12 July 2011

Photo Essays: Bridges and Walls

By Karen Mercury

The other week I decided to finally fill that big blank spot on my bedroom wall, and purchase a print to frame.  That’s where it became difficult.  I wanted something American and “modern,” and by that I mean the first half of the 20thC.  No Da Vinci or Caravaggio.  Something sort of urban, with at least one figure in it.  I was trying to create a mood that would be apropos for a bedroom.  I think I was hearkening back to my childhood in that I wanted to recreate the sunny, secure, and mellow feeling I used to get in my father’s living room in Brooklyn Heights.  Urban, but not loud.  More Simon & Garfunkel than Kool & the Gang.

And nothing so abstract that it would make your head spin:

Joseph Stella, Brooklyn Bridge

This was on my bedroom wall in my 20s, but it makes me too dizzy now:

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase

No, for the bedroom you want to simulate that happy, secure, and comforting feeling you only ever got for a few brief prepubescent weeks, never to be recreated again in your life—although at the time, your naive teenaged happiness seems to be endless.  For me it was those languid summers at my Dad’s.  No screaming, no dramatic Germanic scenes, no breaking glass.  Just good clean, warm and sunny drenching in culture.  In Brooklyn, people discussed art.  In California, you had loud people screaming like the Loud Family.  Letting it all hang out until you wished they would shove it back under the rug, something the cultured, genteel, aesthetic citizens of Brooklyn were such experts at.  I don’t know why they say New Yorkers are loud.  No one was louder than the occupants of my mother’s house in California.
An American Family, 1973

So it was the calm I wanted to reproduce, while avoiding reminders of the endless scream fests.  You know how they say as you grow up, you’re able to pick and choose which aspects of your childhood to reject, and which to retain?  For instance, I still like Van Gogh, although a few hung on the walls of that unsettled house in California.

Van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypress

Now for the living room, I’ve told my husband it’s all right to hang some nature landscape, even if it does include a deer, duck, or bison.  I used to try to exclude paintings of animals a hunter might like, but I’ve since given up on that, while sticking to my guns in refusing to allow actual heads on the walls. This is one of my favorite landscapes on my living room wall that includes “things a hunter might like”:

Alfred J. Miller, Buffalo Hunt

This gives me a homey feeling, because the figures are having a good time, although the animals aren’t, and most historical scenes are comforting because they’re so distant from our current childhood traumas that, well…They’re just old.  And old is comforting.  Like this lithograph that’s in my dining room:

Currier and Ives, A Home on the Mississippi

For some reason, depictions of Southern plantation life soothe me, although others might have an opposite reaction.  I think it’s a past life thing because my sister feels the same way, although neither one of us has been to the South, in this life.

So to find this awesome, calming, tranquilizing painting of a quiet urban scene with at least one figure, I started Googling around in a few spare moments every day.  It took me about a week to realize that I kept returning to one artist, and I already had two framed prints of his work in my house.  I’d never even noticed when I hung the second one that I already had one.  This was the first, hanging twenty feet above my living room couch:

John Singer Sargent, Smoke of Ambergris

Also in my bedroom already was:

John Singer Sargent, Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife

I am still hard-pressed to explain why historical, “old” paintings are more comforting than modern art. In your 20s and 30s, when you don’t place comfort top on your list of priorities, it’s perfectly cool to have cardboard cutout people walking downstairs as though viewed after a hit of four-way Windowpane, or a Brooklyn Bridge viewed after a case of Schlitz Malt Talls.  Back then, of course, there were the obligatory heavy metal or “psychedelic” posters:

Ain’t Gonna Work on Dizzy’s Farm No More

That poster was best viewed at night under a black light.

But as a peace-seeking adult, I’ve always preferred the real to the surreal.  I suppose that’s why I write historicals and not fantasy.  So I’m pleased to have finally, at long last filled that space on my bedroom wall with:

Edward Hopper, Room in Brooklyn

It’s ginormous, and I matted it in that burnt orange to match the building.  It makes me feel serene, especially when the sun shines on it.  I can dream, and wish that I was that woman sitting in the sun reading a book in a room in Brooklyn.  (Or…what is she doing?)

Would any UH readers care to post a link to their favorites?


Margaret Muir said...

What an excellent post! I admire your choice of artwork, Karen, especially Sargent, and the reasons behind your selections over the years.
I was a little surprised that you had nothing with an African flavour.
I think I should get a copy of 'Smoke of Ambergris' as it has special connotations for me :)
One of the best posts I have read in years.

J.Rose Allister said...

Great post! I absolutely love Smoke of Ambergris--my hands-down favorite.

LilMissMolly said...

Thanks for the post and all the great pictures! It reminded me of a Humanities class I took in college - covered a little bit of everything. I agree with you that tastes change. I'm not into contemporary art much these days, but loved Salvador Dali in my 20s. The Melting Watches just fascinated me!