If you know me, you understand that I’m really an uncouth redneck. I attended a hillbilly school in Appalachia reached by dirt roads in pickup trucks. It’s where I picked up an affinity for cheap beer, bottle rockets, college football, and long road trips to see loud rock bands. I speak only one language (and not very well), and was a delinquent before that word was used to describe scruffy, trouble-making youth. I was a mediocre student who cared more about chemistry outside of the classroom than inside of it.
So what the heck was I doing last weekend at the ballet and the Barnes Foundation?
I have no idea. All I know is that you get stared at a lot if you laugh at Soutine paintings. And men in tights are kind of interesting to watch, but women in tights are a revelation.
Breathe deep and go with me, ok? I’m not good at writing about highbrow culture because it’s such unfamiliar ground. So for your safety, make sure the seat guard is in place and don’t put your hands outside of the car while it’s moving. Ready? Here we go:
The ballet. Years ago, I was invited to see a ballet in DC, and my host had acquired extremely expensive seats – front and center. I fell asleep. That’s a true story. I had to move from DC to Philly because of that one incident. But I’ve mellowed with age, and there I was last weekend watching Don Quixote. And I liked it. And I stayed awake!
Now, let’s qualify that, ok? The Stones didn’t write It’s Only Don Quixote But I Like It. I’m not going back to the ballet every week like I do to rock clubs. But that was one good ballet. The principal male dancers – I don’t know what you call a male ballerina – are great athletes that make it look easy when it’s actually hard as hell. And the ballerinas, doing all kinds of crazy stuff in toe shoes and making it look graceful and elegant, well, that’s incredible!
Plus, as you can see, Don Quixote is a dancing marathon. There aren’t a lot of breaks and it’s nonstop action. Sure, the story is dumb, but so am I, so we make a good pair. Best of all, you get to watch all of this in one of Philly’s architectural treasures, the restored and fabulous Academy of Music. Sure, there are insufferable bores in the seats all around you, but how is that different from being at a Billy Joel concert?
They actually had the temerity to stare at me suspiciously because someone yelled out “I smell Hokie,” but they couldn’t decide if that scent was actually coming from me since I wasn’t dressed fully in camouflage and I had the good sense not to put a pinch of Copenhagen between my cheek and gum this one time. Yes, I was a fish out of water, but didn’t mammals evolve from fish who developed the capacity to obtain oxygen from air? That’s me, Mr. Evolution.
As if that feint toward civilization wasn’t enough for BRP, the next day I found myself at the Barnes Foundation, Philly’s stunning pocket museum of impressionist and modern paintings. I got off to a rocky start because of that damn Soutine. I mean, what was that guy thinking? His portraits are hideous, ugly, dreadful renderings of poor souls who probably thought that they were getting a portrait that they could hang in the hallway of their home, not a poster featuring them as the villain in the next slasher film coming out of Hollywood. Soutine inadvertently outdid Heironymus Bosch.
One painting, probably of a wealthy friend of Soutine, looks like a revolting portrait of Porky Pig, as if you took that pop cartoon icon and deliberately turned him into a monstrous criminal. It’s freakin’ true. You go from room to room at the Barnes, and if you’re an undereducated roughian like me, all you see is another gruesome Soutine painting that makes you laugh, point and then look for a puke bucket. Then red lights begin to flash, uniformed guards start circling, and the universal Hokie Hooligan Alert starts to roar. Hey, officer, I was just laughing at this crap, ok? Take a look and tell me I’m not right. Yup, I thought you might agree!
And then you spy the Cezanne’s, the Modigliani’s and, best of all, the Matisse’s. And when staring at those babies, you decide, then and there, that the redneck life is overrated and taking a shower every day is maybe a nice social touch (but hey, let’s not get carried away with the tooth brushing).
Yes, the Barnes is stuffed with Renoirs, and some of them are even great, but for me, I’ll take the aforementioned trio. I know, I know, there are some fantastic Van Gogh’s in there, and who doesn’t like Vincent (answer: Idiots!). But for me, the highlights of the Barnes are really the massive collection of paintings by Cezanne, Modigliani and Matisse.
Let’s start with Cezanne. I didn’t take a picture of every Cezanne painting in the joint, but here are some excellent examples of his greatness:
What do I like? First, I love the subjects. Cezanne must have been the character study for the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You remember, right? He keeps constructing the same monolith (which turns out to be Devil’s Tower) over and over. Cezanne had the same obsession with Mt. Sainte Victoire just outside of Aix in Provence. He painted that mountain so many times it’s ridiculous. But he also painted the woods and allees of trees in southern France. If you’ve ever been to that part of the world, and you should go if you haven’t, these paintings take you right back there. Moreover, they’re challenging works of art, sort of like Bach or Mahler are for classical music lovers. Well worth the challenge, they show intriguing combinations of light, color, perspective and even precursors of later art movements like cubism. Yet, they still remain pictures of familiar objects that you can look at and immediately grasp what they are. I really love these Cezanne’s.
Then there is Modigliani. When you’re strolling the Barnes, they aren’t all clustered together, but I did you a favor and put a bunch in the same space. Look at them: the elongated necks and heads, stretched out like those fun-house mirrors, but spooky with the mostly gray eyes. The eyes! They always intrigue me and freak me out, too. Eyes say so much in non-verbal human communication. They emote, they sparkle, they fire, they seduce, they weep, they smile. When you see a face that has nothing but gray blank spaces for the eyes, what are you supposed to think? I don’t know, but I realize that I start to put my own interpretations on the various portraits. And then, just when I’m beginning to say, OK Modigliani, show me these crazy humans, he goes and messes with trees. Phew, that’s heavy.
Matisse. Ridiculed in his day like he was Protomartyr, he is one of my very favorite artists ever. I love the color palette he uses, the leap from traditional painting to the modern and interpretive, the introspective subject matters, and the familiar subjects of art turned on their heads. The color palette is fantastic – bright colors that pop jumping out from heavy black outlines around eyes and facial features. They still look fresh to me as though they were just created this year rather than 100 years ago. What’s that? You’re right, I didn’t include the big, attention grabbing Matisse’s for which the Barnes is rightly known for. I wanted you to look at something not as big and splashy but, in my mind, every bit as compelling. I love these paintings.
So there you have it. A hillbilly goes to the big city and actually appreciates it. You know what I want to see next? An opera! Hahaha, that’s b.s., I had you going with that right? Actually, I’ve been to the opera a few times and while I’m supposed to say that the human instrument is the most expressive of all, I’m not gonna say it because I don’t agree. And the stories are Pinhead dumb – and like the Ramones, I don’t wanna be a pinhead no more. But I will say that if you get to see the Pavaroti documentary that it’s worth a couple hours of your life – a very captivating story indeed.
I’ll be back to the rock in sweaty beer-soaked bars soon. Thanks for suffering with me through this one. And I promise: no opera.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.