We were debating a beautiful art history professor, sitting on one of the plentiful sofas at the Yale Center for British Art.
"There are more bad paintings in this joint than any museum on earth," we pontificated.
"But, you know, Charlie, you can learn something from the baddest painting, about time and place, influence and custom." We’ve always been proud to visit the richest museum just to see one piece, but perhaps we’re only opinionated and lazy.
Peace at the Yale Center is gazing all day at Turner’s packet ship rear-ending into Rotterdam, saucy damsels pouring pitchers from a dinghy, worried, jaundiced men, and a port skyline cut into gray crystalline perfection by the master with a crisp knife.
Easy by the dreck, we snuggled in front of Reynolds’ Miss Prue, one of the most demurely erotic paintings in modernity. Gazing like a child with flawless skin under a waterfall of prematurely graying hair, the actress known for reviving Congreve crosses her arms, flaunting two black wristbands like a dominatrix, an overfed mutt yawning beneath her. Suggestively, there’s a hint of a vaginal slit in the folds of her dress. Painterly perfection, all around.
Thence, we were off to the Yale University Art Gallery, whose Louis Kahn wing is currently closed, ripped and defenestrated in what appears to be a sort of Restoration Comedy.
The good stuff is crammed into the old part of this museum: a stunning Hiroshige landscape of trees on a line of islands, like pins in a cushion, for example.
Van Gogh’s Night Café, with more ugly greens than the cheapest motel, nods garishly at Fragonard’s ecstatic Flight into Egypt. Here the aging Joseph falls wearily into an ancient palette, while an ecstatic, uninhibited, disturbingly erotic Mary thrusts the cherub Jesus towards the sky. Clearly, a role for our Miss Prue.
We drove by the half-wrecked, iron ugly New Haven Coliseum with the Old Masters dealer Christopher Bishop. He’s the grandson of John Peale Bishop, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s amanuensis at Princeton. Midway through its demolition, the coliseum has a majesty it lacked as a whole.
"Some photographer should get up here and snap this," Bishop remarked. "It’s the perfect show."
He took us to a cul-de-sac in Milford, where he’s put together his sophisticated Old Masters operation, specializing in 18th- and 19th-century French drawings. Bishop’s recent customers include the Yale University Art Gallery.
We purchased some Christmas presents, including a Napoleon-era Carle Vernet print of a rather tetchy racehorse, which, with some minor condition issues, was a steal at $325.
We’ve always loved Yale, our alma mater, and had doubts about New Haven. But life is all about the jewels and the dung, the sparkle and the dank. In an art world bloated by moneyed frenzy, seek out that one picture in an out-of-the-way place. It could be New Haven.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).