Plays that deal with visual art and art making can be problematic. I remember seeing La Bohème as a child and already being cognizant that the bohemian lifestyle portrayed in the opera was mythic, a well used trope that only people like my father believed was real. (He tried to discourage me from pursuing my life as an artist with this warning: “All artists are immoral. They sleep with their models. It is not a career for anyone with standards.” Did I miss that class in art school?)
My friend Benny Sato Ambush recently sent me a copy of David Hare’s, The Bay at Nice. This small jewel of a play (a “chamber piece” in Campbell Robertson’s words) takes place in a museum in Leningrad during the Communist era. Valentina, once a young and wild art student in Paris who studied briefly with Matisse, has been asked by the museum curator to authenticate a painting that is purportedly by Matisse. No longer young, idealistic or even nice, Valentina’s character owns most of the performing space in this piece (Estelle Parsons and Irene Worth played the part in productions in London and Hartford.) We meet Valentina’s daughter Sophie and grope through the difficult life decisions she is facing in her relationship with her mother, her husband, her lover and a totalitarian government. There’s plenty to chew on. And as I told Benny, Hare captures an essence of visual art that does not feel forced or theatricized. Several passages are memorable and feel authentic to me. This isn’t your all purpose gaggle of bohemian wannabees singing, drinking and eating.
A few samplings:
Valentina: Picasso lived in a house so ugly—a great champagne millionaire’s Gothic mansion with turrets—that all his friends said ‘My God, how can you abide such a place?’ He said, ‘You are all prisoners of taste. Great artists love everything. There is no such thing as ugliness.’ He would kick the walls with his little sandalled foot and say, ‘They’re solid. What more do you want?’
The Museum Assistant: All art is loot. Who should own it? I shouldn’t say this, but there isn’t much justice in these things. If we examined the process whereby everything o these walls as acquired…we should have bare walls.
Sophia: Down here below you, people are forced to be ridiculous. Yes, We lead ridiculous lives. doing ridiculous things, which lack taste. Like working for a living. For organizations which have ridiculous names. ‘Oh, I’m from the Department of Highway Cleansing.’ “Oh, I’m Vegetation Officer in Minsk.’ that’s work. its called making a living. Mother, it involves silly names and unspeakable people—the mathematics teacher, for me to work beside her, to have lunch, to watch her pick her dirty grey hair from the soup, it’s torture, I’d rather lodge beside an open drain. But that’s how people live. We have to. We scrabble about in the real world. Because we don’t sit thinking all day about art.
Valentina (on the topic of Matisse): He taught us rules. He believed in them. not Renaissance rules. Those he was very against. He disliked Leonardo. Because of all that measuring. he said that was when art began to go wrong. When it became obsessed with measuring. Trying to establish how things work. It doesn’t matter how they work. You can’t see with a caliper. Of course there were rules. he was a classicist. This is what no one understood. He disliked in modern painting the way one part is emphasized—the nose, or the foot, or the breast. He hated this distortion. He said you should always aim for the whole. Remember your first impression and stick to it. Balance nature and your view. Don’t let your view run away of its own accord. For everything he did there was always a reason…
He said you should think of the body as an architect does. The foot is a bridge. Arms are like rolls of clay. Forearms are like ropes, since they can be knotted and twisted. in drawing a head never leave out the ear. Adjust the different parts to each other. Each is dissimilar and yet must add to the whole. A tree is like a human body. A body is like a cathedral.