One final post from New York

My first tweet from New York compared the taxi ride from JFK to Manhattan to “.. Driving onto a film set.”   Which proved to be closer to the truth than I knew.   We crossed the Williamsburg Bridge (iconic publicity shot of Woody Allen’s Manhattan) to our hotel in SoHo on the edge of Little Italy (several scenes from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets were filmed within a few blocks of our hotel).   On our first day we visited the National 9/11 Memorial (evoking Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising).   Day two took us past the Chelsea Hotel, famous for much more than Leonard Cohen’s song (see Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids) and on to Columbus Circle, at the edge of Central Park (scenes from Taxi Driver).   Our brief visit to Harlem took us down 110th Street (Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack – the soundtrack to the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown).


Left: the “Mean Streets” of Little Italy; right: the Chelsea Hotel.

On our last morning we were in Greenwich Village, we walked along West 4th Street (Positively 4th Street by Bob Dylan) to Washington Square Park (literature: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, Another Country by James Baldwin; film: Frances Ha, Inside Llewyn Davies), then to Jones Street where the cover photograph of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was taken. Finally, we walked back towards the lower East Side to have our lunch in Katz’s Delicatessan (famous for That Scene in When Harry Met Sally)

And that’s without even trying. Only Chelsea Hotel and Jones Street were actually on our itinerary. The rest were happy accidents. As I said, it was like driving onto a film set.

Normal Microscopes and Monsters service resumes in the next post.


Left: the Freewheelin’ Martyn Kelly in Jones Street, Greenwich Village; right: Katz’s Deli.

How to paint like Vermeer

I have to confess that New York’s art was one of the main incentives for my trip and the two galleries that I visited, the Met and MoMA, did not disappoint.   Curiously, it was the European Art that was the biggest draw for me, as a large number of major works that I knew from reproductions had crossed the Atlantic over the years.   MoMA, for example, includes Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which was the starting point of Cubism and modern art.   I had seen it reproduced in books but this was only a partial preparation for my first encounter with the painting itself.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art – an enormous, bewildering maze of a building – holds five of the 34 paintings by Vermeer, my favourite artist of the Dutch Golden Age.   This was a treat; the only place I have seen so many on a single day was at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam a few years ago.   Two of those at the Met (Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and Woman with a Lute) are amongst his very finest paintings, epitomising both his skill at capturing the effects of natural daylight and his compositional genius, capturing an air of calmness and serenity in a manner that has rarely been matched.


Three of the Met’s five Vemeers: A Maid Asleep (ca. 1656-7); Young Woman with a Water Pitcher (ca. 1662); Study of a Young Woman (ca. 1665-67).

Most Vermeers are very small works (Young Woman with a Water Pitcher is 45.7 x 50.6 cm, for example) but with very fine brush work and great attention to detail.   Their near-photographic detail has led to many speculations about his working methods with some, including David Hockney in a recent book, suggesting that he may have used optical devices. In this, he may well have been aided and advised by his friend Anton van Leuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope (finally … a tenuous link with the main theme of this blog!)


The other Vermeers from the Met’s collection: Woman with a Lute (ca. 1662-63) and Allegory of the Catholic Faith (ca. 1670-72).

One of the unexpected delights of the return flight was finding a documentary, Tim’s Vermeer (2013), on the in-flight entertainment system, which explored this idea.   The “Tim” of the title is an American inventor and entrepreneur who was sufficiently intrigued by the possibilities that devices such as Camera Lucida may have offered to seventeenth century artists that he first re-created the scene that Vermeer portrayed in The Music Lesson (ca. 1662-65) and then, with the aid of mirrors and lenses, produced a very accurate likeness of the original painting.   Tim Jenison, it should be noted, had never painted before embarking on these experiments, which makes his achievement all the more remarkable. Some are not convinced, regarding Jenison’s finished painting as a “pedantic and laborious imitation” rather than a step towards a better understanding of Vermeer’s methods. I’m not so sure.   To understand his working methods is not to undermine his compositional genius. Modern art history is, in my opinion, too readily inclined to believe in the lone creative genius rather than recognise the way society moulds and shapes artistic production.   This film cannot prove that Vermeer used optical devices, but it does show that the idea is worthy of consideration.  And, with the final credits rolling just as we began our final descent to Heathrow, it made an otherwise sleepless night much more enjoyable.

A walk along the High Line

I don’t think that I have spent so much time somewhere with so little greenery for a long time. With the exception of Central Park, Manhattan is a remorseless mix of shades of grey and brown, with few open spaces. It is a vibrant and exciting place, but there is little respite from the noise and energy that come as part of the package.  James Baldwin captured the essence of Manhattan well in his 1962 novel Another Country: “It was a city without oases, run entirely, insofar, at least, as human perception could tell, for money; and its citizens seemed to have lost entirely any sense of their right to renew themselves”. That made today’s visit to the High Line in Chelsea all the more welcome. I’ve written before about the importance of green places in cities (see “More things we’ve forgotten to remember and “A brief diversion to South Korea“) and the High Line fits into that same category of industrial heritage reimagined and reclaimed as a “green lung” for the local community.

The High Line was, originally, an elevated railway line in lower Manhattan that has been converted into a narrow public park winding its way from the Meatpacking District through Chelsea, offering views across Manhattan and over the Hudson River towards New Jersey. Alongside the path, patches of vegetation – various shades of formal horticulture and semi-wild / feral growths – poke through the old railway lines. If I lived in lower east Manhattan this would be the place where I would head for a jog, or just to wander alone with my thoughts for an hour, away from the hustling city around me.

The High Line, looking north, May. 2014

Central Park, too, is a rather wonderful place but that is more established. The High Line shows the creativity of a new post-industrial generation, unlocking the potential of derelict and decaying infrastructure. I may have said this before, so excuse the repetition, but ecologists are often too focused on conservation of the remote and the rare whereas some of the most valuable actions we can perform is to bring some nature – not necessarily the finest or best – within the reach of everyone.

Central Park looking south towards midtown Manhattan. May 2014.