Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lunchroom Buddies, Richmond

When the life of the party invites you to her Paris debriefing and a long lunch at Amuse, I cannot say "oui" fast enough.

Only days after returning from her sojourn to France, she is dressed like a Parisienne - mostly black with touches of white and red and, naturellement, black tights and flats. By the time she added a cap to the ensemble while on holiday, she was being mistaken for a local and asked for directions in the City of Lights.

Always a fabulous storyteller, she's also the only ami I have who always has anecdotes related to height, mainly because she's 6'2. One involved standing by the Eiffel Tower when a small Indian man sidles up and begins leaning her. The point, it turns out, is for his cohort to snap a picture of the two of them.

At one point, he says in heavily accented English,  "I like you," accompanied by a finger poke and another picture is taken. "Embrace her!" the photographer calls out.

That's about enough of that, the tall one decides and moves on.

I've heard of poverty tourists, but height tourists? When you're 5'5", no one who doesn't know you wants a picture of you under the Eiffel Tower.

Over an enormous bowl of mussels and ham in white wine and garlic, I listened as she shared as many details about the art and museums she'd visited as she could cram in between slurps of her peanut soup.

She was aghast at the hordes of tourists who spent all their time jockeying for placement, the better to use their selfie stick and document that they'd been there when the truth was, they'd barely, if at all, bothered to really look at the artworks,

Striking lock workers meant that she wound up with less than an hour in Giverney, the place that had been her main destination on their journey, and yet still, she managed to soak in the wonder of the place. Her conclusion was simple: duh, Impressionism, because given the light and the abundance of foliage, how else would they have captured the place's beauty?

Best of all, she took me back to my years studying art history in college with the three fundamental reasons Impressionism happened: trains to take them out of the city cheaply, paint in tubes so no need to mix paints outdoors. and the debut of photography. Why exactly render something on canvas when we now have an art form for that?

Mais oui, it made as much sense then as it does now.

Fully aware of the pea green-envy it would cause in me, she casually dropped the fact that while visiting the Musee d'Orsay, she'd had a chance to see "Splendours and Miseries: Images of Prostitution 1850-1910," a show I'd eagerly read about in the Washington Post, knowing full well I'd never see it.

When she told me there'd even been galleries with vintage porn movies, I had to ask what kids of things they were doing in them. All the usual depravities, it turns out, a subject that only made us want chocolate torte with fresh berries, if you know what I mean. Or at least, that's how we channeled our sex talk.

Before we'd taken up our bar stools to eat, we'd begun looking at the new photography exhibit, "The Likeness of Labor" but had been too eager to chat to finish. We made up for that with a stroll through the gallery afterwards.

Lewis Hines' exquisite photographs documenting child labor were simultaneously art and horror.

The unbelievably young faces that stared out from commercial laundries and textile mills were heart-rending. His work was so striking that a subsequent generation of photographers - Walker Evans, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange -  took up the cause and photographed workers during the Depression and in Russia, in lace-making factories, ironworks and other places poor immigrants worked.

One of my favorites, perhaps because of the absence of grimness, was Evans' "Lunchroom Buddies, New York City," a 1931 shot of two men - one with a huge schnoz of a nose and ears that stood straight out, a cigarette burning in his workmanlike hands, a jaunty white kitchen cap on his head - amiably posing on the back steps of the presumed lunchroom.

Their faces spoke to their roots. Not for them the homogenized look of men today, but two men with goofy and distinctive features as a result of their heritage, looking out at the photographer with equanimity and maybe just a touch of cockiness.

They looked like they could have just enjoyed an extended lunch together like we had.

Although whether or not they discussed vintage porn like some art geeks I know is anybody's guess.

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