"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Turandot, Francis Bacon, And Other Refuges And Solace

Signore, ascolta! Ah, Signore, ascolta!
Liù non regge più!
Si pezza il cuore! Ahimè,
quanto cammino
col tuo nome nell'anima
col nome tuo nell'labbra
Ma se il tuo destino,
domani, sarà deciso,
noi morrem sulla strada dell'esilio.
Il perderà suo figlio...
io l'ombra d'un sorriso!
Liù non regge più!
ha pietà!

(Puccini, ‘Turandot’, Signore, Ascolta).

Jessye Norman


A few years ago Bret Harris drove to a small town on the Delaware shore, very much like Lewes -  quiet and almost quaint compared to the more popular beach resorts like Bethany Beach or Rehoboth. There was an ice-cream parlor, a gift shop, a few stores selling summer dresses and bathing suits, a bank, and a drug store.  The hotel where he and Lisa stayed was one of the oldest on the shore.  It still had a Victorian-era brass cage elevator, ceramic tiles in the entranceway with the original name of the hotel  (The Randall), a small lobby and reception area with one clerk and a write-in register. Their room looked out the back to a small garden and the row of frame houses behind it.

Image result for images lewes delaware


Bret and Lisa had known each other for a year, but had never been out of Washington and rarely out of her apartment in Adams Morgan where they spent weekends. They both knew that the affair would be temporary – he was married, she was thirty years his junior, and differences in education, upbringing, experience, and interest were too great to be ignored.  Yet for the time being suspended animation was just fine.. She got a patient, experienced lover. “I got a gift under the Christmas tree”, he said.

“Granted, she's not my first love. Granted, she's not my great love. But she is sure as hell my last love. Doesn't that count for something?”, asked Coleman Silk in Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain.

Image result for image the human stain movie


The trip to the shore was more than just getting out of the house. Being seen in public – even in a place where neither of them was known – was necessary to give substance to their relationship. If they were ever to live together, they would be defined as a couple by people not that different from those of Lincoln, Delaware. They were both nervous about the trip – not so much being discovered (she wanted to keep the intra-office affair quiet; and although his wife suspected his infidelities, he did his best to keep them secret), but about their new protocol.  They would eat in public; drink, walk on the boardwalk, buy souvenirs, and walk through the small lobby all in view of others.  They would be looked at as a curiosity, assessed, and judged.  

Lincoln was a beach town, and The Randall’s brass fittings and old prints could easily have been showpiece oddities in an otherwise overpriced vacation hotel.  The town itself could have been aggressive and immodest rather rather than what looked reminiscent of the small Cape Cod towns of Bret’s youth,. Neither possibility was correct.  Both hotel and town were perfect for their coming out.

After a day in Lincoln – getting up late, a full breakfast, browsing the shops, an afternoon walk on the beach, and dinner in boutique restaurant by the water – the next morning they decided to drive to one of the larger towns on the coast. There would be a real boardwalk, comfort food, games, and lots of children.

When they turned off the small two-lane road that led out of Lincoln and joined Route 70, the four-lane commercial strip that linked all the major beach resorts, Bret knew that he had made a mistake. It wasn’t that Route 70 was any worse than Rockville Pike, Route 1, the Berlin Turnpike, or any one of a thousand strips in America, but that it came on him so suddenly. It was the abruptness of leaving the carefully crafted ‘first step’ of Lincoln and suddenly facing the gross ugliness of the malls, fast food outlets, chain restaurants, gas stations, and big box stores that upset him. Whereas he had been able to disregard the commercial clutter, it was the contrast with Lincoln, its comfort level, and their deliberate baby steps into the world outside of 442 Park Road that was so unsettling.

There could be no equanimity on this road, no tunnel vision or focus to block out the roadside detritus, and certainly no intimacy between the lovers.  The strip was invasive, hostile, and threatening.

It started to rain.  The neon signs, traffic lights, and illuminated billboards were grotesquely distorted because of the wet windshield smeared with the dust and dirt of the road.

His hand shaking like an alcoholic, Bret reached into the glove compartment and pulled out an old CD of Turandot, found Signore, Ascolta and put it in the player. Jessye Norman’s powerful, plaintive voice began. “Signore, ascolta! Ah, Signore, ascolta! Liù non regge più!”. Bret was reassured.  He turned the car around, retraced the painful two miles of Route 70 they had covered, and turned into Lincoln just as Jessye Norman was finishing her aria.

Image result for images turandot


Liu, Turandot, and the Kingdom of Persia had restored civility, intimacy and the balance that Lisa and Bret had worked so hard to calibrate.

Bret Harris was not an opera-lover.  In fact he was impatient with the pageantry, melodrama, and exaggerating staging and costumes of opera and rarely went.  Nor was he an art-lover, and visited the Smithsonian museums as infrequently as he attended performances at the Kennedy Center. 

One day, however, he and his wife, who had wanted to see an exhibition of early Dutch masters, did go to the National Gallery. When they had finished, they decided to walk through the rest of the museum; and just before leaving, happened upon an exhibit of the German artist Anselm Kiefer.

Without preparation or expectation, Bret saw Kiefer’s The Nightmare Network. Like most of the artist’s work it was a large tableau, floor-to-ceiling, which dominated the entire wall of the gallery. The painting was a frightening, desolate, hopeless, and chilling nightmare.



On another occasion, Bret again happened upon one of Francis Bacon’s triptychs. Far more than any of Picasso’s intellectually deconstructed nudes, Bacon’s disassembly took composure apart in a visceral way. The paintings were troubling because personality and character had been taken apart; but moving because the subjects were so ordinary but personal.

Image result for images francis bacon triptychs


After that Bret began to visit museums more and more; but not just on any occasion. Only when he experienced ‘troughs’, low points which were short-lived but depressing. Periods of listlessness and lack of purpose. Bacon, Kiefer, Audubon, Titian, and Giotto helped him out. At least one piece of each artist, regardless of historic or artistic merit, made sense to him. Things became more settled and clear after he had spent a half-hour with the painting. Kiefer’s tableaux or Bacon’s triptychs were no different than Puccini. They restored his equilibrium. 

Artistic interest is often a purely intellectual affair. Museum-goers fill in the blanks between Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists, or complete the historic progression from pointillism to Braque. Their opinions are usually informed, intelligent, and critical; but few have Bret’s need and his consequent search for personal connection.

“You’re so lucky to live in Washington”, said a friend of Bret’s who ran into him on the Mall. “There is so much to see here”. Little did she know of his peculiar habits, visiting the East Wing as a matter of necessity. Out of the hundreds of paintings on display, a permanent exhibition of the most important examples of Western art, and special exhibits from private collections from all over the world, only a few were therapeutic.  He knew which ones corresponded to which of his depressive or anxious moods; but walking to and from the Sargents or the Van Eycks, he was always surprised, unaware of a mood or irritation until he saw a painting which corresponded to it.

One day he saw Manet’s The Dead Toreador; but until then he had not fully realized how irreversible his own death would be.

Image result for manet dead toreador


Bret and Lisa no longer see each other; but he plays Signore, Ascolta to remind him of The Randall and his affair with Lisa; and although he has looked, he has never found a painting or piece of music that captures the rejuvenating, inexpressibly happy relationship between an older man and a younger woman.

Image result for paintings love between young woman older man

Alessandro Allori www.rigfellows.tumblr.com

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