Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Capturing Reality

I had some time to kill in Manhattan yesterday between a doctor's appointment and lunch with a friend. I could shop or...go to a museum. Even though it's the shopping season, maybe because of it, because I have gifts to buy and can't think of what they should be, I went to the Met.

I had seen a photograph when last I was there that had stuck with me, Robert Frank's black-and-white photo of his wife and newborn child. Though the photo was taken in 1951, it looked completely modern to me, everything about it from the denim shirt the woman wore, open to reveal her engorged breast as the baby, satiated, slept just underneath it, to her hair and the scene around her.

I went in to the museum the new sneaky back way I have discovered and straight up to the second floor, to the exhibit of Mr. Frank's work, including his 83 photos capturing "The Americans". In it, like with the photo of his wife, he managed to put together a timeless picture of real life, of what people are up against always, then, now, likely forever. The intro to "The Americans," shot in 1953, speaks of the set of pictures as revealing a people "often plagued by racism, ill-served by their politicians and rendered numb by a rapidly expanding consumer culture." Sounds modern to me. The good news, though, is that he also "found new areas of beauty in overlooked corners..." Aah, the silver lining, the saving grace of any and all art: there has to be an upside, a ray of hope.

In a letter requesting a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, which he was granted, Mr. Frank wrote that, "My project is bound to be incomplete, but I am sure it will be a vivid and valuable report." He was right.

Aside from jukeboxes now having been replaced by bartenders' iPods, and the simpler styles of cars and televisions, the photos could have been 2009. Unlike so many images we see of the 50s, of flamboyant hair and fashion trends, dramatic moments that place people or things definitively in time, these images transcended the moment to reflect people's larger issues, the ones that will continue to plague generation after generation, issues of failing political systems, false hero worship, unsatisfying jobs, the arrogance of the rich, the apathetic nature of the poor and the consumerism that hog-ties the middle class.

I moved through the photographs and out into 19th Century Paintings. There was Edgar Degas' A Woman Seated Beside a Vase of Flowers, 1865. I laughed, as Robert Frank had said he captured the culture of Paris in two subjects: chairs and flowers.

Nothing much changes, I thought, just the players. The night before, hugging me in his hooded towel, Eli had asked, "Why do people and things have to die, Mommy?"

"Yeah!" Oscar agreed with the question, scrubbing at his long soapy locks in the shower.

Hard question. "To make room for new people, new things?" I said, not-quite-definitively.

As I looked at depictions of so many cut flowers in vases, I thought of this. Cut flowers die so quickly it is depressing. I tend these days toward potted plants. They live longer, sometimes, if I'm careful. But there is nothing so beautiful as carefully arranged flowers, picked from who-knows-where, brought together for a fleeting moment of exquisite, breath-taking enjoyment. That is life, brief but beautiful.

I came to see the photographs but also, to visit my friend, Russian author Vsevolod Garshin, whose eyes leap out of the portrait on the wall to grab at my heart. Those eyes reflect what he knew about the brevity of life, of others' and his own. He followed in the footsteps of his father and brother to end his own life, his own auspicious writing career, at 33, over 100 years ago.

I started to feel sad but then I saw a young boy, sketch pad in hand, showing his own art work to his teacher, his own crude rendering of Van Gogh's Two Shoes.

"It's good..." the teacher said, somewhat noncommitally. The boy shrugged, a slight suspicious smile on his lips as he walked away. I approached him.

"Here," I said, and handed him a gold star.

He looked up at me, surprised. "Thanks?!" he said.

Aaaah, the cycle of life, of art, continues, slightly different but, really, the same.

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