Monday, June 6, 2011

There are only 26 days left to see a wonderful, wonderful exhibit at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art entitled 'Rooms With a View: The Open Window in the 19th Century.' I say it's wonderful because this is one of those compact shows -- with only about 40 paintings and drawings -- that is not overwhelming, where you can stand for a considerable amount of time in front of each work and leave feeling you know each one quite well. It's a gem of a show, and if you live in the New York area, I encourage you to see it before it closes on July 4th!

I admit I was smitten with the title because I have a special fondness for pictures of open windows. It began when I saw Matisse's painting of an open window in Collioure, a Mediterranean coastal town in the Roussillon region of France near the Spanish border (and one of my most favorite places on earth). Starting with a large, framed poster of this painting, I went on to collect other open window paintings, and now I have a collection of six others on one wall of my bedroom. More than one of them is by Matisse, unsurprisingly as the subject of a recent book that I love attests: Henri Matisse: Rooms With a View (Shirley Neilsen Blum, Monacelli Press, 2010).

The Met's exhibit is jammed with some hugely appealing views, a number of them Italian (though none that are Tuscan or Umbrian). Among the featured artists are some well known names and others who are very much less so, including Caspar David Friedrich (that's his 'Woman at the Window' above), Georg Friedrich Kersting, Vermeer, Louise-Adeone Drolling, Adolph Menzel, Giovanni Battista de Gubernatis, Francois-Marius Granet, Massimo d'Azeglio, Johan Christian Dahl, and Fyodor Petrovich Tolstoy (a relative of the novelist). The accompanying catalog is written by Sabine Rewald (Jacques and Natasha Gelman Curator, Department of Nineteenth-Century, Modern, and Contemporary Art at the Met; she's also the daughter of legendary art historian John Rewald, author of a number of books including the notable History of Impressionism (1946) and Post-Impressionism From Van Gogh to Gauguin, 1956) and is very much worth reading if you are unable to get to the exhibit.

Rewald writes that the Romantic painters found in the motif of the open window "a potent symbol for the experience of standing on the threshold between an interior and the outside world. The juxtaposition of the close familiarity of a room and the uncertain, often idealized vision of what lies beyond was immediately recognized as a metaphor for unfulfilled longing, as evoked in the words of the Romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg; 1772-1801): "Everything at a distance turns into poetry: distant mountains, distant people, distant events; all become Romantic."

While Rewald acknowledges that the title of this show is borrowed from E. M. Forster's 1908 novel A Room With a View, she admits the inspiration for it is an essay entitled 'The Open Window and the Storm-Tossed Boat: An Essay in the Iconography of Romanticism' by art historian Lorenz Eitner (Art Bulletin, 1955). I have tried in vain to find this essay online, but I certainly haven't given up the search and I'll report back when I've found it.

After I saw this exhibit, I decided to re-read Forster's novel, which I hadn't read for many, many years. I turned to a newer edition than the one I first read, a Penguin Classics paperback with an Introduction by Malcolm Bradbury (2000). I learned from Bradbury that Forster, who died at the age of 90 in 1970, lived through the late years of the Victorian age, two world wars, the Cold War, Vietnam protests, and Richard Nixon, which is quite a lot of history for one person to have experienced. I also learned that though Where Angels Fear to Tread was published first, A Room with a View was really his first Italian novel as he'd been working on it previously and then laid it aside to write two other works. Bradbury also mentions an essay Forster wrote in 1958 entitled 'A View Without a Room,' another essay I have been unable to find online (I did find a reference to a rare printed quarto of the essay but it's available for several hundred dollars).

I'm pleased to say that I loved the novel again, even more than I did the first time. Such memorable characters! Who can forget Lucy Honeychurch, Miss Lavish, Mr. Beebe, Cecil, the Miss Alans, 'In Santa Croce With No Baedeker,' and Miss Bartlett saying, "A view? Oh, a view! How delightful a view is!' And I found myself suddenly overcome by the desire to always reserve a room with a view on future trips. It's not that I haven't long appreciated the value of a view, but on many occasions I've been shown lovely rooms without a view and I've accepted them, happily. But here's the thing of it: a view adds one more dimension to immersion, which is what I ultimately celebrate in each of my books. Any detail that makes travelers feel like they are positively in their destination and nowhere else is what I'm after, and a view achieves this. Yes, true, views always cost more, so the likelihood is that I (and you, too perhaps) won't be able to enjoy them from a hotel window very often; but I will make a great effort to do so in the future.

If you've read A Room With a View you may recall that the Miss Alans did make their trip to Greece and Constantinople, and in fact they went around the world. "The rest of us," writes Forster, "must be contented with a fair, but a less arduous, goal. Italiam petimus." We seek Italy. Indeed, I certainly do, and I presume you do on occasion as well. Here's to seeking and finding rooms with views -- Italian or others -- in our future.

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