The Road Taken

by David Williams

 

“There is no reason why the camel of great art should pass through the needle of  mob intelligence.” – Rebecca West

It didn’t occur to me for some years that one reason I have traveled to Mexico and Western Europe for almost five decades was to escape the blandness and sterility of American life. That does’t mean that one can’t escape those things by staying home. My attempt at escape actually began at home, in 1973, when, at the age of twenty-two, I went to my first art exhibit. It was sort of a fluke, really. I was sharing a drab, cheap rent house on the north side of Fort Worth with a friend. We both worked for the same small company; my job was dull, repetitive and a good reason to return to college as a more serious student. My roommate and I both read the Fort Worth newspaper in the evenings after work, and it is probably there that we learned of this art exhibition at the Kimbell Museum. It was a Russian collection of impressionist and post-impresssionist paintings, a small but stunning group of forty-two paintings displayed for less than a month at the end of the summer.

Not long ago I contacted the Kimbell through their website to ask about the exhibition. So many years had passed, and many of the details of that 1973 visit eluded me. Katherine Stephens, a curatorial assistant at the Kimbell, answered my email and filled in some of the missing parts. The paintings came from the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. The exhibition traveled to five major U.S. museums and featured works by Braque, Cezanne, Andre Deraine, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Fernand Leger, Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Camille Pissarro, Renoir, Henri Rousseau, Alfred Sisley and Maurice de Vlaminck.

I learned something else from Ms. Stephens that was, in its own way, particularly gratifying. This exhibition was the first loan exhibition for the Kimbell, which had only opened to the public the year before, in 1972. It was an auspicious start for a small museum and has been followed by scores of other loan exhibitions.

The paintings affected me in a way that’s hard to describe. For one thing, having grown up in a small town sixty miles west of Fort Worth, I knew virtually nothing about art or artists. Honestly, I don’t know that I had ever seen an original painting. People in my family and community did not have the interest or resources to make art. My parents were working hard and, although they did not realize it at the time, struggling to rise into the growing middle class. Even the few people around us with money–usually large landowners–had no apparent interest in art. It was a different time, our world was culturally closed.

Labourage nivernais by Rosa Bonheur (1849)
Labourage nivernais (1)

One aspect of the paintings that I liked was the rich, yet not overdone use of color. I also liked the subject matter of impressionism and post-impressionism: landscapes, farm scenes and workers, fruit trees and orchards, still lifes of flowers and fruit, portraits of people who might be your neighbor or friend. I don’t remember much about the individual paintings I saw that day at the Kimbell, but I do remember the beauty that had been so finely rendered on canvas.

Labourage nivernais – Detail
Labourage nivernaisDetail

Today, in 2019, I look back at more than forty years of travel. In those years many of my travels took me to art museums in Europe, some to major museums in New York, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. I have also seen a lot of art in Mexico. The last four years, in December, I’ve spent forty days in Paris, an amazing city and arguably the pinnacle of urban life and culture in the West.

The amount of art in Paris, in the permanent collections and the temporary exhibitions, seems almost infinite. There are also many gorgeous churches to visit, and of course the marvelous Gothic masterpiece, Notre Dame. On my last trip in December 2018, I went inside the cathedral, only the second time that I had entered, the first being over forty years ago, in 1976. I have walked past this Parisian landmark–the heart of the city–many times, but the recent fire, which caused extensive damage to the roof, will likely close it to the public for years, so I was doubly glad that I went in. The interior of the popular cathedral is just as sublime as the exterior.

Notre Dame Interior (2)
NotreDame2 (1)

NotreDame1 (1)

In addition to the churches and cathedral, Paris also offers other unique architectural works: the Eiffel Tower; the strange, Frank Gehry-designed Luis Vuitton Foundation; the strikingly odd Georges Pompidou Center. (Coincidentally, Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano designed the Pompidou complex; Piano also designed the Kimbell’s most recent addition, the Renzo Piano Pavilion).

The Orsay Museum
OrsayMuseum

Most art lovers know of the Louvre and probably the Orsay Museum, too, but what surprised me when I began to look online and in Paris guidebooks was the generous number of small museums: the Rodin, the Marmottan Monet on the west side of town, the Orangerie, the Picasso in the old Jewish Quarter (the Marais); two small sculpture museums, the Zadkine and the Bourdelle. And there are more than the few I have listed.

Most of the art museums in Paris have permanent collections, some so large that the art is rotated periodically. There are also temporary exhibitions all over the city. Last year, for example, Rose et Bleu, featuring some of Picasso’s early works, opened at the Orsay. Two venues without permanent collections, the Grand Palais and the Luis Vuitton Foundation, always seem to have temporary exhibitions. Last year for the second time I visited the Quai Branly Museum, which houses a permanent collection of indigenous art from around the world, where I found a special exhibition titled “The Art of Bamboo in Japan,” which included beautifully intricate, sometimes abstract, weavings of bamboo.

From the Art of Bamboo Exhibition
TheArtOfBamboo

“I dream of painting and then paint my dream.”   Vincent Van Gogh

 

To get out of the city for part of a day on my last visit, I took a short train ride out to Auvers sur Oise. For years I’ve wanted to see this small town northwest of Paris where Van Gogh lived briefly and painted his last canvases, and where he died. He is buried there, next to his brother, Theo, against the north wall of the cemetery, ivy covering the graves, and two small, simple headstones: Ici repose Vincent Van Gogh, 1853-1890, and a similar one for Theo. The cemetery is just outside the town proper, and if you go you will want to see the nearby church at the edge of town, the painting of which is in the small Van Gogh collection in the Orsay.

Van Gogh Gravesite
VanGoghGrave

Walking from the church to the cemetery, one immediately comes upon fields, rising slightly, leveling out near the cemetery. The lay of the land reminds me of the painting, “Crows Over a Wheatfield,” considered one of the last the artist painted, now one of the works in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum.

Van Gogh’s Chapel
VanGohChapel (1)

I went to Auvers on a Monday, the small museum there, in Dr. Gachet’s house, closed, the cafes and restaurants closed, the town quiet. I stayed only a few hours and caught my train back to the city, where I took the metro out to the west side to the Luis Vuitton Foundation, located in the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. That evening I saw the temporary installation of works by Jean- Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele.

It pleases and amuses me that my travels of almost fifty years, which have taken me to many fine museums, started at the Kimbell in Fort Worth.That first exhibition of impressionism and post-impressionism in 1973 opened a door in my small provincial life. A lot has changed since then. For one thing, it is not necessary to travel very far to see great art if you live in north central Texas as I do. Just in Fort Worth alone, three museums–the Modern, the Amon Carter and the Kimbell–clustered together in the arts district, all within walking distance of each other, offer permanent and temporary exhibitions of fine arts to the public. Thirty miles away, Dallas has its own complex of museums.

A sense of urgency marks my travel these days. In my late sixties, I see the time coming when my travels will end. I walk a lot in these great cities and towns I visit–often five miles in a day, sometimes as much as ten–on hard surfaces–stone, asphalt and concrete. I’ve told family and friends that I don’t intend to be one of these oldsters, gimping around the streets of Paris or San Miguel. When the day comes I’ll be content to stay home–a good place after all–and, as Greg Brown says, “fiddle with my memories.” It’s enough.

My First Trip to Europe

by David Williams

When I was a young man and a recent college graduate, I went to Europe for the first time. It was 1976, the bicentennial year here in the United States. On the foreign language bulletin board at school I had noticed a small card telling of an organization, SIA Interchange, that would find temporary jobs in Europe for young people.

SIA Interchange turned out to be, surprisingly, a one-man organization based in Amsterdam. Murray Platt was that man. Murray had come from New Zealand, where he had worked in the textile business. He was a personable man of about fifty-five, already quite bald, always willing to help, and quite the diplomat, which must have helped him a lot as he negotiated, often over the phone, and sometimes through the post, with prospective employers across Western Europe.

We corresponded through the mail several times over the course of three or four months, and finally Murray told me in a brief letter to come on to Amsterdam and he would find me a place to work. He also furnished information about cheap charter flights from New York City to Brussels, and with less than two  hundred dollars I took off.

True to his word, Murray found a job for me in Brienz, Switzerland. It was at the Hotel Sternen, a small twelve-room hotel with a restaurant and small staff. I worked there for two months, joined after a few days by two young American women from New Jersey (Diane) and New York (Denise), who worked as chambermaid and waitress.

Brienz was a small town in the middle of the Alps–towering mountains all around–and flanked on its southern edge by a gorgeous lake, the Brienzee. The town was the center of a small wood-carving industry and attracted a lot of tourists; buses filled with them came and went regularly.

My job consisted of kitchen cleanup and whatever else in the way of dull, menial work my boss, Vreni Michel, gave me. We were obligated to stay for two months, and when my two months were done, I was ready to go, the equivalent of about $500 in my pocket and a desire to see as much of Europe as possible. Diane was ready to leave, too, and we set off together.

The Church of St. Eustache, Paris 
steustachechurch

Our money lasted about six weeks, and through a combination of hitching rides and using the bus and train systems, we made our way from Brienz to Geneva, then on to Paris, back to Amsterdam, across the English Channel to London and Oxford. In this last place Diane and I parted, with plans to reunite a few weeks later in Barcelona. She had bought a Eurorail pass and wanted to go to Greece, and I decided to hitch north to Scotland.

During our first two or three weeks of travel we had been fortunate to spend several nights, at no cost to us, in apartments with locals. In Brienz, a Swiss waitress working with us at the hotel restaurant gave Diane and me an introduction to friends in Geneva, who put us up on a pallet in the living room for one night. In Paris we had shared travel stories and plans with a young man who had recommended a friend in London, who provided a thin mattress and bedding on the floor of a tiny, odd-shaped room in his apartment. We passed several days in London, and this humble room saved us money, helping us to stretch our travel budget a bit further.

Eiffel Tower
Eiffel.jpg

These first few weeks had also given us a chance to see some wonderful things. In Paris we went to the Louvre and spent a few hours, also to the diminutive Jeu de Paume, which at that time housed a small collection of Impressionistic art, later moved to the Musee de Orsay. And can you spend any time in Paris without seeing the beautiful Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel tower? We couldn’t. We visited more art museums in London and saw masterpieces everywhere we went. At Albert Hall we attended a concert of classical music with full symphony orchestra, and in Oxford we saw a semi-professional production of one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Notre Dame
NotreDame.jpg

With her train pass, Diane set off from Oxford to Stonehenge, then returned to the continent and continued on to Greece. We were well into October by then, and I began my hitching journey northward. On that first day I learned of the generosity of English drivers. I hardly spent any time on the side of the road, and almost reached Edinburgh in one day. My last ride, as darkness came, was with a man who taught in the public schools. He remarked the time of day–it had been dark for a while–and claimed to know a good pub to get a bite to eat and a bed and breakfast to spend the night at. I was grateful for both.

At breakfast the next morning I met Nigel and his father, Peter. They were on their way to Edinburgh and offered a ride, saying that they planned to stop in at a castle of historical interest to them, if I didn’t mind the slight inconvenience. I was in no hurry and there was no inconvenience, so off we went.

In Edinburgh I didn’t do much. It was a lovely city with a castle on a hill and the fine aroma of breweries, but I had my mind on the Scottish Highlands and soon found a road out of town and stood waiting for a ride. On a narrow blacktop road with little traffic, my hitching luck continued. Two young Scottish women from Edinburgh, both nurses, picked me up on their way to Fort William, where they would hike up Ben Nevis, the tallest mountain in England. The two-lane highway had very little traffic, and the heather-covered hills and the lochs were lovely; after a couple of days in Fort William, the Scottish women had to return to Edinburgh, so I did the sensible thing and rode back with them.

From Edinburgh I hitched back to London, then to the ferry and crossed the Channel, returned to Amsterdam and took a bus to Barcelona.

As planned, Diane met me in this splendid northeastern Spanish city, where we passed a few days going to art museums and seeing some of Gaudi’s unusual creations, one being the church of the Sacred Family, which at that time was still not finished. We also splurged on paella at Los Caracoles, still open today after almost two hundred years. Running low on money by then, we were forced to consider an inevitability: returning to the States and home. Soon we were standing by the highway outside of Barcelona with thumbs up for a ride north into southern France.

About this time we had to phone the charter service in Brussels and commit to a departure date. We chose November 6 or 7, about the time that Jimmy Carter won the presidency. Our date confirmed, money and time running low, we had little choice but to move on. Hitching out of Barcelona provided a lesson in futility, and soon we found a train station and traveled the short distance into southern France, where we resumed hitching. The French were more generous than the Spaniards had been and in a short time we were dropped off in Montpelier.

This is where memory failed me. I’ve told this story many times over the past forty-two years, and recently I told it again to friends. A man picked us up after we left the train station just across the Spanish/French border and took us as far as Montpelier. It was getting late in the day by then, so he drove us to the center of town and dropped us off on a sidewalk there, saying that we could find a cheap hotel nearby. Thanking him, we turned up the sidewalk a few steps and around a corner. There in front of us, still in good condition after more than twenty centuries. stood a magnificent Roman coliseum. We were astounded. There were other Roman ruins there as well, including the Maison Carree, sometimes translated as “square house,” considered to have been built in 12BC. Those remnants of the Roman empire seemed so emblematic of Europe, with its rich, varied history.

Arenas de Nimes
Urlaub in der Provence 18. - 21. Maerz 2008
(www.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Arenes_de_Nimes_panorama.jpg#filelinks

There was only one problem, a rather significant one: those ruins are not in Monpelier, they are in Nimes, not far away. All these years I’ve been mistaken and have told the story wrong. As I was thinking about writing this, I knew I should verify some facts, so I looked online and learned of my mistake.

And what of Montpelier? This is what I think happened. Diane and I were dropped off in Montpelier at the end of the day, found a hotel and spent the night, and hitched the next morning to Nimes, where we were dropped off on that sidewalk to discover a bit of Roman history in what you might call its hard form. We stayed a few hours to see the other ruins and architecture and, time running out, caught a train north. We arrived in Brussels in time to catch our plane, with only a few dollars left.

Paris Scene of Tuileries Garden  painted by David Williams, 1986
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Our flight took us to New York City–JFK airport–where Diane (from nearby New Jersey) had someone waiting with a car to take her home. We said goodbye at the airport. I called family in Texas to ask for money and a ticket home.

I’ve just finished my fourteenth trip to western Europe. Each time I have visited world-class museums and seen an abundance of great works of art and history–in Paris, Amsterdam, London, Madrid, Barcelona, Florence, Munich. I’ve learned something of the fascinating histories of this places and seen architectural wonders old and new. But that moment–not in Montpelier, but in Nimes–turning the corner on that sidewalk and seeing that marvelous coliseum, was a defining one for me. I’ve been unable to stay away since then.