Americana

New York might be perhaps better known by its original name of New Amsterdam. Both cities are ports, formed from marshland at the ocean’s edge. During my visits, both cities were submerged in fog, although the appearance of damp and cold prove deceiving to a North European, as the weather actually proves to be hot and humid; Bellow may have had a point about New York resembling Bangkok. In the case of Amsterdam, the fog winds round corners and lingers in the distance. New York has no distance and it instead occludes the spires and summits of the skyscrapers. Neither city has any enormous number of outstanding buildings and where Amsterdam is an exercise in miniaturism, New York is typically an exercise in maximalism, with few buildings notable outside of their scale. In other respects, the city perhaps resembles London rather more, with its myriads of street stalls. New York’s grid system seems at times like a rational and sensible way of navigating the city, at others like something the city chafes against as each taxi driver attempts to force others out of the way. Freeways in New York alternately feel like an exercise in social Darwinism and at others like poorly designed car parks.

On my first day in the city, I go for a walk around the surrounding area. I turn out to be staying near to Times Square, which I later note for the way its lights continue to colour the sky long after the sun has set. I also rather doubt that Trafalgar Square is ever likely to be the setting for a military recruitment centre. The first thing I really want to look at is the Rockefeller Center. For all its grandiloquence, it feels like a very European building, planned in a similar way to the Barbican centre in London, with sculpture and art integrated into the structure of the building. Viewed that way, the idea of Diego Rivera contributing a frieze to the building seems somewhat less ridiculous. The nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral stands out an anomaly; something that would tower over the nearby buildings in most European cities but which simply recedes here. The gothic revival interior seems to take its tone from England, while the stained glass rather resembles that of Flanders. Traditional religious buildings in opposition to modernism proves a theme, as with the pairing of the Seagram building and St Barts, a study in Byzantine revivalism. At the time I visit, a rehearsal for Britten’s Noye’s Fludde is underway. I press onwards to the Empire State Building, whose summit is hidden in the fog, and the Flatiron and Metropolitan Life Buildings. The last place I look at is near the UN Building (where the Hepworth sculpture is much larger than the copy in London), the Chanin building with its art deco motifs and the Chrysler Building. Easily the best building in New York, it effortlessly combines art deco with the modernist ethos behind skyscraper design.

An early walk the following day is interrupted with a thunderstorm, as my clothes are drenched and the streets turn into rivers. I take refuge in the cavernous space of Grand Union Central. After the storm passes, I go for a walk in Central Park. Where London’s parks are essentially manicured expanses of lawn interspersed with trees, Central Park has rather more pretensions towards naturalism, with jutting rock outcrops giving it a slightly more romantic aspect. Black squirrels and American robins show little concern at the passers by. I then spend the rest of the day in the Metropolitan Museum. I begin in the Greek and Roman section. I’m particularly impressed with the Roman frescos and mosaics. The Egyptian section follows, with the entire Temple of Dendur transplanted from Aswan, Fayum mummy portraits and several statues of Hatshepshut. The last thing I see that morning is the Oceanian section, with its Papua New Guinean split gongs and Peruvian gold masks. In the afternoon, I come to the American arts section, with its Tiffany stained glass and mosaics. The medieval section is rather ecclectic, with Armenian khachkars, Limoges enamel, Coptic textiles and Byzantine jewellery. The paintings section is especially comprehensive, with a range of Titian’s showing mythological scenes (rather better than the religious scenes I’d seen in Venice), a few Caravaggio’s, Canaletto, Tiepolo’s and a view of Toledo by El Greco that looks like it should have been painted in the nineteen twenties. Velasquez and Goya contrast to Bosch, Brueghel, Van Eyck, Memling, Weyden, Hals, Ruisdael, Vermeer, Holbein and Rembrandt. Predictably, the modern section is dominated by Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat.

In contrast to New York’s boldly assertive identity, the part of north Washington I’m staying in looks is more chaotic. Parts look like how I assume drab midwestern cities like Minnesota must look, with mediocre modern buildings. Other parts look like smalltown America and create the impression of a large village (even down to fireflies outside on evening) and both of these are interspersed with grandiose statues that wouldn’t look out of place in London. Tramps are sleeping in park benches while a queue forms at a soup canteen. An aggressive altercation over a slice of bread ensues between some ducks. The apparently endemic squirrels scamper about endlessly. As I walk downwards to Lafayette Park with its multitudes of statues the city begins to shift away from being a place of residence and commerce into something more monumental, a hyperreal emulation of ancient Rome. I was repeatedly told that the White House was rather small but in comparison to Downing Street it seems rather grandiose; I’m not entirely sure this degree of bombast is especially wise. Conversely, I had imagined the Washington Monument to be rather smaller than it is. In practice, it towers over the city just as St Paul’s used to tower over London. I then walk rightwards towards the World War Two Memorial, a somewhat sterile circle of iron wreathes enlivened by some small reliefs. The Vietnam memorial is even more drab, although the decision to include three disturbingly realistic statues of soldiers that use copper verdigris to depict the fatigues against their bronze skin redeems it. The presence of the human and scallscale on the National Mall gives it a rather considerable impact. The statuary at the Korean War Memorial is comparatively amateurish, although the photography of various soldiers shown on the granite wall is what makes that particular monument.

I then walk into the Lincoln Memorial. There’s something rather odd about the way that Lincoln is seated on something that resembles a throne, given that this is rather more ornate than anything any British Prime Minister ever received (and actually rather more ornate than anything most Kings ever got) but it’s undeniably rather powerful. I then walk along the Potomac Tidal Basin towards the Roosevelt Memorial. I rather prefer this; the sculptures form part of a narrative in which the President is only a part alongside representations of the great depression. I then walk onwards to the Jefferson Monument, another neo-classical structure created in the twentieth century. From here, you can see how broad the Potomac is and how quickly the city gives way to woodland, furthering the impression of Washington as an unreal place set aside from the rest of America.

I walk back towards the National Mall. The redbrick gothic of the Smithsonian Castle wouldn’t look at all amiss in Manchester or Birmingham but it looks very odd amidst the surrounding fake classicism. There’s something about the Capital Building or the various museums that looks too immaculate, a certain absence of weathering in their patina. I have a look in the sculpture garden with its sculptures by Lichtenstein, Calder, Miro, Hepworth, Moore, Pomodoro as well as the occasional Paris Metro station before heading into the National Gallery. I begin with the Italian section and the only Michaelangelo in North America. The gallery also has assorted works by Botticelli, Lippi, Raphael, Titian, Bellotto, Tiepolo, Panini, Canaletto and Bellini, but not for the first time, it’s the El Greco’s I’m most impressed by, given how they look as if they could have been painted hundred of years later in the twentieth century. The Spanish section is much as might be expected, but I’m impressed by a Murillo painting of two women at a window, if only for the absence of religious subject matter. As usual, the German and Dutch paintings form the highlight of the visit and especially Van Eyck’s Annunciation and Bosch’s Death and the Miser, as well as various works by Weyden, Van Gogh, Hals, Rembrandt, Cranach, Saenredam, Vermeer, Ruisdael, Memling, Gossaert, David and Bocklin. The British section is decidedly frightful with only Turner to redeem it. Georges de la Tour’s Repentent Magdalene is the clear highlight of the French section, with its Caravaggioesque use of chiaroscuro, as well as more familiar names like David, Manet, Daumier, Cezanne, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Tissot, Monet and Seurat. Conversely, in the American section most of the names like Winslow Homer and George Bellows are new to me. The East wing houses the modern works, which translates into Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Miro, Brancusi, O’Keefe (a new experience for me), Gorky, Pollock, Giacometti, Newman (another new experience) and Rothko. Finally, the gallery also turns out to have an exhibition on dedicated to John Taylor Arms, a latterday Ruskinite who engraved drawings of Stockholm, Paris, Seville, Burgos, Venice and some New York scenes. His work seems reassuringly familiar to European eyes for all of its oddity in Washington.

The last place I visit is Seattle. What Seattle lacks in terms of scale it compensates for with its setting, with the snowcap of Mount Rainier floating above the clouds in one direction and the wide expanse of Puget Sound on the other. My first view of the city is one of the cranes by the water and then the skyscrapers emerge from behind the trees. The city itself feels rather perversely like Brighton, both cities having the same counter-cultural stance, the same types of craft stall. I have a meal of crab followed by cherries in a waterfront park next to a totem pole. The difference is that where Brighton is full of dilapidated grandeur, Seattle simply feels rather more banal, with only more prosaic architecture in evidence for the most part. The main exception is the Space Needle, Seattle’s rival to the Atomium. Both represent a dated vision of the space age, but one that seems rather appealing than the future that actually happened. I first see the Needle early morning through the mist, where it looms like a Wellsian tripod. The other building in Seattle that is particularly striking is the Smith Tower, an elegant tiled skyscraper, whose interior is a vision of creamy marble and gleaming bronze. The upper floor is filled with gifts from Empress Xixi, giving an odd air of chinoiserie to the place.

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