Epiphany at the Metropolitan Museum

by

05/29/2022

Neighborhood: Upper East Side

Lumière

At the start of the third year of the pandemic, I stood in front of a small flat screen in a corner of a darkened gallery at the Metropolitan Museum with the strangest feeling: I was happy. I had relaxed completely, every part of me—muscles, sinews, organs, bones, if that’s possible. And even stranger, I suddenly had the feeling that my entire life, all 67 years of it, including the worst parts, made sense.

Other museum-goers were milling about, wearing masks, politely jostling for better views, all of us wrapped in layers of winter clothing because the coat checks were still closed. The show, “Inspiring Walt Disney: The Animation of French Decorative Arts,” had been panned by the highbrow critics, but the galleries were packed. A little girl in a frilly dress sprawled on the floor drawing pictures of Snow White. An elegant woman of a certain age in a red leopard cape swanned past a display of Sèvres porcelain.

On the screen before me was a clip from the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty. In it, a princess named Briar Rose has gone out into the woods to pick berries. She was raised in a cottage there by three good fairies to escape a curse that she would die before her sixteenth birthday by pricking her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. As she gathered the berries, she broke into song and when she did, her melodic voice summoned an assortment of woodland creatures that watched her in rapt attention, intently attuned to her needs. They wanted to help her, to keep her safe, and most of all to reunite her with the tall, handsome prince who happened at that moment to be riding his horse through the woods. Unbeknownst to her, she was betrothed to him at birth but had only met him in her dreams.

I had no idea why I felt so happy—I couldn’t get over all the film’s toxic images and messages. That the animals—or for that matter, any part of nature—care about us in the least. That every princess will find the prince of her dreams. That being beautiful means having golden hair, big eyes, a tiny waist, pale skin, a button nose. And that you could fall asleep for a hundred years and all your dreams would still come true.

Practically my entire life’s work had been about overcoming those noxious stereotypes: first denying them, then defying them, then deconstructing them, but never, ever giving in to them. It wasn’t easy. It took a toll—at least three psycho boyfriends, a couple of abortions, long periods of pointless loneliness. Yet I’d come out on the other side, dinged but not destroyed, and disabused of the notion that a prince would save me.

Maybe my unexpected joy came from the fact that I was finally able to appreciate the astonishing artistry of the clip. It seemed to me that was the point of the show: to establish once and for all the artistic genius of Disney and give the artists and illustrators of its 20th century animation factory the credit they deserved by comparing them favorably to the French decorative arts. The irony was that while the studio marketed its films and theme parks to a global audience of billions, the exquisite objects on display in the show—furniture, paintings, tapestries, porcelain—were produced for a tiny European elite. Still, both sets of artists shared a romantic style and playful sensibility that delighted above all in stories of transformation—animals becoming human, humans becoming animals, inanimate objects coming to life.

I moved on from Sleeping Beauty to a carved and gilded beechwood sofa upholstered in red velour. It was made in the 1750s by a pair of father-son woodworkers for the king of France. Back then, sofas were a novelty, a luxury item imported from the Middle East. Novels and paintings of that era depict them as the ideal setting for love, much as movies of my childhood did the back seat of a car. One popular story called The Sofa, A Moral Tale was narrated by a young man whose soul was sentenced to journey from one sofa to the next until he witnessed a true declaration of love.

As the daughter of a furniture man, that made perfect sense to me. We had a sofa (soft, blue, upholstered in corduroy) that could have told harrowing tales of what it was like to come of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, of smoking pot, furtive sex, and spilled wine and beer. My parents had owned the biggest furniture store in the small town in western Pennsylvania where I grew up, and our house, while not ostentatious, was filled with beautiful, eccentric things.

In the Met’s Beauty and the Beast gallery I stopped in front of a display of precious porcelain dinnerware from the royal factory at Sèvres. It wasn’t the pieces themselves that intrigued me; they were charming enough although a bit too rich for my taste. It was the wall text explaining the “seductive power” of these seemingly superfluous decorative objects that stopped me in my tracks. The words were a Rosetta Stone to my childhood. “Items associated with great wealth, authority, and comfort,” the curators said in the flat, dry tone of museum labels everywhere, “could have considerable impact on people—hence their use in diplomatic negotiations.”

My dad was the one who adored fine china. He loved nothing more than to browse the stalls at the New York gift show, urging our mother to buy yet another set of dinnerware—with all the major serving pieces. I often thought the great love of his life was our yellow Quimper. My mother was the one with the sense of whimsy, attracted to things that looked like other things: rabbit tureens, sparkling green-glass salad plates in the shape of lettuce leaves, platters and cutting boards shaped like lobsters, fish, and crabs. Meanwhile, our friends ate their evening meal on plain white dinner plates, served in Pyrex or CorningWare Blue Cornflower casseroles. When they sat down at our table, I saw the wonder in their eyes but also an implicit judgment: rich weird Jews.

In that moment, I was back in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania, observing my parents’ extravagant hospitality, their near obsession with welcoming people to our table. Every Sunday, every holiday, even during the middle of the week, they put in an extra leaf to accommodate the never-ending flow of guests—relatives, friends, some nights it felt like anyone who randomly walked down the street. They weren’t rich by today’s standards, but we had more money than most people in our dying little town.

I didn’t know what to do with the shame of having more. For a long time, I was mad at them for feeling compelled to put on a performance and didn’t understand why everything had to be such a big deal. I wanted to eat takeout, fast food, even TV dinners. Their way of doing things, everything exquisite, everything handmade, was just too much. Plus, it was the ’60s and ’70s, a time, like now, to think about justice and authenticity. The mandate that everything under our roof had to be beautiful and abundant felt like a burden.

In this gallery the curators were intent on contrasting two different notions of hospitality—that of the Bourbon kings and that of Disney. In the first instance, hospitality was a weapon of statecraft and diplomacy. In the second, it had a more democratic flavor—with the understanding that in a capitalistic system, all those feelings of good will around a dinner table will be translated into the desire to buy Disney-branded stuff. 

Neither one had much to do with justice or authenticity.

Next, I spent a long time in front of a display of gilt wall sconces and candelabra that epitomized the over-the-top style of rococo that was popular among the royals in 18th century France and later, beloved by generations of Disney artists. You might think you don’t know it but you do: It’s all C-curves and S-curves and sexy, swirling lines erupting in clusters of cresting waves and ornate shells. Sconces were always a subject of great hilarity in my family because Ma and Dad said customers would come into the store and ask if we sold “scones.”

I thought about the $1,500 decorating mistake I made when my husband and I moved into our apartment building around the corner from a charming antique shop on Lexington Avenue. I fell in love with a pair of rococo wall sconces in the window and foolishly thought they’d look great in our small, boxy dining room with its faux-country Pottery Barn table. The look I was going for was comfortable and eclectic, some offbeat combination of the old and the new. But in every respect, both form and function, they were a disaster.

We still read the newspaper at breakfast, and they didn’t throw off enough light to decipher a cereal box let alone the small print of the daily New York Times. Plus, they looked weird. But when I tried to take them back, the store owner wouldn’t let me. Instead, I had to exchange them for a bunch of worthless bric-a-brac he claimed to have picked up at the flea markets in Paris.

What was I thinking? Easy. I was trying to be like my mother, who put together rooms that were both refined but relaxed, tasteful but also fun, not precious or stuffy like those of some of her friends. Near the record player in our living room, on top of a bamboo tea cart, next to a bentwood rocker, she displayed a bust of a woman painted in the naïve folk-art style of Grandma Moses. One night when we were teenagers, our friends, who had come over to get high and listen to music, started playing catch with it, amazed to discover that it was light as a feather because it was made out of Styrofoam, not wood. Thanks to Ma and her idiosyncratic taste, everyone thought our house was the best of all possible places to get stoned.

She never would have made the mistake that I did. I could just hear her say, when it comes to lighting a windowless dining room, go for maximum practicality. Shop Ikea. Don’t spend more than twenty bucks per fixture. You need to see. As for the whimsical wall sconces from the shop around the corner, use them, if you must, as an accent piece in a hallway, where they can’t do any harm.

My favorite part of Beauty and the Beast occurs before Beast and Belle fall in love, when Lumière, the maître d’ who has been cursed to take the form of a candelabra, implores her to stay for dinner in the hopes that Beast will fall in love with her and the spell will be broken. He sits her down, then launches into a rousing rendition of “Be Our Guest,” joined by a singing and dancing chorus of dishes, platters, teacups, and napkins. Nothing has ever captured my parents’ ethos of entertaining better than those simple, rhyming lyrics:

“You’re alone and you’re scared

But the banquet’s all prepared

No one’s gloomy or complaining

While the flatware’s entertaining …”

After all, they were only one generation removed from the destitute Eastern European Jews who washed up at the foot of the Statue of Liberty at the turn of the century. Even when I was growing up, Jewish families were obliged to take in the schnorrers, or professional beggars, feed them, give them money, and drive them to the next town. And on a personal level, both were dealing with their own psychic wounds. My mother, orphaned at age 5. My father, whose mother spent most of her life in and out of mental hospitals. But somehow no one was gloomy or complaining while the flatware was entertaining.

Beauty and the Beast is, like Sleeping Beauty, a fable of enchantment. And a fable in which a curse can only be redeemed through love. Eventually, inevitably, that love is found, and everyone lives happily ever after. So, was this feeling of happiness, of everything making sense—was this love? The show, it seemed, had not transported me to the magical kingdom of Disney. It had transported me to the magical kingdom of our house on South Church Street, and I felt forgiving and forgiven, with a new appreciation for the way I was raised.

I remembered how much I loved the good fairy Merryweather in her little blue outfit. How scared I was when the thorns sprang up around the castle. How brave Phillip was when he reared up on his horse with his Shield of Virtue and Sword of Truth. I remembered a time when I believed you could do battle with evil and win. I remembered everything.

***

Ann Levin is a writer and former journalist who worked for 20 years at the Associated Press, where she continues to contribute book reviews. Her memoir writing and essays have appeared in numerous publications and anthologies. You can read her work at annlevinwriter.com

Comments
Rate Story
1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)
Loading...

§ 4 Responses to “Epiphany at the Metropolitan Museum”

  • Mike Feder says:

    A very moving blend of memories… The writing is exquisite; every thought, feeling, recollection and description of the objects in the gallery is done with precision and with a successfully realized intention of linking them all together. It’s both elegant, light and profound, all at once. Thanks for writing this–and thanks to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood for publishing it…

  • TSB says:

    “ My mother was the one with the sense of whimsy, attracted to things that looked like other things: rabbit tureens, sparkling green-glass salad plates in the shape of lettuce leaves, platters and cutting boards shaped like lobsters, fish, and crabs. Meanwhile, our friends ate their evening meal on plain white dinner plates, served in Pyrex or CorningWare Blue Cornflower casseroles. When they sat down at our table, I saw the wonder in their eyes but also an implicit judgment: rich weird Jews.”

    Please write more about this dying town, about that house and your life in it.

  • Susan Dow says:

    What a warming pleasure to read your tale of family. The museum was intertwining not only Disney and French decorative arts, but your very own self and the family you are part of.
    So enjoyable.

  • Irene O'Garden says:

    What a beautiful, resonant piece, Ann!
    So happy Ed shared the link with me—you are such a shimmering writer.

§ Leave a Reply

Other Stories You May Like

Nearby Upper East Side Stories

Remembering Gimbel’s

by

A look back at Gimbel's department store, where the price of being the youngest, most attractive male employee was courage.

The View From My Mother’s Hospital Room

by Bonnie Ellman

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer in May of 1996, she was sent for treatment at the Hospital for [...]

Next Stop the Twilight Zone

by

One afternoon this summer I was on the subway. All was normal. Well, except that we are in a pandemic, [...]

Interview with Fran Lebowitz

by Thomas Beller

When you are younger, everything is more French.

Helpless in a Highrise

by

A flood, a bitter supper, and a family held captive for the night...