a journal of...

A journal among friends...
art, words, home, people and places

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Philly, or the Way the Wind Blows

So, last week, my friend Denise and I took the train at the station half-way between our homes, and rode in style up to Philadelphia.  We stayed with friends Anne and Phil, most gracious, genial hosts, considering that we exceeded the Fish-and-Guests rule by at least one night.  Amtrak at its best is the vehicle I prefer going north, which I do at least five or six times a year, mostly for family reasons. The I-95 corridor is a horror; the eastern and western routes are more scenic and only a little slower, but still a tedious ride through craziness.  This time, the day was beautiful, Amtrak was almost on schedule, and the reason for going was pure pleasure.

Train trips for me are usually solitary events.  I bring my stash of books, sewing or knitting, correspondence to catch up on, etc.  I can get a lot of things done on a day trip by train, that is, after I spend the first hour or so gazing at the passing countryside, counting clotheslines and pastures, old towns the train passes through the center of, and cars and people stopped for our passage.  It's like meditation.

But this time I had a fellow traveler.  So, mostly Denise and I talked, and talked, and talked (snacking in between, both of us having come well provided).  There seemed a lot of catching up to do, but also a lot of planning about what to do in the City.  Denise (I guess she won't mind me saying so) has been thinking about moving there.  Her first visit to Philly last spring was what she called her "honeymoon" phase, enchanted enough to make it her own.  This trip, the post-honeymoon, was meant to explore it in more practical terms.  Staying with Anne and Phil helped enormously, because each morning we left out for neighborhoods unknown from a beautiful and very central part of town, and their help with sights/sites along the way was invaluable.  Phil, particularly, made sure we had a good history, familial, civic, and architectural.

What made the visit even more spectacular was the season.  There is nothing like windy, cool weather in a city of brick sidewalks, tall brownstones and short triplets with Hallowe'en pumpkins and spider webs on stoops, imposing marble and concrete facades with historical and mythical figures sculpted across facades and friezes (I think that's the right term), and modern glass towers,with five or six more of them going up.  As in Aruba, it was the architecture which told the story of the place best, at least to me.  Even on our way to what we believed would be a definite destination, we meandered around streets, circling and snaking to pass another monument, only one or two...or four...blocks beyond our way.

Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods.  Each has its character, as neighborhoods do, each its charms and quirks.

We traipsed up and down Chestnut and Walnut Streets, dropping into a paper store, a tea shop, an old book shop, and the path along the river, the wind ever our companion there.  We toured City Hall, the great Masonic Temple, the Terminal Market.  We wound through the Italian market to taste the once-a-year Betty Cheddar, the fabric warehouses for bargains (I now have new porch cushions and a beautiful piece of sea glass silk to join the other beauties I pick up along the way without immediate purpose).  We lost ourselves on sidestreets and peered curiously into intriguing alleyways.

We admired the Free Library, its spacious airiness, but that was after we had perused the shelves at the Friends bookstore, coming out with even more books to carry home.  We stumbled on the Basilica, obviously recently restored, shining with gold and blue.  We loved searching out the murals, particularly a clever one behind a Sunoco station wall, and its tangent, which illustrated the church once standing there, as if reflected in the buildings' ghostly windows.  The city remembers its past.

Church gone but still present
Like neighbors, people talk, give directions cheerfully, offer advice.  Mid-morning on our first day, we eyed enviously a man at a small market holding a cup of steaming coffee, and asked where he got it.  He told us, and pointed the way.  Then, he turned around and came back to offer a second opinion.  "What kind of coffee do you want?  OK or really good?"  The second, we both assured him.  "Oh, then, instead, go to that place across the street."  And he was right.

Person after person, most of them natives, said to Denise,  "Oh, this is a great city!  You'd like it here."  Cities, of course, change with the generations who come and go, with re-purpose and re-design.  One coffee-shop fellow shrugged wryly when we asked about his neighborhood, where he grew up and still lived.  "You wouldn't have found this place here ten years ago," he said.

Spreading the news in the Marketplace
We walked and walked, six and seven miles a day.  It's easy to do, always something to see and all those parks, from Rittenhouse Square, near our stay, to Washington, Fitler, and Logan Squares, the latter of which opens the way to the elegant, peaceful Barnes Museum park.  There were smaller children's neighborhood parks nearly everywhere we ventured (with coffee shops nearby), so it was easy to consider the usefulness of each area not only for visiting but for living. There were grassy parks, waterside parks, orderly paved-and-landscaped parks, parks for nannies and babies, parks where police in closed gazebos watched, parks where runners trained, where pedestrian commuters plod to work across the river.  There were entertainment parks (we didn't bother with those), ballparks (or those), pocket parks between tall buildings where readers ate lunch in peace.  

Rittenhouse Square
At the end of each day, we were tired, but not undone, and full of adventures to relate to our indulgent hosts.  "You're making me want to visit my own city again," Anne laughed.

Obviously in Denise I had a companion worthy of the voyage, and despite my wanderlust was glad to have her mission as our overall goal.  We weren't, she reminded me, tourists as much as travelers.

By our last days, we had come to two cultural icons with real Philadelphia stories:  the Rosenbach Museum and Library, and the Barnes.

What to say about them?  Neither were experiences language translates well, though the Rosenbach is full of words--a grand (I use that word literally) collection of books by a man who gathered, from childhood, ancient folios to dog-eared paperbacks, classics to commonplace.  Being housed in his home, those rooms full of creaking leather and closely packed titles still seem a personal library.  They are easy to find if one is browsing, well-organized if one is researching.  And yet there are quirks, too, the idiosyncratic part of the collector, I suspect.

The Marianne Moore room, a replica of her own parlor (the Rosenbach owns her papers), was unfortunately closed, for some "issue", our guide was vague. (A woman more at home with administration, she seemed to know the books by hearsay rather than reading; I wonder what the Rosenbachs would have said about that.)  But she knew her Rosenbach history, as did our hosts, so we learned their story as well as that of the collection itself.  On Bloomsday each year, James Joyce's Ulysses is trotted out and read by volunteers; wouldn't that be fun?  Only half tongue-in-cheek, I volunteered for next year.

As for another eccentric collection, Dr. Albert C. Barnes's carefully studied, impeccable and foresighted hobby has afforded us a vision of impressionist and post-modern art that boggles (I'm using that word pretty literally, too, and not unlike the dice game) the eyes.  Both scientist and art lover, his friendship with the Philadelphia artist William Glackens and his pharmaceutical studies in Germany gave him superb vantage points for acquiring art that matters.  Ironically, his growing (and celebrated) antagonism with the Philadelphia Art Societies means that while the works were at first too closely guarded, and then after his death badly kept, it now resides in a building that showers light, calm, and dignity--not to mention access to  the public--to his life's affinity.  Even if it meant crowding 25 to 40 pictures into each small exhibit room built to the sizes of the Barnes house display rooms (the main halls and downstairs library and sitting room are enormous in comparison).  Even if it meant breaking his will.  Which is not an easy thing for me to say without shuddering.

All right, enough lecture.  Here's what I saw, which is the only way to describe a venture into the Barnes. [As photographing wasn't allowed, at risk of copyright infraction (I checked, and I think these are public record), I show a few images, to indicate the varied scope of those rooms.]

The Barnes is modern, spare, and both over-and understated, fitting into the landscape like a fortress and a temple, depending on which way you approach.  It is raining lightly and around the corner from the nearly hidden ticket booth, around a shower of green ground cover and high grasses, a long, low, perfectly rectangular pond of dark gray stones, leading to the entrance, shivers a little.  Small, discreet signs point to the high stone facade and glass doors, both equally squared and angled.  Around (another long) bank of ticket takers, the reception hall opens.  In the near corner is a round table set with event-oriented decor; in front of it, eyeing the settings, perhaps for a wedding, are a mother and daughter and a persuading staff person.  But that's only a miniscule part of the room.  At first it seems as if we will never find the way to the paintings across this cloud-ceilinged immensity, but there is a cluster of staff at a center door, and we follow them in.  And lo, the first room.

Each room is numbered, so the comb-like nests can be traversed without confusion.  Otherwise, the paintings themselves draw us into confusion, as our eyes slip haphazardly from one to the other, hardly able to take in what's there.  Only a few large works own their own space.

What's fun about these exhibits, particularly in view of the crowding, is the enticement they offer to make a game of viewing them.  There is no particular order apparent to the way they are placed.  Not, as brochures and room-monitors told us, by chronology or painter or period or country, or subject or theme or anything.  They are simply hung as Barnes hung them, the way he saw them relating to one another.  That's Game One:  what did he have in mind?  Denise and I began to notice patterns in placement, color, even depth, not always repeated but often enough.  More interesting were sometimes wildly diverse companions on a wall which spun a witty tale of  human folly or perversity.

No, we didn't tire of the Cezannes and Matisses, and found artists we hadn't known to appreciate.  We spent four hours that day, but for the sake of those narratives, I would visit again, because I am convinced that Barnes' eye saw more than design or value in his collection.  I think he was a storyteller, too, using his art as his tablet.

Interestingly, the question of beauty...what makes art beautiful?...had come up at breakfast that morning, after Anne's evening group, reading the classical philosophers, had rather hotly debated the issue.  It was no surprise to find it echoing throughout our stroll through the Barnes.  I remembered Athena's judgment of Arachnea:  no matter the expert skill, there is no beauty without lending the subject its dignity.  So much can be answered that way.

I made up Game Two just to get through the enormity of so much imposing (and some not so imposing) art at once.  As a way of centering myself, in each room, I'd look around before I left and figure out which one I would take home.  Don't laugh!  It was, in fact, harder than you think. Appreciating all those famous pieces is one thing.  Willing to make one at home on your own walls is another.  I rarely came away from a room having to decide between two.  Mostly I knew the one.

     This one, for instance.

Walking through the Barnes--and the Rosenbach, as well--out of the weather's wind but into the breath of its creator's wonderland reminded me of the way we personalize art, the way we take to heart one book, or one painting, and then another and another, and fit them snugly into our lives.  Whatever our reason for acquiring, keeping, holding them dear, they become us in a way.  Some of us are lucky enough to share that with the world.  I thank Philadelphia for offering us that.

1 comment: