Doing the Tarantella
At the Barnes
FoundationPart IIou know about April, lush springtime on Philadelphia Main Line. You know what it's like when the sun is out, not burning but --- more --- glowing, the grass and trees and bushes so touched with new life that the whole world is infected with the joy of it, the joy of living, the joy of being alive, being in the midst of all that fecundity. In those days, the lawn around that classic marble building was cut with a hand-powered lawnmower. No noisy gas-powered machine, no, just a machine that went --- as Joyce would have it --- "cleverclevercleverclever." With the heady smell of cut grass, my sister Joy and I arrive at the Foundation. Chris --- Violette's assistant --- lets us in the huge front door. The brilliant sunshine is lighting up the galleries to a fare-thee-well.
My sister and I begin in the main studio, with the card players. I whisper to her about the Beethoven, and the dance. My sister --- who had studied with Martha Graham --- is less entranced by the card players than she is by the other, more colorful dance above --- the mural by Matisse, in the arches above the main studio.
We move into the other rooms. Conversation between us dies out. When one is faced with such a trove, words suddenly seem less than necessary. An occasional indrawn breath, or sigh. What must it be like to arrive for the first time in Granada and before you, at sunrise, is the Alambra; to be in Paris, wandering through the Tuileries in late summer; to arrive in India and come upon the Taj Mahal, spread out before you, on a full moon night? At those times words would seem, as William Burroughs said, a virus from outer space.
I had told my sister about the collection but she, as can be expected, is overwhelmed by it. Having fifteen or twenty art works of such wonder in each room: she was beside me beside herself.
By the time she leaves, we are both quite weary. We'll meet later on, because Violette has asked us over to her house for tea at six --- I told you she liked me --- where we will see yet another Renoir hanging over the davenport, a Picasso in the dining room, and, in the hallway to the bathroom, the Modigliani "Portrait of Jeanne Heubuteme" --- head tilted, pursed lips; one that made me think, for once in my life, about a lifetime career in grand larceny.
Meantime, loyal student that I am, I stay on for the class, but by four in the afternoon I am developing the Blind Staggers. Such art for such a long time does funny things to the brain. DeMazia's words are but a dull rattling in the brainbag inside what's left of my head. Sitting there on my hard bench in the main studio, I've become a still-life with pictures. I glance for the hundredth time at the side wall.
It's a simple one, that Renoir. From his middle period, I'd guess. Not too many blue-greens, not too much rosiness: just enough of each. He knows form now, and the appropriate swirls. It was probably done around 1905 --- well before arthritis forced him to use the brushes tied to his wrists, making the fat reds and yellows clump up on the canvas.
The old reprobate. It's a close-up of his plump, young, naked milkmaids --- they were all milkmaids, weren't they? --- with her swirl of burnished hair, the round almost too-round face, the full shoulders, the gentle upturned young breasts, the crossed arms, the elbow...the elbow.
We didn't do drugs in those days. Those of us in the East Coast Educational Establishment were not comfortable with delusions. Our strongest mind-expander was a pack of Kents with the Micronite Filter --- and a few snifters of Courvoisier. Outside of occasional throw-up falling-down drunk weekends, we kept ourselves under tight control. But something happened to me that day in that room that was beyond exploding flowers and ten thousand points of light and a yellow sun etched in an agate sky.
Remember, my mind had been deconstructed by five hours in art heaven. It's the only reason I can think of --- if reason is to be said to exist at all at such times --- for my vision to do such funny things. Suddenly my milkmaid's roseate elbow was protruding out of the canvas, hanging out over the decorative gilt frame (where it certainly didn't belong). A three dimensional young woman, inside a two-dimensional canvas.
I looked away, then looked back. She was safely back in the frame again. But, then --- after a moment --- that damned elbow popped out at me again.
I kept looking away, then looking back --- and she, my lusty young milkmaid, would do her trick again, and again, and again. I was blind.
Well, that's my revelation. I didn't even talk about it when we met at Violette's for polite tea and crumpets. It certainly isn't much when we compare it to the revelations that were to come to me later in life --- the visions of peyote or other noxious brain-twisting drugs, when walls would lean over to talk to me, whole armies of Chinese would march through my bedroom, and my friend Barbara would suddenly appear to me as a Brancusi, shrunk down in her chair, acting as if nothing strange was happening at all, at all.
But those were to come much later, in other settings, in other climes. That jolt of April, 1957 delivered to me at the Barnes foundation was the first hint for me, raised in the western tradition of stoicism and solidity (The Two Cultures, Three Sisters, Newton's Four Laws, The Five-Year Plan) that there was, out there under the canvas of life, something strange and unnerving, waiting to pop out at me when I was least expecting it.
It didn't go away, that elbow. During my last few sessions at the Barnes, I would wander around the gallery, looking at the flat, almost lifeless paintings, then I would go over to visit my lovely Mme. Au Lait, and she would wait a moment, until I was quite ready --- then, zap! --- out it would pop, and her whole body would turn round and plump, ready for me to kiss and hug and nuzzle.
With that bit of hippocrene tucked in my brain, I could the travel around the gallery seeing the world of art quite differently. After my milkmaid fix, I could turn to any painting at the Barnes and suddenly see. I saw what Seurat was cooking up with his thousands of tiny points. I saw what CÚzanne was trying to accomplish with his crazy out-of-balance blocks of bodies and heads and hats, that crazy-quilt stacked-up mountain of people and things that could drive you mad --- drove him mad --- because the whole imbalancing act could so easily drop out of the canvas atop your head. I saw how (and why) Monet's water lilies floated, in relation to each other, in relation to the universe, in relation to me. I even saw what Matisse was running away from --- or towards --- when he tried to squeeze his dancers into a two-dimensional plane that, alas, could not stay in that steady state but actually danced out of the heavens above us. I could even go back in time and see a Titian figure rising majestically, so royally, out of the darkness.
The milkmaid, my sweet loving milkmaid. After my term was up, I only got to see her once more. I came back twenty years after the fact for one of my two permitted visits. It was long after I had left all that she represented: not necessarily her, per se --- the three-dimensional lady --- but The Barnes Foundation, cocktail parties on the Upper East Side, teaching English Literature at stately colleges with heavy deciduous trees, vast lawns where you could hear --- in the heart-breaking lushness of spring --- the song of "cleverclever-cleverclever." That careful, formal, safe way of life --- now so long gone for me.
So I returned one more time, just to make sure the maid was all right, to make sure that nothing had changed. And I am happy to report that the moment I approached her, she came right back into herself --- turning dimensional for me, poking out face and shoulders and breasts and elbow, just to let me know that outside my life (now turned topsy-turvey by the world with its visions --- and me, with my visions), that despite all that, nothing had changed. That the soft milkmaids of yore were always there for me, would always be there, whenever I had need of them.--- L. W. Milam