Musée des Beaux Arts

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

 

The Census at Bethlehem, Pieter Brueghel the Elder,  1566

 

For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:

 

The Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Brueghel the Elder, 1565-7

 

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

 

Landscape with The Fall of Icarus, Circle of Pieter Brueghel the Elder,  ca. 1590-95

 

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

W. H. Auden

 

Musée des Beaux Arts (French for Museum of Fine Arts) is a poem written in December 1938 while Auden was staying in Brussels, Belgium with Christopher Isherwood. It was first published under the title Palais des beaux arts (Palace of Fine Arts) in the Spring 1939 issue of New Writing, a modernist magazine edited by John Lehmann. It next appeared in the collected volume of verse Another Time (New York: Random House, 1940), which was followed four months later by the English edition (London: Faber and Faber, 1940). The poem’s title derives from the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, famous for its collection of Early Netherlandish painting. Auden visited the Musée and would have seen a number of works by the “Old Masters” of his second line, including Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569).

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Before Time Altered Them

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, David Hockney, 1968

 
 

Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, David Hockney, 1976

 
 

“…The love they felt wasn’t, of course, what it once had been;
the attraction between them had gradually diminished,
the attraction had diminished a great deal.
But to be separated, that wasn’t what they themselves wanted.
It was circumstances. Or maybe Fate
appeared as an artist and parted them now,
before their feeling died out completely, before Time altered them:
the one seeming to remain for the other always what he was,
the exquisite young man of twenty-four.”

Constantine P. Cavafy

Deep Though Invisible Tracks

“Think of two people, living together day after day, year after year, in this small space, standing elbow to elbow cooking at the same small stove, squeezing past each other on the narrow stairs, shaving in front of the same small bathroom mirror, constantly jogging, jostling, bumping against each other’s bodies by mistake or on purpose, sensually, aggressively, awkwardly, impatiently, in rage or in love – think what deep though invisible tracks they must leave, everywhere, behind them!”

Christopher Isherwood
A Single Man

 

Christopher Isherwood and Bill Caskey. Photograph by George Platt Lynes

Afraid of Being Rushed

“Staring and staring into the mirror, it sees many faces within its face – the face of the child, the boy, the young man, the not-so-young man – all present still, preserved like fossils on superimposed layers, and, like fossils, dead. Their message to this live dying creature is: Look at us – we have died – what is there to be afraid of?

It answers them: But that happened so gradually, so easily. I’m afraid of being rushed.”

Christopher Isherwood
A Single Man

 
 

George Tooker with Paul Cadmus and Jared French in Mirror. Photo by George Platt Lynes, c.1949

Display of Brilliant Friends

Self-portraits

 
 

George Platt Lynes was an American fashion and commercial photographer. Born in East Orange, New Jersey to Adelaide (Sparkman) and Joseph Russell Lynes he spent his childhood in New Jersey but attended the Berkshire School in Massachusetts. He was sent to Paris in 1925 with the idea of better preparing him for college. His life was forever changed by the circle of friends that he would meet there. Gertrude Stein, Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler and those that he met through them opened an entirely new world to the young artist.

He returned to the United States with the idea of a literary career and he even opened a bookstore in Englewood, New Jersey in 1927. He first became interested in photography not with the idea of a career, but to take photographs of his friends and display them in his bookstore.

Returning to France the next year in the company of Wescott and Wheeler, he traveled around Europe for the next several years, always with his camera at hand. He developed close friendships within a larger circle of artists including Jean Cocteau and Julien Levy, the art dealer and critic. Levy would exhibit his photographs in his gallery in New York City in 1932 and Lynes would open his studio there that same year.

By 1946, he grew disillusioned with New York and left for Hollywood, where he became chief photographer for the Vogue studios. He photographed Katharine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Gloria Swanson and Orson Welles, from the film industry, as well as others in the arts among them Aldous Huxley, Igor Stravinsky, and Thomas Mann. While a success artistically, it was a financial failure.

By May of 1955 he had been diagnosed terminally ill with lung cancer. He closed his studio. He destroyed much of his print and negative archives particularly his male nudes. After a final trip to Europe, Lynes returned to New York City where he died in December 1955. He was just 48.

 
 

Dorothy Parker

 
 

Jean Cocteau

 
 

Gloria Swanson

 
 

Christopher Isherwood

 
 

Yul Brynner

 
 

Tennessee Williams

 
 

Paul Cadmus

 
 

Henri Cartier-Bresson

 
 

Alfred Kinsey

 
 

Salvador Dalí

Kafka and Capote Side-by-Side

“The prefect evening…lying down on the couch beside the bookcase and reading himself sleepy…Jim lying opposite him at the other end of the couch, also reading; the two of them absorbed in their books yet so completely aware of each other’s presence.”

Christopher Isherwood
A Single Man

 
 

Colin Firth and Matthew Goode in A Single Man (Tom Ford, 2009)

 
 

What would it be like, the main character in Christopher Isherwood’s novel A Single Man wonders, if the dead could come back and visit the living? “At best, surely, it would be like the brief visit of an observer from another country who is permitted to peep in for a moment from the vast outdoors of his freedom and see, at a distance, through glass, this figure who sits solitary at the small table in the narrow room, eating his poached eggs humbly and dully, a prisoner for life.”

In Tom Ford‘s lovely, tragic movie version of Isherwood’s book, Colin Firth plays that “prisoner for life” — a middle-age professor who lives in a glass house near the California coast, and is yet invisible. It is 1962 and he is gay; his lover Jim (played, in flashbacks, by Matthew Goode) has died, but he may not mourn. We see glimpses of the couple in happier times — laughing on the beach, lounging companionably side-by-side on a sofa (George reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Jim reading Truman Capote‘s Breakfast at Tiffany’s) — in comparison with George’s stark, lonely existence now. He goes quietly through the motions of his life; it’s as if he’s fading away.

 

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