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CHRISTMAS THOUGHTS : Calendar's critics share their love of the arts: the gift each would give a friend today : ART

December 25, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON | Times Art Critic

The young writer who hadn't written much snuggled in the covers against the chill London morning. He dreamt something profound but the radio in the servants' quarters next door woke him to the tune of "White Cliffs of Dover." It was 1960 but the radio was tuned to 1942. He scurried naked across the room and put a shilling in the gas meter, shrugged into the raincoat that served as a bathrobe and grabbed his toilet kit to go up to the john just as the crippled Cockney maid knocked with his huge English breakfast on a tray.

He nibbled at the breakfast, gulped coffee and stubbed a cigarette out in the toast. The bathroom upstairs was awash in soggy towels and there were paste jewels strewn on the bottom of the tub.

Last week when he'd arrived in West Kensington lugging two big suitcases, there were no rooms in the main building at Bailey's Hotel so they put him in the downstairs across the street where the help lived. It was cozy and he felt like Sherlock Holmes, an unusual sensation for a guy from California who was a young writer or possibly an artist if he didn't go back to graduate school again to become a teacher when he got home.

He'd wandered around Europe since May and now it was getting on to Christmas and he was wondering what to do. It was too far to go home and everybody he met was also traveling. Bother. London was almost oppressively Christmasy for somebody who doesn't want to think about it. Kitsch. Back to Paris maybe. For the moment there was the question of what to do today. When in doubt, go to the National Gallery.

If only the Londoners would stop being so cheery. It's very hard to be a brooding young writer when people keep calling you "Love" and acting like something out of Dickens. He trudged past Nelson's column and up the long stairs into the gallery. He usually loved the Arnolfini wedding, but today he thought of writing an essay on why it isn't all it's cracked up to be. Too clear.

He wandered past Tintoretto's "Origin of the Milky Way" with Hera's breast spurting stars, Holbein's "The Ambassadors" with the weird skull smeared across the canvas, and on and on. Maybe art wasn't the answer after all. Go to a pub and have steak and kidney pie and a couple of lagers. No, the people are too friendly.

He saw Piero della Francesca's "The Nativity" as if for the first time. The painting looks like it's dreaming itself. Mary and Jesus are on barren ground but they seem to be floating. A group of angels in pastel gowns play lutes and sing--but there's no sound. Paintings don't come with sound tracks, but Piero makes you feel it odd that you can't hear what the angels are singing.

The young writer bought every post card of the painting in the gallery and sent one to everybody he cared about back home. No message, just the silently singing picture.

At the pub he met a girl.

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