Painting 4: The City of Toledo.
In this, one of El Greco’s undisputed masterworks, the eye is unexpectedly drawn first to the foreboding sky that serves as a backdrop for the chalk-white city, which seems to be resting on a landscape of green velvet. The clouds unfurl up from the horizon in dark plumes, although given the number of viewers already blocking your way, all you see are a few streaks that make it look as if something were on fire. That masterpiece, Toledo Goes up in Smoke, is in the next gallery, and not on this audio tour. I mention the “green velvet” because otherwise you wouldn’t have a clue about the bottom half of the canvas, either. School groups! And kids are so tall these days. Those are ten-year-olds, and they’re all over six feet! That crowd isn’t thinning. It’s worse than the camel and the eye of the needle.
Shall we move on?
Painting 17: The Mona Lisa.
Ah, that beguiling yet utterly mysterious smile. Are the lips ripening into a grin, or sinking back into whatever the opposite of a grin would be? Isn’t it weird that there’s no word for “non-smile”? Have you ever taken the time to think about that? You might as well, because you are wasting your time here. The glare of light against the bulletproof glass makes it look as if a large iridescent moth had settled on her mouth. Which means that the viewer’s gaze is, unfortunately, redirected to her eyes, which you will now notice have different-colored pupils and are slightly crossed. Why is this? Because Leonardo was a mouth man. His notebooks are full of red-charcoal sketches of pillow-shaped lips, just like Angelina Jolie’s. But he did not give a damn about the eyes, and sometimes he would just leave them as big white ovals. (We refer you to the Frick collection, where you’ll find Leonardo’s Portrait of Count Organo, Young Man with Little Orphan Annie Eyes.) But you probably won’t see even the eyes if you do not ask the guards to lower their rifles and lift the rope. A discreetly offered tip… no, not the single. A five.
Painting 28: Sunflowers.
Van Gogh’s gorgeous still life dates from 1889, when his colors reached their greatest brilliance, just short of exploding and splattering all over his hospital room in Arles. (This happened with Gauguin in the jungle, and it frightened off all the leopards.) The paint is piled on in vibrant yellows and reds of such density that several leading scholars have suggested that this is in fact not a sunflower in bloom but an overhead view of a Halloween cupcake with extra icing. This is why you may notice a small cluster of viewers huddled tight in front of the canvas, licking the little wave-caps of paint. I am sad to say you may not join them. Those are museum “platinum” members, and they have given us a lot of money. You are not, because you haven’t. You paid the thirty-dollar admission, thank you, but a museum needs more than that these days. We took in considerably less than anticipated with our previous blockbuster, “Knitted Samplers of the Aztec Princesses.”
Painting 35: Whistler’s Mother.
A closer look reveals that beneath her shoe is a squashed cricket. No, you have to get closer than that to see the tiny little splayed legs. That silly woman has been standing there and sighing in ecstasy long enough, and she did not pay for an audio guide, which at least you did, and anyway I think she’s annoying. Shove her out of the way. Go on. Give her a push. And she has that “transfixed” expression, as if that meant a person appreciated art. If you had any nerve, you really would give her a shove. Isn’t she sensitive! Look, everyone—no, not at the masterpiece—at the sighing woman! When the famous collector Bernard Berenson was contemplating buying some new Renaissance canvas, a Bellini or a Titian, do you know what he would do? He would stand back six inches and spit cigar pulp on it. That is how you appreciate art.
Painting 41: The Boating Party.
Lovely, lovely Renoir! This particular audio tour has nothing to say about this masterpiece. For an additional six dollars, you could have heard me humming a barcarole under scripted dialogue read by Oscar-winners Meryl Streep and Ben Kingsley:
“These pickles—superb! Are they fresh?”
“If you lean over the side, you will see carp, so many carp! I can’t think when I have seen so many carp!”
She is so good with accents! Instead you have me, someone who wasn’t allowed to finish his dissertation at Yale because the entire department turned on me after I discovered that Goya’s “black” paintings were really decal stick-ons. Oh, please leave the headphones on. You are a kind person, I sense that, and besides I know a lot more about this stuff than you ever will.
Painting 49: Guernica.
The Picasso, in all its enormous, sprawling terror. Of course, it never travels from Madrid, but it is so graphically powerful the curators didn’t install it here and still it takes your breath away. Whew! And I see that that woman, the one who was hogging the Whistler, just collapsed and died. She jumped ahead of us, took one glance at Picasso and all the air rushed out of her like a river. If she had had an audio guide like yours truly, she might still be with us. You see, I am good for something!
The Gift Shop.
At last! Here we are, and here is the deluxe, full-color catalog that will allow you to explore, as close as you want, these glorious masterpieces. Yes, it’s been shrink-wrapped, but it would be better for you to thumb through it at home anyway. Don’t you wish you were a microbe so you could squiggle across every square centimeter of the Odalisque’s plump, flawless flesh? Did you know, when it was first exhibited at the Salon, men found it so arousing they were forced to stand against a concrete bunker when viewing it?
If you get a museum membership now, you save 12 percent. On the book, on everything, including me.