Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Such, Such Were the Joys

On Sunday the Comrade and I finally made it to the Russia! exhibit at the Guggenheim, which ends tomorrow. I highly recommend it if you can (1) stomach the outrageous $24 admittance and (2) get there early, before the line snakes around 87th St. I love that Laurence Fishburne narrates the audio tour, which is well worth the extra $5.

If I had it to do over, I'd start at the top of the spiral, with the contemporary stuff, like Ilya Kabakov's installation The Man Who Flew Into Space From His Apartment, which depicts the plaster-strewn communal apartment out of which Homo Soveticus has just hurled himself with a catapult. Or Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe's "Pirat TV" videos, one of which features the artist as Marilyn with plastic pearls, having a soundless telephone conversation with a Jack Kennedy we can't see (And then Bobby's in the doorway! With a gun!).

As it was, I burned up a lot of my zeal downstairs with the icons, and was already waning when we got to the 18th-century Wanderers. By the time we reached the Social Realists, I had a bad case of Museum Face and really thought I deserved a sandwich. The Comrade, for whom the receipt of knowledge is not as great a burden as it is for me (is this why all the Russians I meet are electrical engineers/architects/nuclear physicists AND computer programmers?), was still fresh as a daisy four hours in, darting into one last gallery while I slumped on a stool like an old man shopping with his wife.

I find museums fulfilling and exhausting in equal measure because I feel chronically undereducated. It's so seductive, the prospect of cramming in all those facts, but I just don't have the grasp on history or geography that I wish I did, and without it there's no psychic Velcro on which those facts can stick. So they slide right off and into the gift shop, which always perks me right up. I wish I'd had one of those classical old-school educations like George Orwell writes about in "Such, Such Were the Joys." I know I'm not the only one with this kind of anxiety, else there wouldn't be U.S. History for Dummies or The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Life of Christ.

So I was looking at the paintings and pressuring myself to have an original thought, but I just kept recognizing people I knew. Peter the Great = SeƱor Swanky (whom I do not, come to think of it, know after all). The Von Dyck Christ with the stigmata looked much like the husband of a dear friend of mine, in the naked pictures she'd send me in the mail (not nearly as insane as it now sounds). A Wanderer's portrait of a fellow painter reminded me of the Japanese art history professor from Moscow who was my landlord/roommate, for whom I acted as Cupid ex machina to reunite him with his married girlfriend (just as insane as it now sounds). Then I heard a woman turn to her 12-year-old daughter in front of this portrait of Vsevolod Garshin and say, "Hey, that looks like Marina's dad."

The last time I felt burdened by my ordinary mind was the first time the Comrade and I tried to see the Russia exhibition -- it was too crowded to even think about lining up, so we went to the Met instead. And I saw this tender Toulouse-Lautrec painting of two reclining women whom I took to be a mother and a daughter; when I got close enough to the card, I saw that they were in fact a couple of prostitutes. The Munch painting that I thought was a man in passionate embrace with a redheaded siren was actually getting his life blood sucked out through the tooth holes in his neck. I began to realize, gentle reader, that I might not really be all that perceptive. The next weekend I was talking about this at a dinner party hosted by another dear friend, and the assembled company suggested I call this blog, as yet unborn, "I Didn't Know They Were Whores." Then I told my host how delicious the pork had been, and could I have the recipe. And reluctantly she said, "It was lamb."


Blogger Recovering Baptist said...

Is Marina's dad homeless? Yeesh. And I suspect Russians think we're kind of dumb. We were playing that game where you pick a celebrity's name out of a hat and then describe the person and your partner has to guess. Everyone had to pass on the names Olga submitted because they were all like, the first Russian in space or some Russian who won the Nobel Prize for metallurgy or something. She couldn't believe we didn't know who these people are. I believe her comment was, "don't they teach you anything in American schools?" I don't know how to say "apparently not" in Russian so I just stuck with "nyet." Also, I am so jealous you got to eat lamb without someone telling you you were murdering an innocent baby animal. I haven't been able to enjoy lamb or veal in ages. Stupid vegetarian actors.

4:12 PM  
Blogger frostine99 said...

God have mercy [beating breast], but I think homeless Garshin is kind of sexy! What does that say about me?

You know, the Comrade knows, like, WAY more geography/algebra/history/woodworking (the class we call "shop" they call "labor," which I think oozes proletarian charm) than I ever learned in the first place, yet he told me this story once in which he had to write a comparative literary essay for his high-school Russian class, and he COPIED IT OUT OF A BOOK. Now, I'm not saying American kids don't do this -- uh, I'm not even saying *I* didn't do this -- but at least we know it's Wrong!

The Comrade didn't see the point of putting one's original thoughts on paper, or of having original thoughts in the first place. I felt smug about this and called him cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater, which he thought was the funniest thing in the world. The upside about being with someone from a foreign country is that you can use the most pedestrian idioms and still get credit for your wit and charm. The downside is that you can't discuss your favorite episode of The Bionic Woman.

6:30 PM  

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