“It had to be Lee Miller,” the man said, leaning back in his chair. “It had to be. She’s the only photographer who would’ve thought to pose a subject like that.” The woman sitting across from him nodded almost imperceptibly, snapping a grissini stick in half and quietly chewing it down to her fingertips.
He took this as a cue to keep going, so he did: For several uninterrupted minutes, he shared his theories of why he thought Miller was the uncredited lenswoman behind this particular photograph of art collector Peggy Guggenheim, before launching into another sleep-inducing monologue about why Miller’s lover — surrealist photographer Man Ray — was overrated. The woman finished the rest of the bread basket before he punctuated his unasked-for lecture by plunging his nose into his wine glass, swirling its contents in a way that you rarely see outside of YouTube tutorials on How to Be a Dick.
They were well dressed, with the kind of coordinating tans and cable knits that made them look like Blaine and Andie, several decades after their Pretty in Pink prom night.
“I’ve presented my case and have asked you a question,” he said, swallowing. “And you haven’t given your answer.”
She spoke directly into a piece of panini duri, and two thoughts immediately smashed together in my temporal lobe: First, I’m glad I’m not married, and next, It might be impossible to talk about art without sounding like an asshole. I mention this as an observation and an apology, because I’m about to talk about art, too.
That couple and I were sitting uncomfortably close to each other in a restaurant in Venice, Italy a few days ago, and the tiled floors, harsh acoustics and their “Hey, We’re Americans!” volume settings made it impossible not to hear every word. They’d apparently been to the Guggenheim Museum that day — as had I — so he’d hijacked the dinners of everyone within earshot so he could share his Deep Thoughts about a black-and-white photo of the late collector.
It’s almost understandable: Venice seems to be made entirely of art museums, exhibitions and galleries. (And pigeons. At any time, you could be carried off by pink-eyed birds which smelled last night’s breadsticks on your breath). On that day alone, I’d legit seen eight centuries’ worth of art, starting with fat-cheeked baby Jesuses (Jesii?) and arrow-studded St. Sebastians at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. That gallery will give you an overdose of Tintoretto and Titian, and force you to lock eyes with so many Virgin Marys that you’ll feel profoundly guilty about the package of Big League Chew you stole in the fourth grade.
(As an aside, my father’s side of the family has traced its lineage to the 13th Century, and I’m a direct descendant of Titian. This fact is usually met with an unenthusiastic, “Oh, really?” and a reminder that no, it doesn’t give me permission to touch the canvases.)
From there, I went to the Guggenheim Collection, which is Italy’s most-visited modern art museum. It averages 1,500 guests each day, and that day I think they were all there at once. I saw the upper right corners of Kandinsky, Bacon and Rothko from behind the same stranger’s shampoo-scented head and am 100 percent sure that I ruined one woman’s repeated attempts to get a selfie with one of Lucio Fontana’s slashed canvases.
After that, I took the overpriced ferry to the nearby island of Guidecca for a new exhibition of UNCSA alum David LaChapelle’s photos. (You know his work even if you think you don’t, possibly because he once staged an elaborate Christmas card photo for the Kardashians, which prompted an endless number of thinkpieces debating whether they were in on the joke.)
That was, admittedly, too much art for one day, especially if you’re not exactly an art scholar. I learned about Man Ray from an REM song and — other than knowing that my family tree doesn’t give me a discount on tickets — I feel like I barely understand it.
What I do know is that there’s nothing that is both more inspiring and more devastating than spending a full day immersing yourself in other people’s brilliance. Sometimes it can make you wonder if you’re not using your own potential to the fullest or it makes you consider whether you have some hidden talent for expressionism or oils or just pronouncing chiaroscuro the right way on the first try.
But then you walk into another room and are confronted by the cotton-fluffy clouds of a lesser-known Magritte or Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th Century hellscapes or the perfect asymmetry of an Alexander Calder mobile and you think, There’s no way. Even the smallest pieces — like a pair of Guggenheim’s earrings, impossibly painted by Yves Tanguy — can make you feel like you’re not worthy of lifting them to your own eye level.
Maybe that’s a good thing, in some hard-to-explain way, to be overwhelmed by something beautiful and leave hoping that you’ll be able to inspire that feeling in someone else, whether it’s because you found your own artistic eye, you found the right words at the right time or because you know some solid REM album cuts.
Back in that restaurant, the man was still waiting for his answer. The uncomfortable silence was interrupted by a waiter placing impossible tangles of ink-blackened pasta in front of them. The man immediately wound a giant forkful and shoved it into his mouth.
That’s when she changed the subject.