11:30 A.M. One of my favorite things about going to Philadelphia is that when you’re disgorged from the train you step into 30th Street Station. I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment—how many films have been made about the City of Brotherly Love that find some way or another to use the old Beaux-Arts structure as a set? I’m not sure what it says about a city that every filmmaker wants to signify Philadelphianess with the very place you’d pass through if you were either coming or going—or for that matter, why so many Philly films choose to stage their most extravagant moments of murder and witnessed mayhem in this relatively quiet corner of the city—but at any rate I get a little thrill of walking through the station, so much more humanly scaled (if still monumental in its own way) than Grand Central or Union Station but losing nothing of the rustle of urbanity in the process.
11:50 A.M. It’s a quick hop by cab to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the first leg of our seaboard-descending art trip. It’s not so much a staycation—with the price of an Amtrak ticket down and back, plus a night among all the foreign tourists at a Dupont Circle hotel chain, we could as well have flown somewhere. We were lured by the recently restored Gross Clinic, on view for the first time since it’s been spiffied up by its new owners, who rallied to keep the canvas in Thomas Eakins’s hometown when the Walmart heirs were trying to buy it and exile it to an Arkansas museum, and the promise of an Arte Povera installation. The latter turns out to be a bit overblown—really just a couple of ho-hum works thrown in to a room alongside great but familiar pieces by Bruce Nauman and Robert Morris. Povera, indeed.
12:30 P.M. The Duchamp gallery is, happily, nearly empty of other visitors. Our companion, a Yale art historian who did his dissertation on Duchamp, seems almost deliriously placid sitting in front of “The Large Glass.” You don’t associate that sort of copacetic plenitude with looking at Duchamp, and it’s sort of marvelous to behold. “It never disappoints me,” he says in a church voice. I’ve never had that experience with “The Large Glass,” though “Étant donnés,” no matter how many times you’ve peeped through the hole in the doorway, never loses its filthy staying power and fresh smell of mystery. What other creaky and canonical artworks of the last one hundred years can you say that about? I still feel like a perv squatting so slightly to look through the peephole at the splayed, spread-eagle figure and the twinkling faux waterfall. It’s almost obligatory afterward to cut back through the Brancusi gallery and have a look at the plain, unmarked door allowing maintenance access to the piece. The sight is a purgative for the eyes.
2:00 P.M. After a bite in the commissary, we catch the trolley to the museum’s annex, where “The Gross Clinic” is the star attraction. There’s a dismayingly large crowd on hand to see Eakins’s bloody study from 1875, which until a few years ago was off-the-beaten trail at the Jefferson Memorial Hospital (where Gross, a celebrated military surgeon during the Civil War, held his classes). There’s a lot of documentation on the walls about the painting’s history and how its subject matter—the surgery to remove a diseased bit of femoral bone, which pre-Gross would have entailed amputation of the leg—revolted audiences in 1876, when it was excluded from the city’s Centennial Exhibition. I hoped there’d be a picture of how it was in fact installed at the time, hanging at the end of an art-meets-life prefab model army hospital tent, neatly and almost hilariously in situ, but no such luck.
The canvas now has far more commodious digs—almost its own mini-chapel, where it’s flanked by Eakins’s other surgical masterpiece, “The Agnew Clinic.” And after the restoration effort, it’s that much clearer just how strange a picture it is. Before, you saw Gross holding his scarlet-flecked scalpel upright like a paintbrush, you made out the scene of the operation, with its attending surgeons wielding their blood-tipped knives like pencils. But so much else was clouded and clotted in a bizarrely blah electrically colored background glare—the tonal registers were just weird, almost fecklessly unresolved. Now you can really pick up the dark clarity of the whole background, including the image of the figure just behind Gross, who’s taking notes and whose grip on his pencil ramifies that of the doctors going after the rotting bone. The sharply foreshortened patient’s fuzzy blue socks jut out at you all that more dramatically and make a clean rhyme against the ether-soaked pillow over his head. And the guy lingering in the hallway—Gross’s son—behind the theater, swallowed in a red haze, is a lot more fiendishly integrated into the scene. I first saw the canvas when it was in the Met’s Eakins retrospective in 2001, and this was like seeing a totally different picture.
When we had dinner a couple of nights earlier with an art historian who has a book coming out on the “pleasure dairies” of the ancién regime (the best known being Marie-Antoinette’s white marble Hameau at Versailles), she complained about the recent exhibition tendency to make a fetish of the tech-wiz conservationist. Philadelphia’s played up its efforts to clean Eakins—a misnomer, since what they did in essence was to add a level of varnish that the old medical hospital canvas doctors stripped away to try and make the gloomy tones brighter, mucking up the balance in the process. They’ve clarified it strangely enough by making it more oblique. In a lot of the press notices, the conservators make a fascinating observation that their restoration process can easily be undone by future generations if viewing tastes should change—what they’ve got now is a painting that is more attuned to the way nineteenth-century viewers looked at canvases, though most nineteenth-century folks couldn’t stand to look at them. Could you do the same thing with literary translation—build in some sort of tacit statement that the new translations of Proust or Tolstoy or Kafka that you’re reading are only provisional, or for that matter, opt to retranslate them backward, into their earlier and less contemporary idioms? I’ve just read a passage in Tom McCarthy’s new novel C where Egyptologists are discussing a dig and talk about the fact that what they drag up aren’t pure artifacts but the record of earlier plunderers, Romans, Arab, even pharoaic. Where the latter-day architects make their historical mistake is in thinking that their own moment is somehow the definitive one. Instead, it’s just another chapter in a long book. I think McCarthy would approve of “The Gross Clinic’s” restoration relativism. Read More