Brooklyn Museum

A bitter wind raced down the Eastern Parkway, cutting right through me as it went. My hands were firmly clenched in my coat pockets as I passed by the Brooklyn Public Library, its solemn façade looking down on me with firm disapproval. Beyond the wide expanse of pavement, cars, trucks and buses rattled by under a wintry early April sky.

I had an hour to kill in Brooklyn and was headed for the Brooklyn Museum. The guidebooks I had read were all unanimous in their description of the Brooklyn Museum; an unrivalled collection of art and objects, with few peers across the length and breadth of the United States. And yet, grossly neglected by tourists and Americans alike, thanks to its close proximity to the more popular collections in Manhattan. The accuracy of this assessment was evident as I emerged from behind the entrance of the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and onto an empty, windswept piazza that radiated out from the museum to my right. Designed in the French Beaux Arts style, the imposing façade of the building towered over the open space below it. At its centre protruded a classical pediment supported by six Ionic columns, from between which hung four colourful banners advertising the museum’s collections. A recent architectural addition to the museum projected out from the base of the building into the piazza; a low-slung semicircular entrance and lobby with glass walls and white frame.

I had to enter the museum through this modern entrance, rather than by ascending the stone steps and passing between the gargantuan pillars at their summit. This denial left me feeling slightly aggrieved at having being denied the pomp of a grand entrance, usually associated with great institutions like the British Museum, National Gallery or Tate Britain in London. Instead I had to make do with a foyer reminiscent of an airport departure lounge or a new shopping centre. My dissatisfaction was immediately offset by the instant relief of being sheltered from the bitingly cold wind outside. And then I found myself overwhelmed in a vast ticket hall, the proportions of which, I suspected, vastly exaggerated the probable numbers of tickets sold under its roof every day. Ticket collected and donation paid, I headed to the elevators where I was greeted with an equally cavernous lift. Such a generous amount of space was necessary though, to accommodate the class of thirty or so seven-year-old schoolchildren that hitched a lift with me on their way to the second floor. One of the two teachers accompanying the gaggle threw me an understanding, sympathetic smile as they crowded in, while the kids’ high-pitched voices bounced off the bare walls of our communal metallic box.

My own destination was the third floor. Here was the gallery of European paintings, ranged around the walls of four wide loggia that looked down into a large atrium. Above me hung a pyramidal roof that permitted copious amounts of natural light to filter down below, even on the greyest of days such as this one. In the gallery I found a respectable collection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European works, as one might expect to find in the better provincial collections in Europe. I was particularly pleased to find works by two of my favourite French artists, Millet and Caillebotte, the former represented by a work of his from the 1860s, Shepherd Tending his Flock, the latter by a painted sketch depicting the Seine and a railway bridge at Argenteuil from the 1880s. A little further along the edited highlights of French masters was Monet’s Houses of Parliament (1903), reminding me of the transatlantic journey I had made barely twenty-four hours earlier.

I then made my way up to the fourth floor, where the museum’s decorative arts and period room displays were located. I’d been tipped off by a short piece written in in Robert Kahn’s City Secrets book of New York by the art critic Max Kozloff, of the existence here of a sumptuous reconstructed Art Deco study, that had originally been housed within an apartment on Park Avenue in the twenties. I found the room in question quickly enough, but my first impression was one of disappointment. The quality and aesthetic appeal of the Weil-Worgelt study was undoubtable, with its Brazilian Rosewood wall panels and exquisitely upholstered chairs. But in comparison to the similar rooms I had seen in European museums (and here the Musée D’Orsay springs most readily to mind), the Weil-Worgelt study seemed to my eyes rather unadventurous and conservative in its embrace of the modern aesthetic. It lacked the aura of both avant-garde experiment and interwar chic that I associated with the Bauhaus or the 1925 Paris International Exposition. Instead what I saw was a rather pragmatic, cautious sort of modernism, compelled to hide away its hedonistic impulses behind anonymous panels, rather than flaunt them at every opportunity.

Far more impressive to my mind was the Moorish Smoking Room from the Worsham-Rockefeller House in New York, a painstaking reconstruction of an opulent apartment room that originally dated from the mid 1860s. Sealed off from visitors by a glass partition, and barely illuminated by the electric candles sitting atop its ornamental ebony fireplace, it was a challenge at first to see anything at all bar the reflection of myself and the corridor behind me. But as my eyes slowly adapted to the dark, the motifs of richly patterned fabrics and the luxurious textures of hanging drapes emerged from the gloom, as did the graphic decorations adorning the wallpaper and carpeting, and the floral designs on the chairs. As if this were not enough, the ceiling and moulded decorations around the tops of the walls were covered in a mixture of vibrant abstract patterns that betrayed their North African influence. It was as if I were looking directly into the imagination of the French painter Édouard Vuillard.

Moorish Smoking Room. Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum.

After a few minutes my eyes had adjusted as best they could to the dark scene in front of me, so that I comprehended a room in which not a single artefact, material, or surface was left unadorned. As I stood and stared in wonder at the ghostly details hovering in front of me I speculated that, if it were possible to draw aside those heavy curtains and let daylight flood in from an imaginary window, I should probably recoil in horror at the flamboyance and ostentatiousness of the transformed scene. How different I wondered, are the perspectives of the modern-day interior designer to his or her nineteenth-century counterpart. The former conceives their work with the assistance of an electric lightbulb capable of mimicking daylight, and visualises their ideas on computer screens that frame abstract forms filled with primary colours, amid plastic curves and white gloss surfaces. The latter meanwhile, shaped their creations under the dim incandescence of gaslight, their ideas shaped by the patterns and textures of exquisite natural materials—mahogany, marble, ebony—and their imaginations racing with exotics tales of the Moors and the heroes of ancient Greece and Rome.

Outside of the museum once more, the sky above hadn’t changed from the monochrome shades of marbled grey I had sought refuge from earlier. With reluctance I turned my coat collar up and stepped into the cold breeze. I pressed onwards, back past the botanic gardens and the public library, back towards the Brooklyn Museum subway station. And though my hands and face were benumbed by the icy wind, I warmed myself with thoughts about the reassuring smell of pipe tobacco, of the crackle of roaring flames under an ebony fireplace, a gently ticking clock, and the soft muteness of thick heavy curtains drawn across bleak winter skies.