June 11, 2009


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Hapless husbands along for the ride
Cezanne exhibit boring, despite seeing 97 breasts

A few days before the “Cézanne and Beyond” exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art closed, my wife finally persuaded me to accompany her to the show.

For you guys who’ve never been there, the museum is like a zoo for art. There are tons of paintings, but you can’t touch any of them. There are guards everywhere. They don’t even let you get close, just in case you might sneeze or otherwise involuntarily expel something deleterious to the art. You’re not even allowed to speak above a whisper. It’s totally weird.

In this exhibition, Cézanne’s works were displayed alongside works of 17 other artists for whom Cézanne has been an inspiration. The museum staff gave out portable audio players with earphones so that visitors could enter numbers corresponding to certain works, and hear how Cézanne had influenced the other artists.

Right off the bat, my wife was spending so much time looking at each painting that I had to walk ahead. I went through the entire exhibit twice before she even got to the third painting.

The introductory statement on my audio player said that Cézanne was a very meticulous worker and that he demanded that his models pose for long periods of time. “That look you see on their faces is not contemplation,” said the narrator, “it’s fatigue.” I was already beginning to identify with the models.

Another one of the sound bites explained to me how several other painters had copied Cézanne’s image of a woman in a big dress sitting in a chair. “Yup, that’s a big dress,” I agreed, “and that’s definitely a chair, but couldn’t the other artists possibly have come up with that concept on their own?”

I found it even harder to see how selected modern works like a big brown circle or a painting intentionally covered in bubble wrap had any roots in Cézanne whatsoever. It seemed to me like they were just making stuff up to create a show. Why all the fuss over painting in this day and age, anyway? Didn’t painting kind of die out after the Stone Age?

I mean, come on, it’s paint. What does it do? It doesn’t sing, dance or even move, for God’s sake. Oh, I know it’s supposed to represent stuff and affect us emotionally, but does it really? Seriously, did an anti-war painting ever stop a war? When Hitler was stealing all that art, did he suddenly see Picasso’s Guernica and decide to go all peaceable? I don’t think so. And he was a painter!

Let’s face it, most men don’t recognize more than about three colors at most, and the only kinds of paintings they respond to viscerally are those of naked women, of which, by the way, there were plenty in this exhibit.

In the course of studying these paintings, I counted 97 breasts, 13 images that I think were breasts and about 50 of what I will call, for lack of a more descriptive term, “behinds” — mostly female, but with a few lucky gents thrown in for good measure.

I must say that standing around with a bunch of strangers in a museum, gawking at body parts, made me more than a bit uncomfortable. I know, it’s art and all that, but I was raised Catholic in the 1950s. I don’t even like to see animals naked.

Here and there in the crowd, I spied other hapless husbands along for the ride, staring blankly, trying to get their audio players to work, wandering in circles, not sure if they’d seen this or that painting already. I felt a strange sort of kinship with them. “I see you, brothers, and I feel your pain,” I whispered. “Someday all of this will be over and we’ll be home again, watching baseball.” I suddenly noticed that all of the museum guards seemed to be looking at me disapprovingly. Did I speak too loud? Had I broken some rule d’art?

As I sat down on a gallery bench to avoid attracting any more attention, I slowly began to notice that everyone around me looked like they were made up of tiny blobs of color. Or was that the paintings? I couldn’t tell the difference anymore. I felt faint. I couldn’t find my pulse. I recognized the symptoms — I was losing the will to live! I knew that I had to return to the outside world quickly.

I stumbled out the exit and into the gift shop, gasping for air. I took out my little LCD TV and turned on the ball game. After watching a few beer commercials, I started to revive.

I guess it was foolish of me to have thought that I could survive an entire afternoon of art, but I did it for love, to please my wife. I should probably have my portrait hung in the Husbands’ Hall of Fame — maybe sitting in a big chair. Are there any artists out there who’d like to paint me?