Monday, August 17, 2009

David Hockney blues (with apologies to Patricia Barber)

(ETA, giving credit where due: It was Tommy Francisco who suggested, brilliantly, that they sing a different shade of blues in the California Delta. As for Patricia Barber, she sings a song "If I were blue" that evokes some of the same imagery.)

We spent the weekend at a friend's wedding in the California Delta, the floodplain formed by the convergence of several large rivers on their way to San Francisco Bay. I didn't really know before this that California had a delta, and it took me a little while to figure out the general geography; but by the time I had it down, we were driving with another couple out along the winding roads beside the levees. We passed dusty, sunburnt hayfields, recently mown, and orchards heavy with yellow pears. Tall, square California Victorian houses stood close by the roadside, their proximity as much an indicator of their vintage as anything else; in the age of fast-moving motor vehicles, you build farther from the road. Their size is a relic of a previous age, too, when space was in greater supply, and their height a sign of a building tradition that hadn't yet caught on to the cooling properties of single-story houses. They stand shaded in their copses of still taller pine and cypress and sycamore trees, which stand head and shoulders above the fields and orchards. The broad, lazy, slow-moving river, the levees, the dusty fields, and the withering sun made for a very Huck Finn sort of scene, transplanted from another delta entirely, where they sing a different shade of blues.

To complete the picture, the wedding was held at a sort of robber baron mansion, built circa 1917 in a late Belle Epoque Italianate style. It wasn't as bad as it could have been: many things that strictly speaking ought to have been gilded were not, for example. The wedding itself took place outdoors, under a wrought-iron gazebo that stood for a chuppah, and was utterly adorable, from the hat and white rose left across one seat for the bride's deceased father, to the top-hatted three-year-old nephew as attendant, to the participation of the couple's Old English Sheepdog, Bilbo (as ringbearer, naturally). A pair of butterflies danced together over the gazebo as the couple pronounced their vows.

The interior of the house had been optimistically redecorated with a Victorian profusion of reproduction paintings, chosen according to a slightly cockeyed logic that was fascinating to an art historian. The airy dining room where the dinner was held, with its faux frescoes, was densely hung with reproductions of Canaletto paintings (views of Venice) and plaster Roman reliefs. The "Hemingway bar" contained engravings of the great houses of Europe, alongside a rather tatty zebra skin and several antelope heads. I didn't see the interior of any of the suites on the third floor, where the wedding party stayed, but a number of the closer friends of the couple, ourselves included, spent the night in rooms on the fourth floor, which let onto a central attic full of sofas and low tables. The rooms themselves were named after misspelled painters, a strange collection, but one that seemed logical enough when we saw that the "Van Gough room" was decorated with oil reproductions of Van Gogh's paintings (sometimes more than one reproduction of the same work, actually), along with a copy of Leonardo's "Lady with an Ermine." By contrast, we stayed in the "Michael Angelo room" which was decorated with reproductions of paintings by Joshua Reynolds and William Holman Hunt. I know, I don't get it either. There was a plaster bust which may have been a reproduction of one of Michelangelo's works. The other two rooms were the "Leonardo Devinci room" and the "Pablo Picasso room" but we didn't see the decor of these.

Our friend A. immediately opined that the decoration of the central chamber put her in mind of a bordello. I wasn't quite sure myself, although it did have a certain amount of dark red velvet drapery and gold-colored fringe. The art was an odd collection of several rather nice reproductions of Classical Greek bronzes (heads and torsos) and a jumbled mass of reproduction paintings of nudes in the coy nineteenth-century French Academy style, including Ingres' Grande Odalisque and The Source, Bouguereau's Le Printemps and Nymphs and Satyr, and others in the same vein. I think the count of exposed breasts alone could explain A.'s reaction. That said, the intent of the place was brilliant: to allow some of the guests to stay on late into the night (and indeed overnight) and avoid the danger of driving home along narrow, winding, levee-edge roads after a protracted party. We didn't get to bed until three, which made it hard to get up the next morning; but get up we did, and wind our way back along the river's edge, out of the slow-moving, sun-baked delta and back to urban reality.

No comments: