Monday, February 23, 2009

Off-Road: Postcards from LA

I remembered that song from my youth - 'it never rains in California, it pours.' So it was - 'Open Minded Torah' on the road (that is, me) ended up in a Friday down pour in LA. Thankfully, I was saved from a day wandering around the drenched UCLA campus by a friend who suggested an afternoon trip to the Getty Museum.

So civilized: the underground parking garage, the tram easing up the hill to the museum complex, the cheerful volunteers in their parkas (it wasn't that cold!) handing out umbrellas upon our disembarking.

I had never been to the Getty. But for all of my love of museums, I had flashbacks to my high school years and what a friend described as 'museum madness' - that dreadful boredom of being dragged to yet another gallery, when all you're thinking of is the hot pretzel or chestnuts outside on the museum steps. When we got to the featured exhibit, 'Captured Emotions' - only in California I thought could the come up with a cheesy name - my own emotions sagged even further. The explanatory text on the wall - who wants to read all that? - while overhearing the museum guide droning: 'in this room alone, there are over three hundred million dollars worth of paintings.' I wanted to escape to the gift shop.

Turns out that the emotions captured were from Renaissance Bologna - though repackaged for the southern California crowd. 'Egyptian Desperate House Wife' in one gallery - that did get my attention - paintings of Joseph attempting to escape from the lustful embraces of Potiphar's wife. In the first by Carlo Cignani, it's the fleshly and buxom wife of Potiphar grasping the resistant Joseph - eyes towards the heavens.

She is pure flesh; her face belies no intelligence, only dumb desire, while the upraised hands of Joseph seem at once to be warding her off and raised up imploring divine assistance. Joseph is enveloped in both her arms and her garment - Cignani's liberty since in the Biblical story, it is the wife of Potiphar who grabs on to Joseph's cloak. Though aher garment, as much as drawing them together, separates her dumb passion from his fearful resistance.

The desperate housewife had staying power in Bologna - Guido Reni painted the scene as well:

Reni's painting provides a different take - it's not dumb desire, more like carnal knowledge. Potiphar's wife may be fleshly, but she looks at Joseph with intimacy and understanding. His left hand is up held up in resistance, though his right hand - is he holding on to his cloak, or reaching for her? - tells a different story. She is fair and white; Joseph is dark with desire - his looks betray him. He is Dustin Hoffman to her Anne Bancroft of The Graduate - 'I know you want me,' her eyes seem to be saying, and the bedpost in the center of the painting, as well as Joseph's ambivalent pose and darkened face seem to show his assent. Cignani's Joseph is at the mercy of the divine; Reni's Joseph is at her mercy.

But then this, also by Reni - a picture of Saint Cecilia, the Christian patron saint of music. The painting has been hiding in Pasadena - why, I thought, is it not in the Louvre surrounded by thousands daily, like Leonardo's mysterious lady?

In this painting, there's the knowledge, to be sure, of Reni's wife of Potiphar, but here it's refined, rendered spiritual. The split between the physical and the spiritual shown in Cignani's picture is absent - it's a pose of intense spirituality, but also beautiful physicality. Her eyes lift upward as if to pull her out of the canvas, the cloak on her arms, seeming to bind her to the ground. But as the whiteness of her neck and her upward glance move upwards, the curve of the violin bow brings her down to earth. And more than that - you can almost see it in the reproduction - the whiteness of her cheeks, brought to life by the slightest hint of a flush under her translucent skin.

I don't know St Cecilia - to me, it looks like how the sages might have imagined Serach bat Asher, who, while Joseph was in captivity played a melody for her grandfather, Jacob, which let him know that his favorite son was still alive. Through Serach's music, the patriarch knew that Joseph lived, that the Jewish people would reach their salvation - that history, the physical world had and would continue to yield to the divine. This is the figure I saw in Reni's painting on the rainy day in southern California - the supple refinement of the flesh, the intense beauty of the otherworldly.


Tr8erGirl said...

Welcome back!

Zeke Steiner said...

Anyone who has been lucky enough to wander through a museum with you never thinks of pretzels, chestnuts or boredom - your conversation is too rich and your insights too strong to let any of that boredom on the outside of the museum in through its doors. For those who haven't had the privilege, this blog is the next best thing.

Simon Synett said...

Akh! That was an expression of pure appreciation (just in case you missed it.) I'm glad you're back here.

Annie said...

Wow! That was a very welcome breath of air! Hope you won't leave us for so long next time!

Havlei said...

VeLo Yireh BeCha Ervat Devar
And not be seen by/on you nakedness
Devarim 23/15

Is the enjoyment of female nudity gazing not a direct contradiction to that of the lifestyle of the black hat and trailing tzitzit - purposely exposing eyes (and mind)to all that is forbidden?

Ah but I forgot, it's "Open Minded Torah" - A Torah that's open to modern academic interpretation - all in the interests of education and knowledge!

wdk said...

Woah - does this mean that my black hat license is being revoked?

Our sages enjoin each one of us 'make for yourself a Rav.' Those who from whom I seek advice and counsel - my rabbis - have not warned me to stay away from museums. They are interested in the Torah, and not some notion of the 'lifestyle of the black hat,' and the ostensible prohibitions which devolve from it.

They also probably understand that for some of us (not all) service of G-d may entail bringing together the diverse parts of our lives. It's not a matter of being academic; it's personal. Torah u'madda is not for everyone (as I have argued elsewhere) - but for some of us, it's not a mere slogan, but the way we bring out selves closer to G-d. Maimonides turned to Aristotle and Plato to help address the questions of the 'perplexed' - we may also turn to unexpected places as a means of strengthening our commitment to Torah.

Having said that, if sixteenth century Renaissance paintings of Joseph and Potiphar's wife prove too titillating (who anyway was 'gazing'?), then perhaps the self-professed guardians of 'Torah Only!' on the internet should do what's safest: add 'Open Minded Torah' to their list of forbidden sites!

Tr8erGirl said...

Perhaps they should just listen to *their* rabbayim and get off the internet all together.........GMAB

(feel free to delete this comment - I had to say it - sorry)

Yaakov said...

I'd like to express my appreciation of the last post. And I also liked the answer to one of the more conservative readers of this blog. It took me a while, but I am beginning to see the "open-mindedness" of the blog. Yshar koach and welcome back.

Havlei said...

Woah? And would your wife countenance a copy of that picture of Potiphar's wife above the marital bed since it is only an innocent painting!

...and come to think of it, of course your "rabbis - have not warned me to stay away from museums" - surely it's a non sequitor that a black hatter would get orthodox rabbinic assent to stop and look ('gazing')at such things.

Most of your blogs are well written and I would be loathe to blacklist it. But I feel justified in raising the battle flag when it seems there is an Esav in Yaakov's clothes.