The Art Teacher – Rufus Wainwright
…we looked at the Rubens and Rembrandts, I liked the John Singer Sargents…
He told me he liked Turner…and never have I turned since then…
Have you ever “done a song”? Kind of impossible but for some songs you can have a go. You can do an LP cover – go to the very place and take the same shot yourself. OR you can find yourself in a location, or a city or on a river, or in a story. We decided to do The Art Teacher today. Incredible song, for so many reasons. I was late to Rufus Wainwright, no shame there, we’re all early to some and late to others. Long as we get there eventually. I was listening to Radcliffe & Maconie in 2010 discussing “the best songs of the 21st Century” and suddenly there it was. Astonishing piece of work. Immediate impact, loved it ever since.
So – the song itself. First of all: “there I was in uniform, looking at the art teacher”. Fair enough it’s a childhood song you think, perhaps a coming-of-age. Quite unusual even so. But then: “I was just a girl then, and never have I loved since then…” OK – so it’s from the POV of a schoolgirl. Very unusual, from a man… She’s Leaving Home. I Don’t Like Mondays. So back to the art teacher : “He was not that much older than I was, he had taken our class to the Metropolitan Museum.” Fair enough – he’s the art teacher right? That’s exactly where he should be taking his class. But : “He asked us what our favourite work of art was….and never could I tell him….it was him. No never could I tell him….oh I wish I could have told him.” This schoolgirl then is in the Metropolitan Museum, having a crush on her art teacher, who swooningly introduces her to Turner, with the result that she confesses: “never have I turned for any other man”… After a brief and beautiful French horn and clarinet interlude the 3rd verse finds her “all grown up” and married to an executive company head, with a Turner painting hanging on her wall, but still, tragically, in love with the art teacher.
All this is done with just voice and piano (apart from the short instrumental verse) and Rufus crosses the bar line and stretches and shrinks phrases to seven and nine bars – very unusual, very effective, but then as the song finishes and applause rings out you realise that you’ve been listening to a concert rendition. Rufus Wainwright is a very fine songwriter and singer, with at least two utterly classic LPs under his belt : Want One and Want Two which both came out in 2004. Superbly crafted emotionally profound music. As I say I was late to him as an artist, but I bought the lot after hearing Want One. Sometimes he holds a note too long, his confidence occasionally drifts into a longeur, but the craft, melodies and lyrics are of the highest quality. And on this song, he is completely reigned-in and focused.
So today, March 23rd, Jenny and I met in the Café Sabarsky for bratwurst and sauerkraut and made our way to The Metropolitan Museum to live the song. The art teacher takes his class and they look at the Rubens and Rembrandts, John Singer Sargents and Turners. We walk up the huge staircase and there is a lady information desk. Hello I say. We’d like to see Rubens, Rembrandt, John Singer Sargent and Turner. I think she enjoyed showing us how we would go about doing this – and it wasn’t going to be straightforward. So : through the first door and bang, we’re into European Paintings 1250-1800. Are you kidding me ? Turn left past altar pieces and swiftly into the Dutch masters without stopping because there are 47 rooms in this one section of the Met. Did I mention how vast this museum is? Like the British Museum PLUS the National Gallery PLUS the Tate, PLUS the Louvre. It’s huge. You don’t stop at every painting unless you’ve got a spare month. So we’re steaming past Ruisdael, Hals, Memling, endless landscapes and there! is the first Rembrandt, unmistakeable portraits, faces, real people wearing real clothes, and even one of the celebrated self-portraits, as an older man. Brilliant. A quick look at Vermeer, Van Dyck whizzes by, through to Rubens. Lots of flesh. Pink. Classical scenes, groups of figures, sensual vistas. A horribly-composed wolf-hunt. And then quickly, through the Titians, Raphaels, Velazquez – quick stop for Goya YES – there’s a picture of our three cats looking at a pet magpie on a string ! Roxy, Mimi and Boy with big eyes !
Fransisco Goya – The Tame Magpie (1708)
And past a sculpture garden into the American Wing. Another 27 rooms. And there are the John Singer Sargents.
Portraits -society people, glamour. Beautiful, elegant, langourous. Dressed in chiffon and gauze and satin. The famous Madame X originally had a shoulder strap hanging off and he re-painted it. And there is Singer Sargent’s art teacher himself too. Of course Rufus Wainwright, camp as a nine-bob note, would like him. But it’s a schoolgirl POV in the song though? Hmmmmm. She likes him too then, that’s OK.
We hover over some Singer Sargent landscapes – impressionist works, from an American brush, a great discovery. He did spend time with Monet after all.
Then we explore – Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and suddenly we’re in a room with vast epic paintings, and I mean paintings that take up a whole wall : one called…
Emanuel Gotlieb Leutze – Washington Crossing The Delaware (1851)
This is a famous picture, a propaganda piece which reminds us both of the epic scale and subject of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading The People” or Ingrés “Raft Of The Medusa” from the Louvre. This one depicts a famous scene from the Revolution, which of course being English I know nothing about. Although, having been cast as Washington’s British counterpart General Sir Henry Clinton in the AMC TV series “TURN” last year, I have done a little catching up on my historical gaps. Plenty of those! The American Revolution is a completely fascinating period needless to say, once you get past the propaganda (all the Brits are gay) and after all, they did abolish the monarchy AND the aristocracy here over 200 years ago. Respect and hats off indeed. In this same epic-scale room are other huge landscape pictures by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Church, both luminaries of the Hudson River School who were the first landscape artists in America, obsessed with light, natural rock formations, trees and vast canvases.
Thomas Cole – The Ox-Bow (detail) 1836
These are truly impressive paintings, and new to us both. Next room contains a collection of Civil War paintings – again of interest because Jenny has just been doing a civil war play here called Father Comes Home From The Wars parts 1, 2 & 3 at the Public Theatre – a war between the southern states who wanted to retain slavery, and the north who’d abolished it. I silently thanked Rufus Wainwright for being my art teacher, and taking us into the American Wing and our own new world of art. And now for Turner.
We walked back through Watteau, Chardon, Caravaggio and Canaletto without stopping once. Surgical strike ! Across the hallway, up the corridor and past the over-exposed Impressionists (there’s a Manet ! there’s a Monet ! there’s a Manet & Monet next to each other !) towards the English room. Which is roped off. “Sorry” says the guard, “that room is closed today.” What ? says Jenny, “What do you mean?” Our staff member waves toward Constable and Turner. “We don’t have enough staff today. Closed. You can come back tomorrow.”