Feb. 20, 2011


by Marilyn Donnelly

He who
took the steps
by two
now pauses
on each tread
and I
who love him so
am filled
with dread.

"Passage" by Marilyn Donnelly, from Coda. © Autumn House Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1872 that the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened to the public in Manhattan. Its first home was rented space at 681 Fifth Avenue, in a building that had started off as a house and been remodeled by Allen Dodworth to serve as a dance academy.

Among the founders of the museum were its first president, John Taylor Johnston, a wealthy railroad tycoon who headed up the fundraising; and William T. Blodgett, who paid $116,000 to buy three collections of Flemish and Dutch paintings, and then turned them over to the museum. Blodgett was in Europe during the grand opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On February 22nd, Johnston sent Blodgett a letter about the openings — to the press and artists the evening of the 19th, and to the public on the 20th: "Personally I felt very apprehensive of the effect of inviting the disaffected artist element and the gentlemen of the Press, but it all worked very well. One party who came there with an artist told me afterwards that they halted for a moment before going in in front of the building, and the artist told him it was a 'd----d humbug, and' added he, 'I thought so too, but when we came out we thought very differently.' Our public reception on the 20th was an equal success. We had a fine turnout of ladies and gentlemen and all were highly pleased. The pictures looked splendid, and compliments were so plenty and strong that I was afraid the mouths of the Trustees would become chronically and permanently fixed in a broad grin."

The museum moved several times, eventually leasing land from the city on the east side of Central Park and building a permanent home there. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is now more than 2 million square feet and contains more than 2 million works of art.

It's the birthday of photographer Ansel Adams, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1902). He was a talented child — a musician, not a photographer. As a young boy, he created a band all by himself — he would play the piano with his right hand, use the volume pedal with his right foot, play a harmonica that he held in his left hand, and play a drum with his left foot. When he was 12 years old, a 16-year-old neighbor came to practice on the Adams' piano, and Ansel was awestruck. So his mom bought him a book of piano music, and he taught himself to read and play in a matter of days. He had an incredible memory — he could take a piece of music to bed with him, look it over, and in the morning know it from memory. He was a naturally gifted musician, and he, his teachers, and his family were convinced that he would be a classical pianist.

Although he could be still and focused at a piano, he had a hard time in school. He said: "Each day was a severe test for me, sitting in a dreadful classroom while the sun and fog played outside. Most of the information received meant absolutely nothing to me. For example, I was chastised for not being able to remember what states border Nebraska and what are the states of the Gulf Coast. It was simply a matter of memorizing the names, nothing about the process of memorizing or any reason to memorize. Education without either meaning or excitement is impossible. I longed for the outdoors, leaving only a small part of my conscious self to pay attention to schoolwork. One day as I sat fidgeting in class the whole situation suddenly appeared very ridiculous to me. I burst into raucous peals of uncontrolled laughter; I could not stop. The class was first amused, then scared. I stood up, pointed at the teacher, and shrieked my scorn, hardly taking breath in between my howling paroxysms. To the dismay of my mother I was escorted home and remained under house arrest for a week until my patient father concluded that my entry into yet another school would be useless. Instead, I was to study at home under his guidance."

To provide for his son's education, Ansel's father did two things: paid for his son's music lessons and got him a season pass to the Panama Pacific International Exposition, which opened in San Francisco on this day in 1915, Ansel's 13th birthday. The Exposition was designed to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, as well as the rebuilding of San Francisco, which had been devastated by the 1906 earthquake. The journalist Winifred Black wrote about the opening of the Exposition: "Grandpa and grandma wouldn't have stayed at home from that celebration if you had offered them non-assessable stock in every paying mine in California. You could see it all — the sullen blue-green of the Presidio forest ... the gray-veiled city ... the silver of the gleaming bay ... the purple majesty of the far mountains, the tender green of the Marin hills ... and the city of delight."

Ansel loved the exposition, and he went every day. He rode the roller coasters and jumped on the giant trampoline. He watched demonstrations of scientific and industrial breakthroughs — the fair received the first transcontinental telephone call, was the first place to exhibit a million-volt electric transformer and steam pyrotechnics, the first to use colored lighting and trackless streetcars. There was a Palace of Horticulture, a Court of the Universe, a Tower of Jewels (43 floors high), and a four-story-tall Uncle Sam towering above the Souvenir Palace. There were more than 2,000 concerts during the season. And there were more formal learning opportunities — as the Brooklyn Eagle Daily Almanac reported, "They did a more important work in emphasizing the truth that the Exposition was a human university, with a serious side from which a liberal education could be derived. No one could miss artistic enjoyment and a good time inside the verdant walls, but the interest directed by the serious minded to the lectures on business, art, sociology, economics, and to the carefully arranged exhibits which illustrated them has borne good fruit." More than 18 million people attended throughout the course of the year. Ansel Adams soaked it all in, and he even gave piano concerts there.

The next year, his parents gave him two more gifts that changed his life. The first was a camera — a Kodak #1 Box Brownie camera. The second was a family trip to Yosemite National Park. He was enchanted by the mountains and the forest — so enchanted that he visited Yosemite every summer after that for the rest of his life. He said, "There are no words to convey the moods of these moments." He tried with his camera, though. One of his first photos of Yosemite was of the famous rock mass called Half Dome. He was perched on top of a stump to try and get a good photo, but the stump was rotting and it collapsed beneath him — he pushed the shutter halfway through his fall. It was an unpromising beginning, but about 10 years later, Adams took one of the most famous photographs ever of Yosemite: Monolith, the Face of Half Dome. He went on to take hundreds of famous photographs of the country's wild places, although Yosemite remained his muse. His photography had taken over for piano, but he still played, and he said, "I can look at a fine photograph and sometimes I can hear music, not in a sentimental sense, but structurally. I don't try to do it, it just sometimes comes."

He served on the Board of Directors for the Sierra Club for almost 40 years, and became a public face for Yosemite. He met with Presidents Johnson, Ford, Carter, and Reagan to discuss conservation. He died in 1984 at the age of 82. Six months later, Congress approved the preservation of more than 200,000 acres near Yosemite as the Ansel Adams Wilderness Area.

He said: "There is a deeper thing to express — the return of humanity to some sort of balanced awareness of the natural things — some rocks and sky. We need a little earth to stand on and feel run through our fingers. Perhaps Photography can do this — I am going to try anyhow."

And, "I hesitate to define just what the qualities of a true wilderness experience are. Like music and art, wilderness can be defined only on its own terms. The less talk, the better."

And, "I was climbing the long ridge west of Mount Clark. It was one of those mornings where the sunlight is burnished with a keen wind and long feathers of cloud move in a lofty sky. The silver light turned every blade of grass and every particle of sand into a luminous metallic splendor; there was nothing, however small, that did not clash in the bright wind, that did not send arrows of light through the glassy air. I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light. The moment I paused, the full impact of the mood was upon me; I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses ... the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks ... I dreamed that for a moment time stood quietly, and the vision became but the shadow of an infinitely greater world — and I had within the grasp of consciousness a transcendental experience."

The novelist Wallace Stegner wrote: "Photography is not button-pushing; the camera does not make its pictures automatically the way a lighthouse blinks its light. In a gamesome party mood Ansel will sometimes play lighthouse, rotating slowly on his axis, now and then emitting a low, intense, foghorn moan, and at every full rotation gleaming upon the company with teeth and eyeballs that seem to project through the beard a beam visible for miles. That is fun, and also art, for the playfulness of genius is still genius."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1950 that the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (books by this author) embarked on his first reading tour of the United States. He had always wanted to travel to America because he'd grown up in Wales watching American cowboy movies and American cartoons. The man who arranged for the reading tour picked him up at the airport, and they drove toward Manhattan. When Thomas saw the skyline he said, "I knew America would be just like this."

He was immediately put in the literary spotlight, but he claimed not to enjoy his new fame. In an interview with the New York Times Book Review, he said he missed being a young unknown poet. He said, "Then I was arrogant and lost. Now I am humble and found. I prefer that other." When asked why he came to New York, Thomas said, "To continue my lifelong search for naked women in wet mackintoshes."

The tour lasted until June, and Thomas spent that time traveling to various American universities, where he attended faculty parties and gave readings to packed houses of several thousand listeners at each performance. Thomas himself had never finished college, and he was terrified of academics. So he got terribly drunk at all the faculty parties, shouting obscenities and hitting on all the women. Everyone was shocked and horrified.

When the time would come for Thomas to give his reading, even though he had been nearly incapacitated a few hours beforehand, he would always come out on stage and stun the audience with his performance. He had a deep, sonorous voice, and audiences would hang on his every word. He didn't just read his own poetry. He recited a huge number of poems by other poets, and finished the show with one or two poems of his own. After the shows, he was mobbed by fans.

The reading tour seemed to go on and on. He traveled all the way to California and back. In letters to his wife, he complained that the tour was wearing him out. He wrote, "I'm hardly living. I'm just a voice on wheels." He also grew less impressed with America, which he described as "This vast, mad horror, that doesn't know its size, or its strength, or its weakness, or its barbaric speed, stupidity, din, self-righteousness, this cancerous Babylon."

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