Portrait to Portrait
My wife and I have often spoken about spending a vacation at home. We would take it easy and enjoy the familiar places that we could reach from the comfort of our house. ‘We’ll sleep late, have a nice breakfast, see friends, a museum, a movie, a drink before dinner…’
About two weeks ago, with our friends Debbie and Michael, we decided to spend the day in Washington where there is always something fun and interesting to see. Michael enjoys driving, and I was happy to ride as a passenger in his comfortable, brand new Acura SUV, and, from time to time, to close my eyes when we crossed on yellow, or got too close to the car ahead of us. We chose as our first destination the Cezanne Portraits exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Michael, who used to work in DC, knows the city well, and he took us down on Cabin John and Clara Barton Parkway (I would have driven on 16thstreet), after which I lost track. Suddenly we were on Constitution Avenue and it was time to park. ‘Maybe we should look for a garage,’ I suggested timidly, concerned that the entire downtown was full with government workers on a weekday. ‘I’m usually lucky,’ Michael retorted, and to my astonishment a parking spot opened instantaneously, as if just for us, behind one of those ubiquitous hotdog stands on the National Mall, less than a hundred yards away from the gallery. Even more astounding, Michael had the exact change for the parking meter — another small miracle.
The Cezanne portraits were enjoyable. The museum wasn’t crowded, and we had time to read the captions, to leisurely look at each painting, and even to retrace our steps to check again one detail or another. It took us a little under an hour and a half to go through the entire exhibit, and by the time we exited, I was not feeling overwhelmed by the sheer number of paintings, like one would be after visiting the Louvre or the Hermitage, when so much beauty is demanding your attention that you become numb, like trying to admire the landscape from a train at 100 miles per hour. What we took with us was the impression of undeniable talent and stories about the rich life and creation of the artist, whose broad brushstrokes and heavy pigment, sometimes applied — they wrote — with the knife, broke many of the norms of the time and directly exposed the spiritual traits of his subjects — father, son, wife, gardener — as shades and blotches on their imperfect faces. Cezanne was accused by his critics of painting without the attention to detail of his contemporaries and predecessors. I found his technique reassuring and common somehow, realizing that his influence had been incorporated by most of the artists that followed him.
With some extra time left — the coins my buddy put into the meter allowed us an additional half hour — and we walked through a beautiful antique furniture exhibit hall. The voluble attendant explained to us the difference between different shades of mahogany, based on the age of the tree, good to know should we ever decide to furnish our living and sleeping quarters with half a million dollar pieces like those stunning chests, tables, chairs and sofas on display.
After that much spiritual fodder, we decided we needed to put something into our bellies, and our friends opted for Union Market. We quickly toured the facility, much more crowded than the museum — we were there for the first time — and, after finding a suitable table for four, I, lacking a single selfish bone in my body, volunteered to sit down to hold the table, while my wife and friends undertook the more responsible task of standing in line and paying for the food and drinks — not to say anything about the distinct advantage they held over me of controlling the final choices, as I found out a few minutes later. I had opted for a Middle Eastern style falafel in a pita, but when the food arrived, and I took my first eager bite, I realized something tasted radically different. ‘Oh, I didn’t like their falafel and I brought you a shawarma. It’s good,’ my wife said in her crystalline voice meant to charm the forest’s fiercest beast. I smiled reassured.
After lunch we decided to go to the DC Arboretum. The weather was picture perfect and the azaleas were in bloom. We walked through silent alleyways boarded by shady trees and abundant flowers in every shade of red, pink, yellow and white one could imagine. Astonished, we learned that there were more azalea varieties than food stands at the Union Market. Eventually we sat on a bench and relaxed talking about senseless minor topics like Cezanne, life in the time of Trump, and the unlikely curtailing of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.
Our next stop was a movie theater in Bethesda. Again, Michael took us through a maze of picturesque and yet untrodden DC streets — to avoid the notorious city traffic and demonstrate the undisputable dominance of Waze over any other GPS known to ordinary man. The movie we were going to see was a Romanian documentary, The Dead Nation, essentially (but not only) about the persecution of Jews in Romania in the years leading to and during World War II. The topic was of interest to the four of us, of which three were Jewish, and two born in Romania.
But first we stopped at a trendy café across the street from the theatre. The tasty snacks and the margarita I ordered were instrumental in later carrying me through the dreariness of the movie, and I don’t mean to say that I regret seeing it. It was a good movie, interesting, accomplished and original, but it was also dreary. Of course, the subject matter warrants a difficult viewing experience. (I, for one, was particularly interested in the topic, since a portion of the novel I am currently writing addresses the time, the people and the events in the movie).
For almost 90 minutes, black and white still photographs of that time period, selected from the amazing collection of a photo studio in the small town of Slobozia, were projected onto the screen. The subjects were local patrons, in peasant garb, sometimes with their farm animals, or dressed in military uniforms. Juxtaposed was a demure voice reading excerpts from a journal that had been kept by Emil Dorian, a Jewish doctor from Bucharest, describing the tragic fate of the Jewish population. From time to time, the voice was interrupted by patriotic hymns and old audio recordings of military propaganda. The subtitles, simplified summaries, lacked the poetry and desperation of the spoken original text. As Romania got entangled deeper into the war, the quality of the photographs deteriorated, and when the doctor’s account revealed the gassing of prisoners in concentration camps the screen went blank. The apparent lack of correlation between the diary and the photographs allowed for multiple interpretations in the minds of the viewers, and justified the subtitle of the movie (Fragments of Parallel Lives). A series of portraits, mostly of young and not so young women, some sensual and some not, were shown towards the end. The women were dressed up for the occasion and, like the women painted by Cezanne, they held flowers, kerchiefs, and other little objects in their hands.
Driving back, Debbie reflected on the gap in time, space and thought between the portraits we saw that morning at the museum and in the film.
At home, we had just enough time left for a nightcap and 30 minutes with Trevor Noah.
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