Thursday, August 02, 2012

The Mad Mother of Barbarian Tribes

By Brian George

“Her will…expressly forbade any changes to be made. Nothing could ever be sold, nor any new works added; window treatments and interior furniture were to remain as she had left them—the rearrangement of so much as one gave the board grounds to instantly dissolve the entire museum. This insured that Gardner's Boston enemies could never disrupt or alter her legacy.”—Gale Encyclopedia of Biography
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The Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum is not so much a museum as a presence, or even an independent being, magnetic in its power, which becomes a part of the experience of those who enter it, and participates across the years in their interactions. I cannot tell whether it is the aura of the museum itself, as amplified by its placement at a key spot on the globe, or whether it is the breath of the great collector, Isabella Stewart Gardner, whose influence can so subtly be felt beneath the skin.

I cannot walk by the Gardner, even on the other side of the street, without being projected backwards into time, so that memories, both good and bad, overwhelm any encounter with the actual museum in the present. I like to visit at least once a year to observe and test how my perceptions change. My early experiences at the Gardner were uncanny in their rightness, as though each mood were a glyph within a metaphysical web, which then called forth its corresponding act. So luminous, in my own mind, was my vision of this space that I do not want to forgive the actual museum; for it is not equal to the small myth that I wove, like a duplicate web, around it. It is not even clear that my experiences are actually tied to this particular museum, or whether it serves as the approximation of an archetype with which I am struggling to come to terms.

The museum first struck me as a place that existed in its own dimension, as a type of perpetual Sabbath: The wealth produced in the previous six days has been collected. At sunset, all action freezes where it stops. No work is allowed. The family gathers to celebrate the wonders of creation. Tired, you enter the alternative space. It is as though you were to look back, from a higher dimension, over the pattern of your life, reviewing the whole of it as in a moment. Assiyah, the “World of Making,” then becomes a source of raw material, a kind of fossil fuel that powers the worlds of Yetzerah, B’riah and Atzilut. You are, of course, outside of time altogether. Silence opens and transforms the objects of this world, which, as it vibrates, then appears as a kind of x-ray, within which the outlines of all previous worlds can be seen. Such a type of silence sings, as though you had struck the stones with a tuning fork. 

In my memory, the seasons superimpose themselves. Branches shake their crooked fingers at the grey sky over the city. Across the thin ice of puddles, leaves in October blow by the door to the museum. Heraldic beasts, ordered to remain immobile at each side of the entrance, and now more than a bit hungry, brood upon ancient warfare as they peek out through the snow. Humidity, like a dense fog, hangs above the roof in August. A comet arcs through the green sky that appears before a hurricane. Foam from the rising sea-level softly laps the steps. Crows caw on the roof. The sun descends but grows much tinier than it was. The Earth rings like a bell. Pink blossoms, in April, burst from trees behind the wrought-iron fence like small, time-release explosions. A harsh light streams through the skylight, probing, as though it were the light from a near-death-experience tunnel.

As I try hard to remember an important encounter with art at the museum, oddly, there is almost nothing that stands out. My most vivid encounters with the spell of the Gardner all exist in relation to people. Many of them now live far away. A few are dead. Objects fade. Relationships come forward. This is, perhaps, quite similar to the way things might appear to us as we turn back at the edge of the beyond.

When I first came to Boston to go to school in 1974, the Gardner was quite a discovery. I remember one gentle spring day, when the first buds were just popping from the branches. I had arranged to meet a girl called Donna Contantineau at the Renaissance courtyard for lunch. I remember the feel of the cool courtyard stone beneath my fingers, as we consumed a feast of pita, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, nuts and apricots. Donna was wearing an Indian print skirt. I couldn't figure out if she had just taken a shower with some wonderful soap, or if that were just her natural fragrance, or if my mind were playing tricks on me.

At the end of the meal, she demonstrated an unusual talent, which I had not seen before and have not seen since. She had the ability to repeat whatever you were saying, with no hesitation, at the exact moment that the words came from your mouth. It was as though some glitch in the projection of our wave-forms had occurred; we were seated on a stone bench by a fountain, from which the gods observed us, yes, but we were also the gods that were doing the observing. Voice and image had become unsynchronized; a slight gap had opened, though which we could slip. The museum was a wheel. It turned as slowly as the great Platonic year. We were statues spinning through the stage sets of a dream. The Gardner stood by like an eccentric aunt, taking note of the first signs of romance but too preoccupied with abstract beauty to fulfill her role as chaperone.

 

I remember going to the Gardner several years after this with my high school friend Danny Panagakos, who was going through a New York performance art phase. He arrived for the visit wearing his then customary outfit of black leather and chains, with a three-day growth of beard and a skeleton earring. We might as well have brought a spotlight with us, and then set it up in the corner of each room. A group of security guards shadowed our every step, waiting for the sudden appearance of a knife or can of spray paint. Danny had asked one of the guards if they had an extra set of oil paints, a few brushes, and a pallet, since one of his paintings was not quite done and he had come back from the dead to finish it. A bit later, he managed to get into a shouting match with several of the guards, the only Irish immigrants I that have ever met with absolutely no sense of humor. The shouting match escalated into a shoving match, before he was thrown, with great theatrical fanfare, out of the building, and told never to come back.

My friend Danny was the fly in the metaphysical ointment, the snake that had volunteered to bring chaos to the garden. It was he who had removed the vowels from the tower of the one world language, before spreading the Big Lie that the sky did not exist. It was he who had shrunk the head of the Most High. Due to Danny, God could now be mistaken for the stopper in a bathtub. It was he who had once commissioned the Mona Lisa to paint a second and distorted copy of da Vinci, which the whole world somehow took for the real thing. For millennia now, it had been difficult for him not to lose track of his goals, and to act in such a way that he would not appear redundant. Just imagine the thrill: to find an audience that might still be capable of shock! It was a twinge of satisfaction that he would not soon forget. With all eyes on me, I quickly followed him out the door.

During the autumn 1998 visit of my father and his third wife, Judith, to Boston, my father suggested that we go to the museum. My wife, Deni, and then one year old daughter, Elizabeth, also came. My father was very impressed with the courtyard. It reminded him of the courtyard of a house he once owned in Mexico, during a period of affluence, before his company collapsed like a pyramid of cards, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He treated us to an enthusiastic lecture on the history of courtyards, veering from ancient Greece to North Africa to Islamic Spain to Mexico. Though not unheard of, such eloquence about aesthetics was quite unusual for him.

He would more often say, “I went here. I saw that. At such and such a place I saw so and so conduct. He was good.” For example, he might say, “That was the year that I heard Yo Yo Ma at Tanglewood, where he played Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante in E Minor. A great performance. Bernstein conducted. A few of us went to a get-together afterwards. Bernstein brought his boyfriend. He drank too much, and decided to change into some blue velour briefs with a flowing cotton robe.” My father’s inner life was locked. There was only one key. On a schedule to be determined by himself—or in a joint-venture with the businessman who also occupied his body—he would take his inner life from storage, which involved, coincidentally, the removal of his cello from its case. He would stand his inner life up and then, by a telemetry of joy instead of the usual force of will, he would make it sing and dance. On this day, however, the museum had taken charge, and had prompted him to speak in great detail about his thoughts and memories and emotions.

Thoughts of his 24-room mansion on Avenida de los Insurgentes, where he hobnobbed with Samosa, led to thoughts about his student flat above Louisburg Square. How many unexpected turns his life had taken since the 1950s, when, after giving up his dream of becoming a musician, he first moved from Michigan to attend the BU School of Engineering! My father’s mood of autumnal nostalgia was contagious, and surrounded us like the smell of burning leaves. We did not realize that this mood would prove to be prophetic, or that several months later my father would be, very unexpectedly, dead.


Another year went by, as the Gardner continued its mysterious transactions with the infinite. I again visited with my wife and daughter, who by then was two years old, and as prone to perpetual motion as a dervish. Elizabeth, when she saw the Medieval lions that stood guard at the courtyard, chortled and shrieked with joy. Crouching down, she put her face a few inches in front of each one of the lions, went “Rooaaaarrr!” and then waited for a response. When none was forthcoming, she crouched down and went “Rooaaaarrr!” in front of each of them again. Oh no they didn’t! She could not believe her ears. Again, the silence of the seed-vaults of Antarctica. Elizabeth had no doubt that the Gardner was alive, in its own reverse engineered and hermetically sealed way. Because of this, she could not help but be annoyed: There was no good reason for the lions to be rude!

By the time we got to the second floor, she felt an overwhelming urge to express her tactile appreciation for objects, or perhaps to search for the openings through which life entered the inanimate. Again, in violation of the laws of nature, the Irish security guards exhibited not the slightest trace of humor, nor did the corners of their lips turn up. They did, in fact, both move and act like Golems, who had been conjured out of blood and clay by the power of the Kabbalistic word; they served, one pointedly, the power that had called them forth. “If she’s going to make noise and touch things,” we were told, “she can do it somewhere else.” We were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to “Please control the child.” The request was reasonable, but “controlling” a two year old is far easier said than done.

She was moved to wrath. Her imperious will to power would not be thwarted. A spell had been cast. The hand of the great collector had touched her soul. A voice whispered in her ear, “The world is yours to appropriate. Carpe diem! There will time enough later to throw sculpture at the masses.” How dare the guards try to tell her what she could and could not do with her possessions! Yelling for obedience, with eyes as wide as a Sumerian statue’s, she walked with hands out towards a five-foot urn. “Mine,” she shouted, “Mine! Mine!” I scooped her up and quickly headed for the exit, her legs still pumping, and the curse on her subordinates still echoing through the halls. It would seem that the Gardner is not a child-friendly place. Some 13 years later, perhaps to keep herself on the right side of the law, Elizabeth is now thinking about becoming a museum curator. Much scholarship will needed for the stalking of her target. For somewhere, in a corner of the subterranean web, she can hear that the heart of the progenetrix still beats, if slowly. She would ask of it a question. Its answer would be in the form of a meta-linguistic key. She may yet have a chance to get her hands on one of those giant, ash-filled urns, and the lions may, any day now, decide to wake from their naps.

Curiously, it was not just children but also human beings in general who, in the first few years, were seen as potential Disrupters of the Peace. As first planned, the museum would be open for four days per month, for only three months out of the year. Using tax-codes and import duties as their weapons, Federal Philistines had insisted on a six-day per week schedule, thus tainting the pure concept of the gift. As often happens, the external world had been forced to intervene to prompt one subject to acknowledge his/ her fate. If it were not for bad luck we might have no luck at all, and the Zodiac would not be able to grow feet. This fallen version of the Gardner is the one that we now see and touch.

This brings me to a point that I am hesitant to make. In spite of the important memories it stirs, my attitude towards the Gardner changes as I try to bring it into focus. When the gift of a Renaissance palace has been offered to the city, with a fortune devoted to its upkeep, who could be so cynical as to question the benefactress’s intent and so ungrateful as to not approve? Should not such generosity serve to box the ears of the disobedient lords of industry and finance? Should not such Ionic passion prove that there is one and only one way for these objects to be arranged? Should not such virtue help to educate the bureaucrat, who has never learned to think big, and who, too often, has no fresh straw in his stall? Should not such vision finally silence her detractors, who, though living, served less of a useful purpose than the dead?

The building and the collection are so obviously labors of love. So much care and learning and imagination have been poured into them, that I suffer guilt to learn the extent of my ambivalence, which is strong. The Gardner is, in its own way, perfect, but it is not perfect in the unpredictable way that most living things are perfect. It can, at times, seem like an experiment in taxidermy, as conducted by an alien geneticist, or like the first read-through of a play in which no actors will be needed, or like the shadow cast by a widowed spider in her web. Often, as I enter through its doors, I feel like Alice stepping through the Looking Glass, not knowing if the objects on the other side will keep their expected shapes. I cannot help but wonder if these objects may have long ago disappeared, as, perhaps, has our race: What we see is the result of occult action at a distance. A kind of inside-out perspective then takes over, as though you were to look the wrong way through a telescope.

The space itself is somehow more exciting than are any of the objects it contains. Something is just slightly off. The worn Mediterranean floor tiles are more luminous than is “The Concert” by Vermeer, which, since the 1990 heist, now looks like no more than an empty frame. The porcelain reliefs, by obscure artists, are more beautiful than the Greek and Roman sculptures. The tapestries are more challenging than the paintings, as masterful and famous as many of these are. Even Titian’s incomparable “The Rape of Europa” seems somehow like a postage stamp—much less vibrant than it would be in almost any other space. The rippling of the fountain in the courtyard is more satisfying than Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, as performed at one of the Gardner’s Sunday salons. The light of a late autumn afternoon, as it filters through the skylight and the windows, is more mysterious than the objects on which it falls, which are, in the end, no more than three-d objects. The hand of the great collector is more powerful than was the eye of her pet critic, Berenson, who she delegated to inform each genius of his rank.

Like Alice, we shrink or grow, as directed by an unknown influence. On certain days, the spell cast by the Gardner makes us small. On other days, the spell acts as a catalyst, a lens that serves to magnify and focus the energies of those passing through, and prompts them to feel and say and do things that they would otherwise hold in check. Are we celebrants of a Sabbath, with the wonders of creation heaped around us, or the accomplices to some act of unnatural preservation?

Let me state it again simply: I am ambivalent about the Gardner, as well as fearful of the presence that still micromanages its beauty, which has come, through the years, to seem more and more like bait. The space is dominated, if not haunted, by the spirit of a woman dead since 1924. Towards the end of her life Mrs. Gardner, as she hovered above her creation in the fourth floor living area, must have seemed, like Miss Haversham, like something just this side of a ghost. The July 19th Boston Globe obituary states that she was to be buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, in a family tomb, but such a record may be no more than the act of a magician, the movement of the right hand to distract us from the left.

There is, in fact, no doubt as to where her web is located; a skylight stares down from the center of the web, and it is there that she waits for fresh humans to arrive.

   
The dowager has declared, and it will not be taken back, “I am the mad mother of barbarian tribes, the hand of the Byzantine water clock. I have mummified the sea. I have built a tomb, which will serve as a museum for the education and enjoyment of the public, forever. It is important to eat large amounts of salt. Take off the human body. By the door are hangers, where you, the living, are to check your lives. My blood is an experiment in transubstantiation. It is not red but blue. Like Shiva, I have swallowed all of the toxins in the world. Some call me for this reason Nilakantha.

“I was Astraea, who, at the end of the Golden Age, withdrew, filled to bursting with disgust. Arachne also. To the ignorant: Anathema! You are drunken worms, flies banging on the window. You are the dust that sticks to the bottom of my shoes. Embrace Beauty and destroy ambivalence. Forego all thoughts about the exit beyond Saturn—to which I alone hold the key. No change of even the smallest detail is ever, repeat EVER to be allowed."

As her will states, the substitution of even a window treatment or a chair gives the board of directors grounds to dissolve the whole museum. One cannot help but wonder if the hyper-vigilance of the guards might be no more than their reasonable reaction to a threat: should a detail be disrupted, then the whole of the museum might suddenly be sucked back through the skylight, in a geometric flash, to leave no more than the fragrance of burnt ozone on the wind. I have sometimes joked that we are privileged to view the paintings in the splendor of their original dirt. Not a speck has been removed. The museum is a shadow that the Great Year sealed in amber, a spider that was accidentally caught in her own web. It is a petrified sky turned backwards on itself. It is a genetically modified mammoth flash-frozen by a glacier, the food still undigested in its stomach, the flowers that it was munching still stuck in its teeth.

(Illustrations: 1) Anders Zorn, Isabella Stewart Gardner in Ve/ 2 and 3) Courtyard of the Gardner Museum/ 4) John Singer Sargeant, Isabella Stewart Gardner)

--New posts every 2-3 days on my blog Masks of Origin

http://masksoforigin.blogspot.com/

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