Fulbright riffs, 1991 — day 59, Saturday July 27th

Meet Marya at Newark Station around 10 to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, stopping off at the Union Square green market first to admire the sunflowers and piles of fresh herbs (I hear ‘errbs).

On the steps of the Met

The Met on 5th Avenue announces its encyclopaedic mission (experience 5000 years of art from around the world) in typical 19th-century style: a long flight of wide stone steps (Gradus ad Parnassum) to a facade of Graeco-Roman pillars, the portal to wisdom and enlightenment. For most people, especially in clement weather, the steps allow for recuperation from the numinous experiences within, the chance to regard something more mundane.

While Marya goes to study Manet’s Boating for her exam, I make for the collections one is less likely to see in European galleries, such as South American and Pacific. I am instantly terrified by the totems and emblems of the Asmat of Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea) who regarded death in any form as unnatural and therefore essential to redress by going off and killing someone else. I took some photos of these extraordinary carvings, including a jovially sinister slit gong from the New Hebrides.

Left: New Hebrides gong. Right: Asmat Bis poles, carved from mangrove wood to commemorate the lives of important individuals (usually warriors), and serving as a promise that their deaths will be avenged.

Unfortunately, so we hear, Michael Rockefeller, who collected these items for the Met, ended up on the Asmat dinner menu, though this has never been proved. I am relieved to find the Nasca (or Nazca) collections from Peru are humorous by comparison.

After admiring modern American painters, such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Florine Steffheimer (brightly-coloured showbiz collages) I rejoin Marya who takes me to see the painting she’s been studying. The American-born impressionist painter, Mary Cassatt considered Boating to be the “last word in painting”. Marya is intent on trying to explain why in her thesis.

Manet’s Boating (The Met)

We visit the special Indonesia exhibition, mostly sacred items from temples, but continue quickly to the Heinz Berggruen collection of ninety Paul Klee paintings, pausing only to admire Marisol’s extraordinary wooden sculpture Self portrait looking at the Last Supper.

We pile on the day’s artful stimulation by visiting the Frick Collection, one of the most valuable private collections in America and still displayed in the house as originally intended. [From http://www.frick.org/about: The collection was assembled by the Pittsburgh industrialist Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919) and is housed in his former residence on Fifth Avenue. One of New York City’s few remaining Gilded Age mansions, it provides a tranquil environment for visitors to experience masterpieces by artists such as Bellini, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Gainsborough, Goya, and Whistler. The museum opened in 1935 and has continued to acquire works of art since Mr. Frick’s death.] I am surprised and amazed to find so many paintings here by El Greco, Turner, Goya and Reynolds, not to mention earlier masterpieces by Fra Filippo Lippi. The furniture and furnishings are also fabulous, deployed in rooms the surround a cool interior oasis of water and plants.

Interior garden at the Frick

We take a seat in the interior garden and Marya (who is a Hungarian-speaker from the Transylvanian border region of Rumania) tells me, in greater detail than before, about how she escaped from Rumania. The Hungarian minority in Rumania has frequently been disadvantaged and even persecuted. She had been a respected teacher of fine art in a provincial city but on account of her wealthy family background (her father was a lawyer, her grandfather an art historian) the authorities grew suspicious about her politics: she had not joined The Party. They told her that she would have to be re-educated. As she knew of people who had been tortured for holding out, she contemplated suicide. But instead, she fled as quickly as she could with a Danish visa (apparently the Rumanian authorities didn’t know Denmark was in the West!), divorced her hesitant husband and ended up in a German refugee camp until the opportunity arose to start anew in America. One of her friends at that time was smuggled out inside a fridge. Meanwhile, the family house and all its beautiful furnishings were confiscated. Post-Ceausescu, in less authoritarian times, she is helping her mother negotiate their return and has plans to return to Europe because living in America as an East European refugee has its own set of problems. There are no jobs and Eastern Europeans are regarded as uncultured primitives.

Central Park is close by. It’s popular at this time of day but the part we visit is in a bit of a mess. I encounter abandoned running shoes by the side of the path.

I drop Marya off at Penn Station and continue to Hoboken, crashing out back in my room in Maplewood soon after 9pm. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day too.