storage Wars or Dog the Bounty Hunter.  Those shows, with their strange examples of human psychology, are to me vastly entertaining.  Without any examples of great art.  

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Mona Lisa

Most tourists who go to Paris spend an hour or less in the Louvre. They make a quick stop to see the Mona Lisa.  They follow placards and arrows directing them down the long gallery to the special room where Leonardo’s famous painting is on display behind protective glass.  Usually there is such a mob of people that a short gal like me can’t even see it.  Most of them, after elbowing their way to the front of the pack, take a quick look and hurry back to their tour bus without pausing to look at anything else. 

David and I spent a day in the Louvre.  My feet hurt, my eyes glazed over, and I stopped looking after two hours.  We did manage to make the obligatory stop at the Mona Lisa.  It is a small painting, not much bigger than a sheet of typing paper.

When I was there, the most famous portrait in the World hung between two larger paintings by Leonardo. On the left was “The Virgin and Child with St. Ann.”  The Virgin sits in St. Ann’s lap.  She reaches out to the Christ Child, who stands like a toddler in front of her billowing skirts.  It is definitely a very weird painting. 

I can’t get excited over Leonardo.  He may have been a genius, but he was also a strange man.  He completed few projects.  In Florence he sketched battle scenes on walls in the city hall but left for Milan without painting the murals. 

He finished his famous “Last Supper”, but he had experimented with the paint.  It immediately started to peel off.  Today copies are in millions of homes, reproduced in bright color, while the original, on the wall in the dining hall of a monastery, is just a blur.     

In Milan, where he was put in charge of designing the defense of the city, he made a clay sculpture of a larger-than-life horse, which was never cast in bronze.  The invading French army successfully overcame Leonardo’s incomplete defense projects.  The French soldiers destroyed Leonardo’s great horse.  Then Leonardo accepted an invitation from the French king to move to France, where he set up a school for painters at the court of Francis I but seems to have done few paintings on his own. 

If you want to see a beautiful painting by Leonardo, you don’t have to go to Europe.  In Washington D.C., our National Gallery has a portrait of a lady which, to me, is more beautiful than the more famous Mona Lisa.