The best day ever

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Okay, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and would like your indulgence: I’m going to journal. I won’t burden you with what I’m eating or knitting or wearing, but I will tell you all about my day at the ‘stute because it was uplifting, stimulating, and just plain ol’ fun.

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It started in the recently re-opened Impressionist galleries. They are laid out well, a lot more spacious than before, but benches are sorely needed. It’s interesting how familiar paintings, like Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, command renewed attention just because they have been moved somewhere else (a bit like changing the furniture around in your apartment – it’s all the same stuff and yet it looks fresh and new).

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What made today the best day ever was the number of encounters I had with people who love art. First, I spoke with an adorable young man (I say this in a maternal way, not in a creepy way) with a full mouth, dimples, and beautiful eyes (again, all this in a maternal way) who is studying French and linguistics in college – get this – because he likes it (what kind of goofy idea is that?). We were both mesmerized by an incredible pastel that I had never seen before: Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Germaine at her Toilette.

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The girl is a street urchin, a gamine, who at best will end up working in a shop (or as a model, for that matter) and will most likely have to turn some tricks as a grisette to make ends meet. There is a sense of defeat on the young girl’s face and in the slackness of her body while at the same time there is a certain dose of defiance and self-assurance. Her drab clothes and the dirty walls contrast with the bright red shawl fringed with white lace; the white lace is so tactile, the artist’s own hand holding the pastel so seemingly present, that I wanted to reach out and trace its trail with my own finger.

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My next stop was to check out the three Cezanne still lifes. There I observed an older man, still in his overcoat, totally absorbed by Cezanne’s Vase of Tulips. After about five minutes he sighed rather loudly with unrestrained pleasure (not at all in a paternal way). I thought it best not to talk to him, some moments are better if undisturbed, although I would have given him a cigarette if the museum rules allowed such a thing.

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Finally, Brooke and Dorota from Rockford, Illinois. Best friends since grade school, they were still on break from college and drove to Chicago to spend the day at the museum. Brooke is studying art and Dorota studies English (don’t tell me – I bet they choose what they’re studying because they like it). We spent nearly forty minutes talking about painting, movies by Kieslowski, and even touched on Kevin Barnes, the lead singer for Of Montreal, because Brooke, in addition to being fascinated by Medieval and Renaissance painting also likes snazzy face make-up, so I suggested she google Mr. Barnes. These women were bursting with intelligence, curiosity, and graciousness. When we got to the question about what they had enjoyed that day at the museum Dorota told me that she really liked a painting of a head from Dante’s Inferno. When I found it (Head of a Damned Soul from Dante’s Inferno by Henry Fuseli) I couldn’t believe that another one of his paintings was one that I had read about that very day in Jean Starobinski’s book 1789: The Emblems of Reason. If you’ve seen any movies by Kieslowski, you know that this is a Kieslowski moment: strangers who meet in chance circumstances encounter some sort of weird coincidence that later becomes ripe with meaning. Needless to say, I started running around the museum to find the Rockford girls, but to no avail. I hope they read this post.

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Back to today’s title: the best day ever. Perhaps you guessed it? It comes from a Sponge Bob song. Sponge Bob is a hero of mine, although I guess he is more of an anti-hero (which makes him, of course, even more of a hero). Bob, the Sponge, has a grouchy squid of a neighbor whose nose looks like a penis, his best friend is a loyal but helplessly stupid starfish named Patrick, and his only pet is a snail that leaves a trail of mucousy slime behind him as he slides around Bob’s pineapple-under-the-sea. What makes Sponge Bob an existentialist hero is that despite all odds he makes every day the best day ever; he is Sisyphus with a smile. He is like Doctor Rieux in Camus’ The Plague (okay, I know I’m getting carried away here, but I’m having so much fun!) who is surrounded by people like the poor schmuk writing a novel who can’t get past the first sentence and yet faces every day with an amazing attitude, except that the doctor is battling a disease that causes people to be covered with supperating pustules while Sponge Bob just has to deal every now and then with pesky jelly fish.

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Tomorrow I think I’ll head back to the Art Institute – I bet it will be my best day ever.

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P.S. One of the details that fascinated me in Germaine and her Toilette was the sponge next to the wash bowl. Wow. Writing is certainly an interesting process (I just thought of the sponge/Sponge Bob thing now) and because of all this sponginess I’ll leave you with my favorite literary sponge moment. It is out of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant.

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“I have known a man who loved sponges. I am not in the habit of using this verb in the weak sense. I repeat, this man loved sponges. He possessed specimens of every conceivable shape and size. Pink ones, saffron ones, purplish ones. He took on their tinge. And some were so soft and tender that he could not resist hitting them. Sometimes in his frenzy he tore the most beautiful ones apart, and cried real tears over their scattered splendours. Certain ones he licked. Others he would never have dared touch, for they were queens, truly regal personalities. Others again he simply threaded on a string. And I have a friend who made love to sponges in his dreams. But to consummate this passion he merely cupped them in his palms and squeezed them: you see how easy it is.”

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Click here to listen to the Sponge Bob tune and have a great day!

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