In art museums, when are selfies ever cool?

An article I just read triggered a deep-seated pet peeve of mine. It’s not about how super it is that summer’s almost here, which really gets my goat, because I loathe summer. And it’s not about the astonishing nincompoopery going on in Washington right now. 

It’s more important than all that. It’s about patrons taking selfies in the world’s greatest museums, standing like glassy-eyed dolts before masterpieces by Van Gogh, Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Caravaggio, all the while blocking the paintings for others as they stage strenuous fake smiles at their cell phones without actually studying the monumental artworks hanging mere feet away. Pose, smile, snap, leave.

Recently at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam I was looking forward to truly absorbing Rembrandt’s grand, justly famous “Night Watch.” It had been years since I’d seen it in the flesh, and this time I read up on it, prepared for a more immersive, enlightened viewing. 

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Mobs of viewers before Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” this month in Amsterdam.

Not a chance. The painting is quite gigantic and still, when I got to it, a crush of phone-wielding zombies were cluttering up the view. I jostled and elbowed, to no avail. Details I wanted to drink in, such as the fuzzy little self-portrait of Rembrandt peeking out from between two watchmen, had to be quickly glanced before some dunderhead, camera in fist, bumped me away. 

Cell phones and those mortifying selfie sticks abounded, with people actually pointing cameras at themselves, plastering on gargoyle grins and snapping themselves in front of a masterwork they couldn’t care less about except for how it will look on Instagram. Can you imagine how those shots turned out? The mind reels. The stomach turns. 

A few sublime Vermeers prominently adorn the Rijksmuseum, but if you want to see them, really see them, wait until the Selfie Squadron gets its fix. Watch as it rushes up to gentle tableaus of sun-splashed domestic life, framing and snapping pictures, then summarily rushing to the next painting, like it’s a contest, some kind of desperate relay.

The selfie epidemic is even uglier at the Louvre with Da Vinci’s magnetic “Mona Lisa.” 

The way many patrons “interact with the 500-year-old painting exemplifies how differently the digital generation experiences art,” says The New York Times article I read. “Most of the roughly 150 people crowded around the painting were taking photographs of the piece, or of themselves in front of it. In the presence of the ‘Mona Lisa,’ digital photography, more than looking at the actual artwork, has become the primary experience.”

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The “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre in Paris. (Photo by Pedro Fiuza.)

This disgusts me, and it probably shouldn’t. No, actually it should. And this is why:

“Imprisoned by its reputation as the most famous painting in the world, the ‘Mona Lisa’ has, to all meaningful intents and purposes, ceased to exist as an original work of art. It has become an idea — and a photo opportunity.”

Hasn’t everything been reduced to this, a crass photo opportunity? Even at Starbucks, I see people satisfying the urge to take selfies of themselves with their massive milkshakes that pass as coffee drinks, tongues hanging out or lips pursed, fingers making a peace sign. Who but the takers wants to look at these images?

It’s too easy to blame unchecked narcissism, yet that’s surely a contributing toxin. As someone who’s almost pathologically camera shy, I can’t fathom this slavering need to record oneself every 15 minutes until dizzying repetition nullifies any semblance of originality. The pictures all look the same; only the “zany” faces vary. People love to look at themselves. As the center of the universe, their self-adoration knows no bounds. It is, I think, a sickness. The camera-clicking hordes in museums reveal a kind of twisted vanity.

Think about it. Your mugging face, beaming, and in the far background, lost in the clamor, is “The Night Watch” or the “Mona Lisa.” What then? The shame.

Art exhibit’s visitors in a nude mood

The naked man looked at the clothed man, and then he looked at the naked people, and then back at the clothed man, all the time wearing a scrunched look that said, “What is this dude doing here?”

This dude (yours truly), fully dressed, was there to talk to naked people. He told the naked man this, and the naked man relaxed. But the clothed man did not relax, for he was one of only a few clothed people in an art gallery filled with naked men and women.

Twenty-one of the naked people were there in the literal, quivering flesh, and about as many were hanging on two long walls, the subjects of life-size photographs by artist George Krause.

m5x00046_9Recently at an urban art gallery, a bevy of nudists came to a nude art show. The nudists, an informal tribe of devoted clothes peel-offers, are always on the lookout for novel ways to gather, and what’s more fitting than naked people looking at naked people?

The gallery owner was happy to give the group a private viewing, and Krause, clothed but bald, came to talk about his work. Each human-size black-and-white portrait depicts an ordinary person, standing stark naked, facing the camera. His singular technique uses white light to create a smoky sfumato effect, bathing the figures in a ghostly, X-ray glow.

Naked people admired the photos’ indiscriminate honesty, and the boxy, concrete gallery echoed with the slappy patter of bare feet. Sipping cheap cabernet in plastic cups, nudists mixed casually in the shocking altogether, proud in their mammalian resplendence. They embodied all sizes and shapes, from pears to bears, though the age scale tipped to ear hair and back aches.

“Seeing the photos in the middle of a group of nudes reinforces how many different kinds of bodies there are,” said nudist Bill Morgan, whose body hair could pass for clothing in some cultures. “Running around with this group has done a lot for me in terms of accepting my own body.”

One thin woman was all bare flesh but for a yellow Livestrong bracelet, while a tall man with a round belly wore only silver-rimmed spectacles. A green, quarter-sized tattoo announced itself from a woman’s right dorsal cheek. Tan lines: oddly scarce.

The nudist group has roughly 60 members, about 40 of whom are men, says club president Steve Bosbach, diminutive and hairless as a fish. The lopsided male-to-female ratio was on full-frontal display at the private party. It was a man’s world.

There was chatter about “liberation,” “society” and the nudist “agenda,” yet a curious dearth about sexuality and the whole nakedy thing. One wondered how these people abstain from . . . looking.

“With some practice, it’s completely possible to maintain eye contact with a topless woman,” Morgan said. “You don’t stare, but you don’t avoid looking in a particular direction either.”

Morgan has a long gray ponytail and lives with his mother, who was surprised by his nuditude. She doesn’t see him naked, though her son likes to spend a few hours a day kicking back in the buff. Like his clubmates, Morgan does many things without attire, cut free from the bondage of cotton fibers. Perhaps it’s the leather seats, but one thing he has not done is drive naked.

“I’ve wanted to drive naked a few times after club get-togethers,” he said. “Putting the clothes back on is the hardest part.”

Visual antidotes to winter’s vicious freeze

With my love of cold weather, my fervent devotion to fall and winter, to thick jackets, chapped lips and goosebumps, I’ve come to the conclusion that I am part polar bear, part moose.

I relish the big chill. I rather enjoyed the “bomb cyclone” that recently tormented the entire East Coast. Undoubtedly, the swirling mega gusts and ravaging ice storms truly unsettled. I’m actually no fan of voluminous snowfall. Slush, mush, argh. But give me some solid 30s and 40s F and I get to bundle up, thrill with the chill and, this is critical, not sweat.

Yet things are warming up, and this week the New York area will enjoy an inhumanely balmy 60 degrees — a wee too warm, but my survivalist instincts will kick in.

It is said winter lovers are a rare breed, anomalous, daft. I ask: Why don’t more people hate summer? Baffling. I loathe the warm months. It’s a me thing. Shorts and I are on rancorous terms.

I’ve traveled wide and far in positively scorching, humid, sweat-sodden climes and I thought this quintet of watery photos from said journeys might warm up the cold-adverse reader, reminding you of the great thaw to come, soon. All too soon. Splash.

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Boy leaping into river in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
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Vietnamese kid after his plunge.
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Girl splashing in fire hydrant, summer, Brooklyn, NY.
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Boys in Istanbul, Turkey.
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Those Turkish boys, loving it.

My romance with travel — quote of the day

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Paris

“Traveling is the great true love of my life. I have always felt that to travel is worth any cost or sacrifice. I am loyal and constant in my love of travel, as I have not always been loyal and constant in my other loves. I feel about travel the way a happy new mother feels about her impossible, colicky, restless newborn baby — I just don’t care what it puts me through. Because I adore it. Because it’s mine. Because it looks exactly like me. It can barf all over me if it wants to — I just don’t care.” — Elizabeth Gilbert

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Istanbul
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Paris

Beirut: beauty, bowed, but not broken

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Luna Park, a tumbledown amusement park along Beirut’s Corniche seaside promenade. It appeared shuttered and cobwebbed, far from its heyday as a respite from the country’s civil war in the 1970s.

Beautiful but battered, regal but raw, Beirut is like a patient in recovery, with ample physical therapy ahead of it. No longer crowned the “Paris of the Middle East,” the Levantine Mediterranean city, one of the world’s oldest and a beguiling twinning of East and West, remains a tourist draw of exotic splendors and fragrant pleasures. If it bears unconcealed bruises, Beirut still, with its lush, war-torn history and an exuberant cafe and bar life, is a multilevel dazzler.

I can’t say my weeklong visit some years ago went as planned. Trouble was had. After I took a photo in a neighborhood where I was told explicitly not to take a photo, I was detained by Hezbollah goons who roughed me up a little, rifled through my bag, flipped through my books and demanded to see my “papers.” I felt like I was in East Berlin, circa 1960. I felt like I might be tortured, disappeared or beheaded. It was no joke. I came out alive, shaken and shaky for the rest of the day and night, but not enough to deter me from haunting a choice bar in one of the city’s crackling nightlife districts. Beirut knows how to party.

Would I go back? Probably not. But I’m glad I went. It’s a lovely, melancholy place, at once desolate and disarming, friendly and not a little forlorn.

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Pigeons’ Rock, or Sabah Nassar’s Rock, in the Raouche area along the Corniche.
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Lebanese Army vehicle, downtown Beirut. Its presence, imposing and unsettling, wasn’t unlike those of the grim-faced armed soldiers patrolling malls and mosques.
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One of countless bullet- and shell-riddled buildings all about the city.
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Proud produce merchant.
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Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989, remains an icon in Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut. Taking this photo got me into a world of trouble with local authorities who were convinced I was a western spy.
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Hezbollah rocket on display in the middle of a south Beirut street.
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My (tiny) bar of choice in the ever-hopping Gemmayze district, which throbs with bars and clubs and revelers. That guy in the neon-ablaze storefront window on the far right is a DJ.
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Blasted shell of the infamous Beirut Holiday Inn. During the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-76, the hotel became a war zone in the Battle of the Hotels.
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Girl in taxi, texting.
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Delightful if pontifical Orthodox priest who gave me an earful about God, history, life.
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Ceiling of the Mohammed Al-Amin mosque in downtown Beirut.
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Prayer on the Corniche. (Luna Park Ferris wheel in far distance.)

A grave interest in cemeteries

Considering my voluptuous fascination with death and dying, I’ve become quite the habitué of graveyards and cemeteries, be they local, regional or far-flung amid my world journeys. I dig graves. And I go out of my way to find them, stroll them, contemplate and photograph them, from Boston to Brooklyn to my personal cemetery capital of the world Paris.

My favorite cemetery is, no surprise, Père Lachaise in Paris, a dense, lush, almost medieval necropolis of winding paths and boulevards, overgrown ivy and shady groves — a crepuscular cosmos unto itself whose edifices just happen to be ornate, angel-crested crypts and poetry-carved tombstones. Famous artists, actors, writers, politicians — Jim Morrison to Oscar Wilde, Proust to Edith Piaf — slumber here. Locating their graves is part of the game at the labyrinthine, 110-acre Père Lachaise, which contains over a million graves. (Cimetiere du Montparnasse is another must-see, star-studded burial spread in Paris.)

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Tchaikovsky’s grave

Researching my nearing trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, I was thrilled to find a whole page about local cemeteries. The most popular and famous is the Tikhvin Cemetery at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, where Dostoyevsky, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and other luminaries rest. Expect travelogue-y descriptions of my visits to the Russia repositories.

Meanwhile, this is a catalog of recent cemetery jaunts — and more. All the images have to do with death, dying, the great beyond.

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Brompton Cemetery, London.
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Westminster Abbey, London. (How I face the world each morning.)
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Istanbul Islamic cemetery.  
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Serge Gainsbourg, Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.
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Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London.
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Highgate Cemetery, London.
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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.
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Paris Catacombs. (Alas, poor Yorick!)
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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.
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Cast of Joseph Merrick skeleton, aka The Elephant Man, Royal London Hospital.
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Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.
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Highgate Cemetery, London.
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Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris.
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Funeral pyre of old woman, Kathmandu, Nepal.
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London.

Feral photos: Travel encounters of the animal kind

A monkey yelled at me in Jaipur. Another snatched a banana from my hand in Cambodia. A gang of them exploded in all directions, thumping on cars, flying onto rooftops, screeching and scaring the holy bejesus out of me in Delhi. Monkeys: the devil’s minions.

I adore animals and I’ve met many on my journeys, mostly skinny street dogs, but also water buffalos, cows, painted elephants, a mammoth tattooed pig, Egyptian camels, those accursed simians and more skinny street dogs. Because I haven’t been to sub-Saharan Africa or deep into tropical jungles, I haven’t encountered anything wildly exotic, say, a panther or platypus. (I did meet a king cobra in Hanoi. And then I ate it. Eleven courses, including its beating heart in rice wine. I am still recovering.)

Never, ever do I visit zoos on my travels. The mere idea is a great depressant. The sad, ramshackle Shinagawa Aquarium in Tokyo helped snuff my appetite for captive-animal displays.

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Cappadocia, Turkey.

Of course I meet milling mutts wherever I go. Dogs are the best, even if they can break your heart. In Kathmandu a young punk randomly kicked a stray dog in the ribs. It let out a terrible yowl. I grabbed the kid and chewed him out and promptly befriended the dog, which seemed alright. We still email.

In Tokyo I hung out with a guy and his shambling black Lab. In Paris I played with a pooch wearing one of those medical cone-collars. I took his picture, but didn’t include it here. For now, I offer these creature features:

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The Three Muske-steers: a trio of bovines in New Delhi, India, just chilling.
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My best pal in Istanbul, a homeless hound I hung out with during two visits to Turkey. I fed her well. We talked politics.

 

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Monkey with child going ape-shit in India. Something I said?
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Kitten with pierced ear (evil-eye earring) at carpet shop, Istanbul.
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Sheep to the slaughter, awaiting the knife at a mosque in Istanbul.
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Stray mama nursing pups in Old Delhi, India.
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Water buffaloes cooling off in the filthy Ganges, Varanasi, India.
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Kids and their kid, New Delhi.
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Stray snoozing, Istanbul.
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Kinder, gentler monkey, Varanasi. 
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A little too late to befriend this guy in Vietnam.
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Festive bovine, Mumbai.
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Sad, sickly stray in Mumbai. I shattered.
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That dog, above, belongs here, Agra, India.
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A clown and his kitty, Istanbul. I need a large polo mallet.
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Bonus shot: Remains of 11-course cobra feast, Vietnam.