Software Engineer
Google Chrome

East Coast (VIII): New York, Part 5

This is the eighth in a series of posts about my East Coast US trip in March 2013 (see the first partsecond partthird partfourth partfifth part, sixth part, and seventh part).

My last day in New York came far too quickly. For all that I had seen and done, I had not even managed to venture out of Manhattan before my time in the city was up. I would spend this last day crossing the final few things off my list, and wishing for the next trip to this great city to arrive quickly.

My day began at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met, as it is affectionately known, is the largest art gallery in the US. It sits on Museum Mile on the east edge of Central Park, and I had already walked by it several times during my time in the city. I finally entered to explore its cavernous halls on this last day in the city. You need not pay to enter if you do not want to, but there are recommended amounts for adults, students, and children which I dutifully followed. Please pay the recommended amount when you go - the museum is well worth the price and much more. The halls sprawl on and on with art and relics of every imaginable kind and origin. It is like walking through the history of the world in one building.

I arrived at the Museum before opening time, and was one of the first people to enter. This meant that I was able to wander through an almost deserted Met Museum for nearly an hour as people began filing inside. It was a very pleasant experience, and I recommend an early arrival to anyone who wishes to visit the Met. One of the most stunning exhibits there is a complete Egyptian temple. The Temple of Dendur originally sat on the banks of the Nile in Egypt. However, the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s threatened to submerge the temple. American money was pledged to help save the temple from destruction, and in gratitude the Egyptian Government gifted the historic site to the US. It was moved and reconstructed in the Met Museum, where it still sits in an enormous room surrounded by a pool symbolising the Nile.

The Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing of the Museum is a beautiful, airy space in which a collection of American sculpture is displayed. The centrepiece (behind the lamppost to the left of of the photo above) is a beautiful golden-gilded Diana, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. She stands 13 feet high, balancing on one foot, drawing back an arrow in a bow. The centrality of the Court means that you can pass by it many times over the course of your Met trip; it adjoins the Temple of Dendur, the American Wing, Medieval Arms and Armour, and the European section on the first floor.

The Met Museum's website lists some recommendations for the viewer in a hurry. One of these is the above Power Figure, sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These figures are sculpted to hold mystical forces, and serve as witnesses to important vows, treaties, and exorcisms in the community. Each metal spike driven into the body of the figure symbolises another critical affair witnessed and performed under its watchful eye. Intimidating, isn't it?

The beautiful frescoes of this restored bedroom are taken from the villa of one P. Fannius Synistor. The villa was in Boscoreale, about a mile north of Pompeii, and was buried following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. Excavated in the early twentieth century, the villa's frescoes were restored and are now on display in their approximate original configuration in the Met. I think frescoes are fascinating because of the way in which they are painted: plaster is laid down, and then the paint applied as the plaster is still drying. This imbues the image into the plaster, making it an integral part of the wall.

The Met houses a very large collection of art, including many works from my favourite Impressionist era. Above is a van Gogh entitled 'Wheat Field with Cypresses'. Painted just a year before van Gogh committed suicide, the work is remarkable to see up close. A picture cannot do justice to the thickness of the layers of paint - the coarse brushstrokes that look so uncouth in individuality but as a whole combine to illustrate a placid, pastoral scene.

William Bouguereau's 'Nymphs and Satyr' caused a storm of controversy upon its debut in Paris, 1873. The painting was acquired by an American art collector, sold at auction in 1888, and then bought again in 1901 whereupon it was stored in a warehouse to keep its 'offensive' content from the public. The Met is currently displaying the painting while its original home at the Clark Art Institute in Massachusetts undergoes renovations. What is the offensive content you may ask? It's a group of nymphs bathing in a pond who have been disturbed by a lascivious satyr. Granted, the painting is enormous - 260cm by 180cm, and it dominates a wall all by itself. But in today's day and age, the content hardly seems controversial - how times change.

Jackson Pollock was a hugely influential American artist of the twentieth century. Known for his distinctive drip-painting style, Pollock's most famous works look like chaos - swirls, drips, lines, and turns of paint spread seemingly random on huge canvases. The above painting is part of the Met's contemporary collection, and is entitled 'Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)'. Though I stared at it for a while, I couldn't quite find the sense of grounding and space that purportedly makes the work evocative of nature. I'm sure it's there somewhere though.

As I wound up my time in the Met, I swung by the musical instrument section on the 2nd floor. As a pianist, I studied music theory for six years, and I attend several classical concerts a year. A substantial component of musical theory covers the history of instruments, and how they have evolved over time to their modern forms. As many instruments age, their sound improves, and this is why so many musicians play on instruments constructed in the 17th and 18th centuries. Perhaps there is no type of instrument more famous than a Stradivarius violin. The exemplar sound of these instruments has led to the term "Stradivarius" becoming a synonym for excellence, and today these violins fetch millions of dollars. The Met has two beautiful examples on display of the approximately 600 that survive today.

The previous day, Camilla and I had agreed to go see a Broadway show together. The plan was for me to go to the TKTS discount booth in Times' Square, and acquire two tickets to an appropriate show. The booth sells excess, unsold tickets for a discount on the day of performance, and you can usually get close to a 50% discount (though your selection is typically limited). I left the Met, and wandered across Central Park towards the nearest subway station to get to Times Square. This gave me an opportunity to see the square during the day time to contrast my previous experience very late at night. Despite the overcast weather, the square was thoroughly packed with people - mostly tourists - who were milling around enjoying the atmosphere. There's an interactive screen which beams back a live video feed of the crowd - a welcome piece of humanity amongst the hyper-kinetic rainbow of dazzling, shimmering billboards advertising shows, perfumes, cars, and sports. Times Square is uniquely American - a tribute to consumerism, information overload, populated with hundreds of people from all over the world - many of whom aren't quite sure what they're doing or why they're doing it, but certainly enjoying the spectacle of life around them.

I arrived at the TKTS booth around 2pm, figuring that an hour was enough lead time. I was wrong - the lines already stretched back and forth from the booth! It took around an hour to get to the front of the queue, but thankfully I was able to get two tickets for Jersey Boys that evening at a 40% discount to the usual price. Many people were reaching the front and leaving disappointed that the shows they wanted were sold out, so I was very fortunate. Take this piece of advice from my experience: if you really want to see a particular show, you need to show up very early: earlier than an hour beforehand! You can see a live feed of available tickets and discounts that day at before you even arrive, so you know what's available that day, and availabilities are updated as tickets are sold, letting you know what's gone before you reach the front. With my tickets secure, all I had to do now was kill time until Camilla and I would meet at the theatre. I headed for the New York Public Library.

The Empire State Building through the window adjacent to the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library

One thing that the US gets absolutely right is the public library system. Most cities feature a large, comfortable, well-stocked, and friendly public library, and they are perfect places to find a public toilet, acquire free wireless internet and/or power, and just relax for a little while. The New York Public Library has its primary branch in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. It is an enormous, majestic building just adjacent to Times Square and Bryant Park, and just a couple of blocks from Grand Central Terminal. It houses one of forty-eight surviving copies of the Gutenberg Bible - the first major booked printed with movable type in the West. Gutenberg Bibles are widely regarded as some of the most valuable books in the world today, and they are beautiful to behold. The Latin manuscript is rich, with each new paragraph gloriously accented and decorated in a kaleidoscope of inks. As a lifelong reader and book lover, I felt truly lucky to have seen it.

With time rapidly dwindling, I had one more location to swing by before grabbing dinner. I wanted to see up close the world headquarters of the UN, which I had spotted from the Circle Line cruise a few days prior. Sadly, its aesthetics had not improved from earlier in the week, but the complex was impressive to behold up close. Located in the Turtle Bay district at the very eastern edge of 42nd Street, the squat General Assembly Building stands next to the tall tower of the Secretariat Building. I arrived after closing time, so I wasn't able to properly enter the complex and take a tour. Regretting this deeply, I decided that the next time I was in the city I would make sure to find time to explore the home of the world's greatest experiment in cross-country collaboration.

Craving noodles, I found a small Japanese restaurant to wolf down a quick dinner. I then trekked to the August Wilson Theatre in the Broadway Theatre District - home to Jersey Boys since 2005. I'm a bit of a sucker for musical theatre; I appreciate both the music (as a musician myself) and the showmanship of the performers. The West End in London and Broadway in New York are like a candy store to me: given unlimited funds and time, I would methodically work my way through everything on offer. Jersey Boys is a jukebox musical that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons - the great American contemporaries to the Beatles with a catalogue of hits that are instantly recognisable to just about anyone (Who Loves You, December 1963 (Oh What a Night), Can't Take My Eyes Off You, My Eyes Adored You, Sherry, the list goes on and on). Beyond the music and the success, the against the odds, rough-to-riches-to-tragedy story of the band is inspiring, and makes for great theatre. Camilla and I both thoroughly enjoyed the show.

And so my escapades in New York came to a close. The following morning I would leave behind the bright lights and towering skyscrapers from Penn Station, boarding an Amtrak that would bear me north, to Boston and the final leg of my East Coast adventure.

comments powered by Disqus