Saturday, January 21, 2012

Walters Charm in Charm City

I had a bit of a check-out day on thursday, I was given a day away for all my hard work for the AMA process, so I headed up to Baltimore to take in some art.  The day got off to an auspicious start as I ran to catch the metro, only to notice a few stops later that I had gone in the wrong direction to Ft. Totten.  I counted the stops and realized it was closer to go back down the red line some four stops to Union Station than go back the way I came, so I switched lines and rode back down.

I arrived to Union Station and began to bask.  I snapped pictures of the capital and archways.  I wandered into a cigar store, and a woman was buying a pack of djarum cloves.  I stalked her.  I waited outside the store and pounced.  I explained to her that it was dangerous for me to buy a pack, but I was wondering if she could give me just one.  She laughed and handed one over.  Harry termed me a "vulture" but I prefer "assassin."  I got myself a Punch Champion, a short maduro cigar to save for later.

I walked my way down to the train, past the Pullman Marco Polo and groups of kiddies on a field trip.  As I boarded the train, I thought back about previous rush hour commutes, like in Chennai- surrounded by black-dark hued commuters in colorful dhoti-sheets wrapped like Indian sarongs (in my mind, a South Indian kilt).  It is when I am in motion that I am best able to tap in the the reservoir of memories.  It is like something is jarred loose, and I begin to recall.

The train wire lines above on the way out of Union station looked like metal cobwebs as we pulled away.

And I stretched and shook off the dusty malaise.  The yogi on the train.  I reached up and grasped onto the coat rack and hung like a stretching monkey.  I laughed at memories of my friend Seth hanging dangling in the Shanghai metro.  He would hang from the bars, with the Shanghainese staring in a circle around him at this bizarre foreign spectacle.

We passed a blue water tower that hovered like a giant killer octopus, ready to destroy Hakodate.

We arrived into Penn Station, and I walked down Charles through Mt. Vernon.  I stopped by the Washington Monument to enjoyed my perfumed clove.  The tree opened its palm and dead branches cast nets over the park.

I made my way to Charm City's most charming collection at the sublime Walters Museum.  I had read the the Walters Museum has one of the best art collections in the U.S., and I am happy to report on the veracity of such statements: the Walters collection is one of the finest I have seen anywhere.

I wandered my way past gilded clocks showing the gilded glory of the Sun King, with a dour bust of Voltaire peering down.  There were wonderful delicate porcelains from a glorious age.  Marco Polo compared the white porcelain to the interior of the marine snail "porcella" and that is where we get the term.  There were cases of vestal vases with gilded trim, and vases with elephant faces with gilded trunks.  And the nephrite green koush for the imperial czar's ladled drink.

And I don't know what I treasured more, the contents of the exquisite cases or the delicate silence that engulfed me.

The Walters collection had one of the finest collection of pocket watches I have ever seen. Pearled; gilded filligree; enameled watches of the Judgment of Paris.  For once, I was envious.

A passage that caught my eye from the Collector's Study, a cavernous room of delights:
"Two aspects of these objects are celebrated: the artist's God-like creative 'genius' (or its less exalted ingenuity) that generate the idea, and also the 'art' that it took to complete it." 
The Chamber of Wonders bore the words: "To Virtue, Add Knowledge"

This was a collection that ran the whole spectrum of collected artistic wealth and splendor. From langobard golden crosses from Pannonia to treasures of Byzantium; from Iznik Turkish hanging lamps to rock crystal Mughal daggers.  I was stunned by one of the best collections I have encountered in this world, a notion I don't throw around lightly, but a phrase borne out of experience.

And I saw my own likeness in two pieces (craven images, perhaps).  One in a portrait of a brother from another Egyptian Roman mother; the other in a statue of a Mediterranean-influneced buddha.

And of course, I found a PD side.  William and Henry Walters were initiated to Oriental Art at various Expos, where they bought scores of objects.  William Walters served as the Honorary Commission at the Vienna Universal Exhibition, and while there he bought up scores of Chinese porcelain from from the uncle of the Shah of Persia.

The exhibit offered a nice reminder of what the expos meant to a smaller world.  Like introducing Japan to the world at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Expo.  From Tokyo, some 7,000 crates were shipped to the American west coast, and then the crates traveled across the country by rail to Philly.  Japan built two temple structures from lumber sent directly from Japan.

I actually found it hard to come up with enough superlatives for the museum, when each layer of the collection draws you deeper into a magnificent world and leaves you in front of supreme quality.  The collection was a tad overwhelming but not overly so.  In short, the Walters makes for a grand day of delights.

I left the museum late in the afternoon and had a nice lunch at a charming cafe down the street called David and Dad's Cafe.  A held-over egg salad sandwich with a side of red potato salad, and a waitress that called
me "hon" with a smile.

From lunch, I made my way past a "6 degrees of Francis Bacon (From Aesop to Virginia Woolf) and over to a subaltern used book store, and picked up copies of Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Mario Vargas Llosa's Time of the Hero.  I am always a sucker for used book stores.

I went in to the Peabody Institute, where I listened from behind closed doors to a symphony practicing, and sat in the atrium of the grandiose library, thinking of the genius on the wall outside:

"The diversity of the phenomena of nature is so great and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment." -Keppler

"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them." -Galileo

My own thoughts while sitting in the beautiful library related back to public diplomacy:
What is public diplomacy if not the diplomacy of the people.  Who we are, and how we communicate.  Diplomacy of the public in the public sphere.  Diplomacy of the public, for the public and by the public.  
I made my way back to the Washington Monument park to enjoy my Punch, until incessant beggars drove me away from the park.  I regrouped to meet my old friend Andy at the Brewer's Art, a cavernous bar with its own wonderful beer and a catacomb to enjoy it.  We caught up as I heard about his recent trip to Hong Kong and his recent engagement.  As we were heading out, we bumped into a Goucher alumni gathering.  With free drinks for alumni, I quickly became part of the Goucher Class of '03.  We ended up hanging out with some of Andy's old friends and having dinner at the Owl Bar, an old speakeasy at a nearby hotel.  Apparently, if the stained-glass Owl's eyes were lit, libations could be found; if the eyes were off, the fuzz was about.  I liked the stained-glass words:

"A wise old owl sat on a rock
The more he saw, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard"

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