Sunday, November 26, 2017

My Black Friday

My attitude toward Black Friday was changed forever when I got an email from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts announcing that on the morning after Thanksgiving they would be opening their doors at 6 a.m., knocking 20 percent of the price of everything in their gift shop, and offering free admission to their current show, Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe. I had neither read nor heard anything to convince me it would be worthwhile parting with $20 for the opportunity to see a succession of street scenes by Canaletto, Guardi, and other painters of similar ilk—paintings that appear in many shows with other themes, and also hang in numerous provincial museums throughout Europe. But minus the entry fee, that same show would serve as a delightful destination on a crisp Friday morning, following a day spent amid the hubbub of a large family gathering.

Though the doors opened at 6, Hilary and I were confident that a 7 a.m. arrival time would work out fine. Light was just coming to the city as we drove through downtown Minneapolis, crossed the newly redesigned Nicollet Mall (but where are all the trees they've been talking so much about?) and down Third Avenue to the museum.

Through the naked trees in Washburn Fair Oaks Park, the marble facade of the McKim, Mead, and White structure seemed to glow amid the shadows, and it reminded me of the painting by Sargent, Luxembourg Gardens at Twilight, 1879, that has hung inside for decades.

The lobby was relatively quiet, and as we passed by the reception desk a woman handed us two tickets to the show upstairs. A long table had been set up at the top of the stairs with pots of coffee and cookies wrapped in plastic. The chairs nearby were mostly occupied.

Postponing that minor treat, we made our way up a second flight of the stairs and down the hall to the relevant gallery, where an attendant handed each of us a small device on a lanyard and a set of headphones with which to listen to it. I soon turned it off. I'd rather read the signs. Much of the time I'd rather read nothing at all. (I miss a lot.)

The paintings were large. More than half, I would guess, depicted events in Venice, but there was a large rendering of the flooding of the Piazza Novana in Rome, an eye-witness view of Vesuvius erupting, and a canvas depicting a hot air balloon in transit over the rooftops of Paris. There were several paintings of urban fires at night, one or two Papal processions, a grand opera event (or was that merely a coronation in an opera house?) and several versions of the annual Marriage to the Sea festival on the Grand Canal in Venice.

The effect in most cases was primarily social. By looking closely at the crowd, you got a sense of the fellow-feeling, the vanity, the artistry, the glamour, and the pretensions from which such events draw their energy. In one Polish scene a few cows were grazing in a field across the road from the magnificent palace. And the huge painting of Charles III of Spain departing from Naples offered an impressive look at the bay itself. You know what they used to say in the days before the bucket list: "See Naples and die."

I think the art of the rococo is somewhat underappreciated. There is a true lyric quality to the drawing of figures that puts Lorrain (for example) to shame, and the blue, cloud-filled skies are often marvelous. I have long been meaning to read Roberto Calasso's book-length essay, Tiepolo Pink. (Pulling it off the shelf just now, I see by the bookmark that I once got to page 48, though I'd have to start over if I picked it up again.)

But I was starting to think about a cookie and a nice cup of coffee.

Back in the upper lobby, we snagged a table and enjoyed watching other early birds pass by. It wasn't Venice, but there was plenty of variety and color just the same.  Then we went into the gift shop, where I spotted a book called The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. 

I'd like to know the different between puce and pharlap, for example. I guess it's just a matter of knowing the words, and recognizing the difference.

Armed with such information, Black Friday might one day thrive side-by-side with Puce Friday, Chartreuse Friday, and Mauve Friday. The possibilities are, well, almost endless.

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