The Visigoth crowns in the Cluny Museum

visigoth-pearl-studded-cross


For a long time I only knew the Visigoth crowns from a poem by Elinor Wylie, which a friend recently quoted to me:

I cannot give you the Metropolitan Tower;
I cannot give you heaven;
Nor the nine Visigoth crowns in the Cluny Museum;
Nor happiness, even.

When Partner and I were in Paris last October, I noticed that the Cluny Museum was very close to our hotel. We went there on our last full day in Paris. It’s an old building with a Roman foundation; there are lots of old relics from the days when Paris was called Lutetia. As you ascend through the building, you find all manner of other works of art: later Roman, Dark Ages, Holy Roman Empire, medieval France.

And among those works of art are the Visigoth crowns.

They are not big chunky Burger-King style crowns in the Halloween-costume sense. They are delicate circlets encrusted with sapphires and pearls and other polished stones, festooned with slender strands of gold. (I counted only eight of them, and was a little disappointed. Then I learned that the ninth, the crown of King Suinthila, was stolen in 1921 and has never been found again.)

They were never meant to be worn; they were to be hung above a church’s altar, as a symbol of royalty. With a little modification, however, they would look like something an Elf might have worn in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

I want lots of things from museums the world over. I want Suzanne Valadon’s portrait of Erik Satie, which hangs in the Modern Art Museum in Paris (though I’ve never seen it in person). I want the Salomon Ruysdael waterscape that hangs in the RISD Museum only a few blocks from our apartment here. I want Ilya Repin’s gorily tragic “Ivan the Terrible and His Son” from the Tretyakov in Moscow, which would look nice over the sofa. I want a Rembrandt here and a Koons there, and a couple of the Monets from the Metropolitan in New York. Also I might throw in a couple of the Unicorn tapestries from the Cloisters, and I wouldn’t mind the Bayeux Tapestry (if only I had a room big enough to display it in).

But I think I would trade all of the above for one – just one! – of the Visigoth crowns from the Cluny Museum.

Is that so much to ask?


Shameless plug: artist Drew Green

drew green


I have been on Tumblr for a couple of years now. At first it seemed odd and pointless, and not really intended for someone like fifty-plus-year-old me.

 

 

Then I discovered Tumblr members and communities that were friendly to people like me.

 

 

And there I discovered Drew Green.

 

 

He is an Atlanta-based artist and illustrator. He has a number of personal projects, and he makes money in the meantime by doing commissions.

 

 

Here’s how it works: you give him some likenesses – like a photo – and tell him what you’d like. (There’s a fee involved, but it’s surprisingly small, considering the work he’s doing for you.)

 

 

His style is cartoonish, but in the best and most professional sense – like the classic Warner Brothers or Disney illustrators. Here’s one of my favorite examples of his work – a gay couple and their son at Disneyworld:

 

gay couple disney

 

Isn’t that charming?

 

 

I kept seeing him post on Tumblr, and finally last spring I sent him a picture of Partner and me at the top level of the Eiffel Tower in Paris last October:

 

 

us in paris

 

 

He returned to me, almost immediately, a sketch based on the photo. It was shockingly good. I asked for one small change, which he gladly made. A few weeks later, I received this image:

 

Loren and Bill by Drew Green new

 

Both Partner and I are delighted with this. I love showing it to other people. My friend Troy said: “He really caught your sullen expression!” Another said: “I’ll be able to say I knew you before you became a cartoon character!”

 

 

Here’s some information on his work and his commissions. His rates are very reasonable, and he’s a very nice guy, and I love his work.

 

 

(I told you in the title this was a shameless plug.)


 

George Lois asks: Can you do better?

george lois can you do better


George Lois was a real Madison Avenue adman from the 1950s and 1960s, and after. He wrote a book some years ago called DAMN GOOD ADVICE, which is a combination memoir / self-accolade / idea book.

 

 

It’s a good read, and a funny one. I recommend it.

 

 

(Incidentally: if you watch “Mad Men,” you will be interested to know that George Lois is rumored to be the model for Don Draper, the main character in the series. George, in his book, hotly denies it. “And besides,” he says, “I was more attractive!”, and shows this picture:

 

 

george lois don draper

 

 

(So what do you think of someone who says: “That’s not me! And besides, I was more attractive than that!”? Hmm. I know what I think.)

 

 

Anyway: the book is full of good stories.

 

 

This one nags at me frequently:

 

 

A bigwig goes into a bar and says to the bartender, “Give me the best Manhattan you can make.”

 

 

Bartender does so, and gives it to Bigwig. Bigwig tastes it. “It’s good,” he says. “Can you do better?”

 

 

Bartender tries again. This goes on for several repetitions. Finally, after sampling Manhattan #5 or so, Bigwig says: “This is excellent!”, and then he glares at Bartender. “Why the fuck didn’t you make it like this the first time I asked?”

 

 

I have no answer to that.

 

 

What does “best” mean?

 

 

And why don’t we do it all the time?


 

Play

play


I’ve written twice before about Lynda Barry, the inspired writer / artist whom I was privileged to hear speak at the Rhode Island School of Design last spring.

 

 

She talked about so much that I could hardly take it all in. I made notes when I got home, and tried to remember everything, because it was all interesting and funny and new.

 

 

She talked about the way children play. She described a game her brother used to play: he’d draw random dots on a sheet of paper, very methodically; then he’d eat a bowl of cereal, staring at the sheet of paper; then he’d take a pen and play dive-bomber on the sheet of paper, crossing out dots. The last dot won.

 

 

Now that’s play.

 

 

But play is not something you can just do. How many times did your parents say: “Why don’t you just go play?” And did you wonder: “What does that mean?”

 

 

Play is a state of mind. Go think about Lynda Barry’s brother staring at that sheet of paper, eating his cereal, and consider what’s going on in his mind.

 

 

Best story of all: Lynda was in a restaurant, watching a mother and son at a nearby table. Mother was talking on her cellphone. Son, about six years old, was talking to his bacon. “I’m gonna eat you!” he said to his bacon. Then he made the bacon talk: “No no no! Don’t eat me!” This went on for some time. Lynda was spellbound. This was real play.

 

 

Until the mother suddenly saw her son playing with his food. “What are you doing?” she snapped at him.

 

 

The little boy dropped the bacon as if awakened from a dream. “Nothing,” he said.

 

 

Playing. Just playing.

 

 

People don’t play enough. Adults don’t play enough.

 

 

Partner and I play with our stuffed animals: we make them talk, and argue, and fight, and even make out.

 

 

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

 

 

Believe it or not, it’s quite the reverse. I think it helps keep us both sane.


 

Men’s clothing, and magic, and psychometry

dandies


Partner and I went recently to the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, to see a show about men’s clothing.

 

 

Shows likes this – fabric, clothing – usually bore the hell out of me. But this one was amusing, and really memorable. They had one of Mark Twain’s shirts. They had one of Andy Warhol’s terrible shaggy white wigs. They had a dapper trim little tux that had belonged to Fred Astaire, and a very small dress suit belonging to Truman Capote circa 1970. They had a Harris Tweed suit that might or might not have belonged to one of the British royals in the early 20th century.

 

 

I was amused and really gratified to see these things. These were garments worn by famous people, and –

 

 

Well, and what? Why does that make them special?

 

 

Not long ago, a scientist on television showed how people impute mystical properties to things owned by famous people. He showed a group of people a fountain pen that he said had belonged to Albert Einstein, and asked if they wanted to see and hold it, and they all handled it reverently. Then he showed them a sweatshirt and told them it had belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer the serial killer, and asked them if they’d like to handle it or try it on. No one wanted to touch it.

 

 

He lied in both cases. The pen didn’t belong to Einstein, and the shirt didn’t belong to Dahmer.

 

 

But I understand implicitly what those people felt. We feel instinctively that objects take on the properties and personalities of their possessors. There are even psychics who claim that they have the skill of psychometry: the ability to read the histories of objects and their owners.

 

 

I own a Jean Cocteau lithograph – a portrait of Erik Satie – which was once owned by the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. I like to think that I can feel the personalities of all three when I look at it: Cocteau’s imagination and drive, Satie’s whimsy and purity, Shostakovich’s dark humor and power.

 

 

I probably can’t feel any such thing.

 

 

But I like to think I can.


 

Good coloring

good coloring


Probably we all had at least one teacher whom we detested, and who detested us. Mine was Mrs. Velma Himmler, back in the second grade. (I’ve changed her name, fairly obviously.) She was short, and dyspeptic, and mostly angry all the time. I was very timid. We were like matter and antimatter.

Second grade was pretty awful for me. But this most of all stands out in my mind: Velma Himmler let me know in no uncertain terms that I didn’t color pictures correctly. I left white space between the horizon and the blue sky. Velma Himmler told me that this was incorrect and unnatural, and that my coloring was substandard.

I knew, even at the age of seven, that she was full of shit. For one thing, we were in the Pacific Northwest, where there was often a soft layer of white cloud between the horizon and the blue sky (when we were lucky enough to have a blue sky).

And also, more importantly: who the hell was Velma Himmler to tell me how to color my pictures?

Coloring, for children, is a perfectly uninhibited activity. You color what you want, the way you want. Zigzags? Perfect. Solid colors? Also perfect.

Then you get to school, and you discover that there’s a correct way to color your pictures.

I never thought of myself as an artist, so I didn’t take Mrs. Himmler’s criticism very seriously (though I’ve obviously remembered it after all these years).

But later I took up crossstitch. When I was in Morocco, I copied and improvised patterns that I saw in the local rugs – called “kilims” – and did them as crossstitch. I gave all my work away, so I can’t show you any samples, but I can tell you that they were lovely. They used every color. They were geometrical representations of fish, and people, and abstract shapes, just like the original kilims I was copying, and I was able to use all of the psychedelic colors of thread I’d bought over the years.

Good coloring? There’s no such thing. There are all the colors of the rainbow, and more. And shapes.

Kids: when you make art, use all the colors and shapes you know.

Use all of them.


Edward Gorey

Edward_Gorey_-_2a

A while back, Google changed its logo to commemorate Edward Gorey’s 88th birthday.

 

 

Gorey was an illustrator. I still have a number of paperback books from the 1960s and 1970s with covers drawn by Gorey. (His style is unmistakeable: scratchy, mock-Victorian, mock-Gothic.)

 

 

But all the while, quietly, he was publishing his own little books: children’s alphabets, morality stories, horror stories, and limericks.

 

 

If you ever watched “Mystery!” on PBS, you’ve seen Gorey’s work; that wonderful animation at the beginning, with sighing women and huge urns crashing on people’s head. Here it is:

 

 

 

 

Gorey passed away in 2000. He lived on the north shore of Cape Cod, in Yarmouthport, Massachusetts. Partner and I have visited his house; it’s a big rambling structure, with a huge bay laurel tree in the yard.

 

 

Gorey collected things. There are buckets full of doorknobs on display! (Older American readers will remember Aunt Clara, on the TV show “Bewitched,” who always had doorknobs in her purse. It’s a sweet affectation to collect doorknobs. To be sure, they can be very pretty.)

 

 

I snatched a laurel leaf from the yard before we left, and pressed it in my ancient copy of “Amphigorey.”

 

 

Happy 88th, Edward. We miss you.


 

Lynda Barry


I just picked up a book by Lynda Barry, one of my favorite graphic novelists / illustrators / authors. She has published lots of books in which she narrates and illustrates her childhood. They are brilliantly funny, sometimes sad, and always memorable.

Nowadays Ms. Barry tours the country doing a creativity seminar called “Writing the Unthinkable.” She gets people writing and drawing by coaxing them, and urging them, to remember what it was like to be a kid with a pencil or a crayon. Just color. Just write. Just scribble. Don’t worry too much about the result.

The book I picked up, “Picture This,” is a collaboration between Ms. Barry and her husband Kevin Kawula. It’s about creativity, and writing, and drawing. It features strange characters like “the nearsighted monkey” and “the dear chicken,” as well as some of her older creations like Cousin Marlys. It’s full of collage and watercolor. It’s a feast. I was reading it on the University shuttle the other night, turning page after page, and I realized that the student sitting next to me was reading it along with me. That should tell you something.

Anyway: one of the points she makes in this book is that you just need to keep the pen (or brush, or the cursor, or whatever) moving, in contact with the paper. You need to feel that contact. Make spirals. Draw ballerinas. Write nonsense.

Keep moving forward.

Some of it might be terrible.

Some of it might be wonderful.

Keep filling those notebook pages, kids.


The Bayeux Tapestry


We went from Caen to Bayeux on a sunny Sunday afternoon in October. It took less than half an hour by train.

Bayeux is smaller than Caen, and perfectly beautiful. The medieval church towered over the city – we could see it from the train station – but we didn’t want to waste time, so we took a cab directly to the Tapestry Museum.

The Bayeux Tapestry is a miracle. It is a piece of linen seventy-five yards long and maybe a yard high, which (maybe, but probably not, but it’s charming to think so) Queen Matilda and her ladies stitched as a memorial to Matilda’s husband William the Conqueror’s triumph over Harold II of England.

Partner and I were very lucky; very few people were in the museum that day. We were given an audioguide, which normally I hate, but which in this case was invaluable: it narrated the entire tapestry, and kept us moving from panel to panel.

The story is very absorbing: Harold knows that his brother-in-law Edward the Confessor wants William of Normandy to be his successor, and agrees to carry the news to him in France. William is delighted, but suspicious, and makes Harold swear in Caen Cathedral that he’ll recognize William as the successor. Edward dies, and – guess what? – Harold takes the crown. William takes arms and sails across the channel and meets Harold at Hastings. Harold is killed, with an arrow in the eye. William is victorious.

The whole thing is there on the tapestry. But you really have to see it.

The tapestry is gorgeous. The people are beautifully depicted, and there are even captions, and even footnotes: small pictures tucked away under the main story. There’s a naked man about halfway through, and I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be all about, but he’s very amusing.

Later, in the gift shop, I picked up a cute book called “Le tapisserie de Bayeux en bande dessinée”: “The Bayeux Tapestry as a comic strip.”

It’s already a comic strip.

It’s just a very serious comic strip.

The French expression, “bande dessinée,” is better than our “comic strip.” Our expression implies that the content is funny or at least amusing. The French expression just means “drawn strip.”

The story told by the Bayeux Tapestry is wonderful and beautiful, but it’s not one bit funny. It’s a terrible story of a terrible time when people died.

But then again: every time is a terrible time.

Look at our own time: war, strife, death. Now think of making a “comic strip” out of it.

But could you make a bande dessinée of it?

Bien sur.


Montmartre


Our very first day in Paris – though we were both still deathly weary from the plane flight – we went, on foot, up into Montmartre.

(This seemed appropriate to me, since my favorite composer, Erik Satie, used to walk back and forth between le Chat Noir (the Montmartre bar in which he worked as a cabaret pianist) and his home in Arcueil (south of Paris) every day. He drank his way from bar to bar on both trips, and he carried a hammer in his pocket, just in case he was attacked on the way.)

So we climbed Montmartre. It was a brilliantly sunny early-autumn day. Partner knew the way, as he’d visited it several times on Google Earth, and he amazed me; he knew exactly which streets to take.

We ended up in front of Satie’s house on the Rue Cortot:

 

Next door is the Musee de Montmartre. It is a huge rambling old house, in which Renoir worked, and Suzanne Valadon and Maurice Utrillo lived, and Aristide Bruant, and many others.

It is beautiful. All of Paris is laid out at your feet. Look:

Partly we were still dazed and jet-lagged. But partly also we were wandering in an earthly paradise. If I didn’t have a photographic record of it, I’d swear it was a dream.

Two of my friends in Tunis used to call me “Hajj” as a joke; it’s the title of respect given to a man who’s visited the Holy Sites in Mecca.

Well, I’ve earned the title, because Montmartre is my Holy Land.

But don’t call me Hajj.

Call me Monsieur Hajj.


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