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.