Doing the Tarantella at the Barnes FoundationViolette de Mazia was a study. She had a hawk-like face, sharp nose, thin-lipped mouth. Her eyes were hidden behind green tinted glasses. She dressed like a flamenco dancer, but only on the day that she did the Beethoven-Cézanne number did she dance like a flamenca.
De Mazia was curator, chief instructor, and watchdog at the Barnes Foundation, just outside Philadelphia. Albert Coombs Barnes had grown rich on Argyrol --- a noxious black substance that was, at the time, squirted in the eyes of all new-born babies to prevent pink eye. In the early part of the century, he grew rich enough to collect fine art.
His taste was impeccable. At a time when people were mocking the Impressionists, he bought them up with a vengeance. In the 1950s, when I first came to the Barnes Foundation, there were hundreds of originals: some 180 Renoirs, 70 Cézannes, 60 Matisses --- and countless Van Goghs, Modiglianis, Soutines, Serauts, Manets, Monets, Picassos and Rousseaus. Plus a smattering of the older masters, the likes of Titian, Tintoretto, David, El Greco.
It was said that once, in 1924, after he had put together the major part of his collection, Barnes invited the Philadelphia press to the opening of his gallery just outside the city, in Marion. It is said that the press came, didn't stay long, went away, and wrote badly about his taste and his collection. Barnes, definitely a cranky eccentric, immediately closed the doors of the great white marble two-story complex, only allowing friends to view his astounding collection --- and the occasional drunk he picked up on the streets.
A short time later, however, he and his companion, Violette de Mazia, opened the door to specially picked students. They used the collection as bait to bring students to see art the way they did. That is --- to ignore art history, ignore the artist's life, ignore criticism but, rather, to look at the paintings as if they were in a vacuum. Concentrate on the form, the color, the patterns, the style. To hell with Van Gogh's ear, Rousseau's boring weekday job, Gaugin's adventures in the South Seas, Seurat's suicide. The painting itself was the question, and the painting was the answer. It was not unlike "The New Criticism" they were teaching us in college: ignore the artist, concentrate on the art.
I was studying at Haverford, and one of our "electives" was the course at the Barnes Foundation. The rules were simple. Classes each Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 5:30 or so. No visitors --- just us students. No cameras. The gallery opened at 1 p.m. so we could come in early to go through the collection on display --- 150 to 200 paintings, drawings, African sculptures and Pennsylvania Dutch art. Occasionally we were required to attend an extra session on Fridays.
Classes ran from October to May, with time out for Christmas and Easter. If you missed more than two sessions without a medical excuse, you were out. No exceptions. Once we graduated (no ceremony), we were allowed --- during the course of our lives --- to visit twice more.
The folding chairs were hard. There was but one break. Thus, from 2 to 3:45, and 4 to 5:30 --- for almost three hours --- we were in the thrall of Violette de Mazia, in her dark flamenco-style dress and tinted glasses and hair pulled back into a severe knot.
I wish I could report to you that she was a scintillating teacher, surrounded as she was by this stunning collection. Alas, it just wasn't so. Now, years later, I can barely remember what she said. I know that, for each session, she would concentrate on two or three paintings, speaking of them, as I have said, in an ahistorical fashion. There were occasional diversions into the life and works of the late Dr. Barnes.
I also know that most of the forty of us students were bored to death. Heads would droop, people would fall asleep, inadvertently catch themselves as they began to tumble from their seats. Nothing stopped Violette's heavily accented, monochromatic ramblings.
I also remember why I kept coming back. Imagine a classroom in which to the left of you is a Renoir nude, and next to that a Braque study and Picasso's Acrobat and Young Harlequins. Right above where Violette was declaiming was the huge and lush La Grande Jatte by Seurat --- with a Gauguin flanking it to the right, a Modigliani to the left.
On the opposite wall was a late Van Gogh --- the countryside at Arles --- with a Manet to one side, a Courbet to the other. There was a smaller Titian in the corner, and next to that, one of Soutine's hung-up dog carcasses. By the door was a Degas ballet dancer, and just outside the door, in the hallway, a Lipchitz sculpture. In the arches of the main studio, over the high windows, Matisse had come, in person, by invitation of Dr. Barnes, and left behind a wall of merry dancing figures.
All the paintings were closely hung, sometimes vertically stacked three or four high. All were original, original, and were there for us to observe intimately, for as long as we wished. In those days, there were no barriers, no glass panes, no guards --- nothing between you and some of the most delicious plastic art in the world.
In between the paintings, on walls covered with what looked to be burlap were hung traditional rustic Pennsylvania Dutch hardware --- locks and bolts and hinges and clasps and decorative figures. In the other rooms one would find more of the usual (the usual!) Degas, Matisse, Gauguin, Monet, Pissarro, Sisley, Van Gogh, Cassatt, and, scattered here and there, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture, desks and chairs and cabinets. There was no artificial light, even on the darkest days.
When we left at the end of the day, we were pooped. I can assure you, it wasn't the hard seats, or the heavily accented drone of Violette. It was the plethora of pure artistry. The swirl of one of Renoir's gorgeous lush ladies; the harsh dark angles of one of Cézanne's landscapes; the gentleness of a Matisse form; the thousands of tiny points in Seurat; the soft waters of Monet; the grotesquery of a bloody Soutine.
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The tale I am telling you now is one of epiphany. That's the word we used in the '50s. It came straight out of Joyce, and it had to do with a sudden violent explosion of insight, the magic aha! moment. If we are lucky, the theory goes, we might have three or four epiphanies in our lifetime. The Barnes Foundation was kind enough to give me one of the best.
It didn't come from Violette de Mazia --- at least not directly. Most of her words were over my head, except during those few times she turned out to be a bit inspirational --- those times when, for instance, she did the Beethoven-Cézanne Tarantella.
That day, they seated us facing the Card Players. There was an old --- I mean antique --- record player on a table to one side. For an hour or so, de Mazia told us that there was a connection between the arts. I can't remember for the life of me what she said, but I can remember the moment when she started to dance. That was when she became the flamenco dancer I had always imagined her to be. She cranked up the Victrola, and put on an old 78 rpm disc, Beethoven's Fifth. The record was old, the sound was scratchy.
She turned and started dancing in front of the Cézanne. She banged her fist at the painting --- close, very close to the canvas. Dah-dah-dah-DUMM. Bring down the fist, three times near the heads of the card players, the fourth time on a shadow-head in the background. Dah-dah-dah-DUMM. Hit at three hanging smoking pipes, then another shadow. Dah-dah-dah-DUMM. The legs of the table, and the legs of the players. Dah-dah-dah-DUMM. The cards on the table, then the glass off to the side. Repeated patterns of one-two-three-FOUR.
Even as I sit here I can see the back of a suddenly swiftly moving Violette, back and forth in her swirling dress in front of that magnificient painting, with that magnificient --- albeit scratchy --- music. She'd be doing the dance of life, the supreme dance of art, a dance with the ghost of Barnes --- dancing the vision of all of us --- swirling skirt, hair beginning to unravel, twirling in the caught passion now finally coming unhinged in the great work of artistic vision --- passion carefully caught on canvas, between the frames, hung dying on the walls.
I wish I could tell you that my Moment of Truth came on that day, Violette in her tarantella --- but, no, that wasn't it. It came, rather, a couple of months later, on a fecund, warm day in April, toward the end of my last year --- just before I was to leave college and the Main Line and art and Meaningful Study and the frozen card players and Beethoven's Fifth --- to go off in a far different direction from what we then referred to as The Fine Arts.
There was something about Violette de Mazia that I liked, and it had nothing to do with the caves of Andalusia, or her tinted glasses. Too, there must have been something about me that she liked. For I came to her once before the end of the class and asked her for the unthinkable --- and she said yes.
My sister was living in the art maelstrom of New York City at the time. She was friends with Ad Reinhardt and several others in his circle. She was as intrigued by the Barnes as I was. Would it be possible for her to come down some day and view the collection? Violette thought about it for a moment --- no more --- and said, "The two of you can come in at eleven-thirty a week from today. But she has to leave at one-thirty. You'll stay on for the class." That was it.
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You know about April, lush springtime on the Philadelphia Main Line. You know what it's like when the sun is out, not burning but --- more --- glowing, the grass and trees and bushes so touched with new life that the whole world is infected with the joy of it, the joy of living, the joy of being alive, being in the midst of all that fecundity. In those days, the lawn around that classic marble building was cut with a hand-powered lawnmower. No noisy gas-powered machine, no, just a machine that went --- as Joyce would have it --- "cleverclevercleverclever." With the heady smell of cut grass, my sister Joy and I arrive at the Foundation. Chris --- Violette's assistant --- lets us in the huge front door. The brilliant sunshine is lighting up the galleries to a fare-thee-well.
My sister and I begin in the main studio, with the card players. I whisper to her about the Beethoven, and the dance. My sister --- who had studied with Martha Graham --- is less entranced by the card players than she is by the other, more colorful dance above --- the mural by Matisse, in the arches above the main studio.
We move into the other rooms. Conversation between us dies out. When one is faced with such a trove, words suddenly seem less than necessary. An occasional indrawn breath, or sigh. What must it be like to arrive for the first time in Granada and before you, at sunrise, is the Alhambra; to be in Paris, wandering through the Tuileries in late summer; to arrive in India and come upon the Taj Mahal, spread out before you, on a full-moon night? At those times words would seem, as William Burroughs said, a virus from outer space.
I had told my sister about the collection but she, as can be expected, is overwhelmed by it. Having fifteen or twenty art works of such wonder in each room: she is beside me beside herself.
By the time she leaves, we are both quite weary. We'll meet later on, because Violette has asked us over to her house for tea at six --- I told you she liked me --- where we will see yet another Renoir hanging over the davenport, a Picasso in the dining room, and, in the hallway to the bathroom, the Modigliani Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne --- head tilted, lips pursed; one that made me think, for once in my life, about a lifetime career in grand larceny.
Meanwhile, loyal student that I am, I stay on for the class, but by four in the afternoon I am developing the Blind Staggers. Such art for such a long time does funny things to the brain. De Mazia's words are but a dull rattling in the brainbag inside what's left of my head. Sitting there on my hard bench in the main studio, I've become a still-life with pictures. I glance for the hundredth time at the side wall.
It's a simple one, that Renoir. From his middle period, I'd guess. Not too many blue-greens, not too much rosiness: just enough of each. He knows form now, and the appropriate swirls. It was probably done around 1905 --- well before arthritis forced him to use the brushes tied to his wrists, making the fat reds and yellows clump up on the canvas.
The old reprobate. It's a close-up of a plump, young, naked milkmaid --- they were all milkmaids, weren't they? --- with her swirl of burnished hair, the round, almost too-round face, the full shoulders, the gentle upturned young breasts, the crossed arms, the elbow...the elbow.
We didn't do drugs in those days. Those of us in the East Coast Educational Establishment were not comfortable with delusions. Our strongest mind-expander was a pack of Kents with the Micronite filter --- and a few snifters of Courvoisier. Outside of occasional throw-up falling-down drunk weekends, we kept ourselves under tight control. But something happened to me that day in that room that was beyond exploding flowers and ten thousand points of light and a yellow sun etched in an agate sky.
Remember, my mind had been deconstructed by five hours in art heaven. It's the only reason I can think of --- if reason is to be said to exist at all at such times --- for my vision to do such funny things. Suddenly my milkmaid's roseate elbow was protruding out of the canvas, hanging out over the decorative gilt frame (where it certainly didn't belong). A three-dimensional young woman, inside a two-dimensional canvas.
I looked away, then looked back. She was safely back in the frame again. But, then --- after a moment --- that damned elbow popped out at me again.
I kept looking away, then looking back --- and she, my lusty young milkmaid, would do her trick again, and again, and again. I was blind.
Well, that's my revelation. I didn't even talk about it when we met at Violette's for polite tea and crumpets. It certainly isn't much when we compare it to the revelations that were to come to me later in life --- the visions of peyote or other noxious brain-twisting drugs, when walls would lean over to talk to me, whole armies of Chinese would march through my bedroom, and my friend Barbara would suddenly appear to me as a Brancusi, shrunk down in her chair, acting as if nothing strange was happening at all, at all.
But those were to come much later, in other settings, in other climes. That jolt of April 1957 delivered to me at the Barnes foundation was the first hint for me, raised in the Western tradition of stoicism and solidity (The Two Cultures, Three Sisters, Newton's Four Laws, The Five-Year Plan) that there was, out there under the canvas of life, something strange and unnerving, waiting to pop out at me when I was least expecting it.
It didn't go away, that elbow. During my last few sessions at the Barnes, I would wander around the gallery, looking at the flat, almost lifeless paintings, then I would go over to visit my lovely Mme. Au Lait, and she would wait a moment, until I was quite ready, then - - - zap! --- out it would pop, and her whole body would turn round and plump, ready for me to kiss and hug and nuzzle.
With that bit of Hippocrene tucked in my brain, I could the travel around the gallery seeing the world of art quite differently. After my milkmaid fix, I could turn to any painting at the Barnes and suddenly see. I saw what Seurat was cooking up with his thousands of tiny points. I saw what Cézanne was trying to accomplish with his crazy out-of-balance blocks of bodies and heads and hats, that crazy-quilt stacked-up mountain of people and things that could drive you mad --- drove him mad --- because the whole imbalancing act could so easily drop out of the canvas atop your head. I saw how (and why) Monet's water lilies floated, in relation to each other, in relation to the universe, in relation to me. I even saw what Matisse was running away from --- or toward --- when he tried to squeeze his dancers into a two-dimensional plane that, alas, could not stay in that steady state but actually danced out of the heavens above us. I could even go back in time and see a Titian figure rising majestically, so royally, out of the darkness.
The milkmaid, my sweet loving milkmaid. After my term was up, I only got to see her once more. I came back twenty years after the fact for one of my two permitted visits. It was long after I had left all that she represented: not necessarily her, per se --- the three-dimensional lady --- but the Barnes Foundation, cocktail parties on the Upper East Side, teaching English Literature at stately colleges with heavy deciduous trees, vast lawns where you could hear --- in the heart-breaking lushness of spring --- the song of "cleverclever-cleverclever." That careful, formal, safe way of life --- now so long gone for me.
So I returned one more time, just to make sure the maid was all right, to make sure that nothing had changed. And I am happy to report that the moment I approached her, she came right back into herself --- turning dimensional for me, poking out face and shoulders and breasts and elbow, just to let me know that outside my life (now turned topsy-turvy by the world with its visions --- and me, with my visions), that despite all that, nothing had changed. That the soft milkmaids of yore were always there for me, would always be there, whenever I had need of them.