By Brian George
When I first came to Boston to go to school in 1974, the Gardner was quite a discovery. I remember one gentle spring day, when the first buds were just popping from the branches. I had arranged to meet a girl called Donna Contantineau at the Renaissance courtyard for lunch. I remember the feel of the cool courtyard stone beneath my fingers, as we consumed a feast of pita, babaganoush, stuffed grape leaves, nuts and apricots. Donna was wearing an Indian print skirt. I couldn't figure out if she had just taken a shower with some wonderful soap, or if that were just her natural fragrance, or if my mind were playing tricks on me.
At the end of the meal, she demonstrated an unusual talent, which I had not seen before and have not seen since. She had the ability to repeat whatever you were saying, with no hesitation, at the exact moment that the words came from your mouth. It was as though some glitch in the projection of our wave-forms had occurred; we were seated on a stone bench by a fountain, from which the gods observed us, yes, but we were also the gods that were doing the observing. Voice and image had become unsynchronized; a slight gap had opened, though which we could slip. The museum was a wheel. It turned as slowly as the great Platonic year. We were statues spinning through the stage sets of a dream. The Gardner stood by like an eccentric aunt, taking note of the first signs of romance, but too preoccupied with abstract beauty to fulfill her role as chaperone.
I remember going to the Gardner several years after this with my high school friend Danny Panagakos, who was going through a New York performance art phase. He arrived for the visit wearing his then customary outfit of black leather and chains, with a three-day growth of beard and a skeleton earring. We might as well have brought a spotlight with us, and then set it up in the corner of each room. A group of security guards shadowed our every step, waiting for the sudden appearance of a knife or can of spray paint. Danny had asked one of the guards if they had an extra set of oil paints, a few brushes, and a pallet, since one of his paintings was not quite done and he had come back from the dead to finish it. A bit later, he managed to get into a shouting match with several of the guards, the only Irish immigrants I that have ever met with absolutely no sense of humor. The shouting match escalated into a shoving match, before he was thrown, with great theatrical fanfare, out of the building, and told never to come back.
My friend Danny was the fly in the metaphysical ointment, the snake that had volunteered to bring chaos to the garden. It was he who had removed the vowels from the tower of the one world language, before spreading the Big Lie that the sky did not exist. It was he who had shrunk the head of the Most High. Due to Danny, God could now be mistaken for the stopper in a bathtub. It was he who had once commissioned the Mona Lisa to paint a second and distorted copy of da Vinci, which the whole world somehow took for the real thing. For millennia now, it had been difficult for him not to lose track of his goals, and to act in such a way that he would not appear redundant. Just imagine the thrill: to find an audience that might still be capable of shock! It was a twinge of satisfaction that he would not soon forget. With all eyes on me, I quickly followed him out the door.
During the autumn 1998 visit of my father and his third wife, Judith, to Boston, my father suggested that we go to the museum. My wife, Deni, and then one year old daughter, Elizabeth, also came. My father was very impressed with the courtyard. It reminded him of the courtyard of a house he once owned in Mexico, during a period of affluence, before his company collapsed like a pyramid of cards, and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. He treated us to an enthusiastic lecture on the history of courtyards, veering from ancient Greece to North Africa to Islamic Spain to Mexico. Though not unheard of, such eloquence about aesthetics was quite unusual for him.
He would more often say, “I went here. I saw that. At such and such a place I saw so and so conduct. He was good.” For example, he might say, “That was the year that I heard Yo Yo Ma at Tanglewood, where he played Prokofiev’s Sinfonia Concertante in E Minor. A great performance. Bernstein conducted. A few of us went to a get-together afterwards. Bernstein brought his boyfriend. He drank too much, and decided to change into some blue velour briefs with a flowing cotton robe.” My father’s inner life was locked. There was only one key. On a schedule to be determined by himself—or in a joint-venture with the businessman who also occupied his body—he would take his inner life from storage, which involved, coincidentally, the removal of his cello from its case. He would stand his inner life up and then, by a telemetry of joy instead of the usual force of will, he would make it sing and dance. On this day, however, the museum had taken charge, and had prompted him to speak in great detail about his thoughts and memories and emotions.
Thoughts of his 24-room mansion on Avenida de los Insurgentes, where he hobnobbed with Samosa, led to thoughts about his student flat above Louisburg Square. How many unexpected turns his life had taken since the 1950s, when, after giving up his dream of becoming a musician, he first moved from Michigan to attend the BU School of Engineering! My father’s mood of autumnal nostalgia was contagious, and surrounded us like the smell of burning leaves. We did not realize that this mood would prove to be prophetic, or that several months later my father would be, very unexpectedly, dead.
Another year went by, as the Gardner continued its mysterious transactions with the infinite. I again visited with my wife and daughter, who by then was two years old, and as prone to perpetual motion as a dervish. Elizabeth, when she saw the Medieval lions that stood guard at the courtyard, chortled and shrieked with joy. Crouching down, she put her face a few inches in front of each one of the lions, went “Rooaaaarrr!” and then waited for a response. When none was forthcoming, she crouched down and went “Rooaaaarrr!” in front of each of them again. Oh no they didn’t! She could not believe her ears. Again, the silence of the seed-vaults of Antarctica. Elizabeth had no doubt that the Gardner was alive, in its own reverse engineered and hermetically sealed way. Because of this, she could not help but be annoyed: There was no good reason for the lions to be rude!
By the time we got to the second floor, she felt an overwhelming urge to express her tactile appreciation for objects, or perhaps to search for the openings through which life entered the inanimate. Again, in violation of the laws of nature, the Irish security guards exhibited not the slightest trace of humor, nor did the corners of their lips turn up. They did, in fact, both move and act like Golems, who had been conjured out of blood and clay by the power of the Kabbalistic word; they served, one pointedly, the power that had called them forth. “If she’s going to make noise and touch things,” we were told, “she can do it somewhere else.” We were instructed, in no uncertain terms, to “Please control the child.” The request was reasonable, but “controlling” a two year old is far easier said than done.
She was moved to wrath. Her imperious will to power would not be thwarted. A spell had been cast. The hand of the great collector had touched her soul. A voice whispered in her ear, “The world is yours to appropriate. Carpe diem! There will time enough later to throw sculpture at the masses.” How dare the guards try to tell her what she could and could not do with her possessions! Yelling for obedience, with eyes as wide as a Sumerian statue’s, she walked with hands out towards a five-foot urn. “Mine,” she shouted, “Mine! Mine!” I scooped her up and quickly headed for the exit, her legs still pumping, and the curse on her subordinates still echoing through the halls. It would seem that the Gardner is not a child-friendly place. Some 13 years later, perhaps to keep herself on the right side of the law, Elizabeth is now thinking about becoming a museum curator. Much scholarship will needed for the stalking of her target. For somewhere, in a corner of the subterranean web, she can hear that the heart of the progenetrix still beats, if slowly. She would ask of it a question. Its answer would be in the form of a meta-linguistic key. She may yet have a chance to get her hands on one of those giant, ash-filled urns, and the lions may, any day now, decide to wake from their naps.
Curiously, it was not just children but also human beings in general who, in the first few years, were seen as potential Disrupters of the Peace. As first planned, the museum would be open for four days per month, for only three months out of the year. Using tax-codes and import duties as their weapons, Federal Philistines had insisted on a six-day per week schedule, thus tainting the pure concept of the gift. As often happens, the external world had been forced to intervene to prompt one subject to acknowledge his/ her fate. If it were not for bad luck we might have no luck at all, and the Zodiac would not be able to grow feet. This fallen version of the Gardner is the one that we now see and touch.
(Illustration, Andras Zorn, Isabella Stewart Gardner in Venice)