Ramses to Rembrandt to Wright

SUSAN M. BLACKis a young writer who lives in New York and has contributed articles to various magazines. She is interested in the theater, fine arts, and travel. At present Miss Black is a staff writer for the NEW YORKER. This is her first short story.

ART I is the name of the most amusing course given at Pritchett College. It isn’t intentionally amusing, and when, as a freshman at Pritchett a few years ago, I chose it more or less at random from the college catalogue, I had no way of knowing how diverting it would prove to be. The catalogue described it as the art department’s “Introductory Course,” covering “The major styles in Western architecture, sculpture and painting from ancient times to the present,”but the description conveys no sense of the pace at which we traveled, lickety-split, through a forest of stone figures, wooden hammer beams, pendentive domes, and many-colored canvases.

Art I’s thrice-weekly, fifty-minute classes started in late September with a lecture on Egyptian architecture (“manifest in Egyptian mind to thwart time, destruction, death, therefore concern in inventing forms that express ideas of permanence & indestructibility,” I scribbled dutifully in my notebook) and ended in late May with a lecture on modern architecture which called fleeting attention to Wright, Gropius, van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier and which galloped past Lever House (“trim, neat, elegant, but no content”) to end the course on an evangelical note with the United Nations Secretariat building, hailed as “an embodiment of that organization’s aspirations.” On our eight-month journey from stone pyramids to glass cubes, we also took up and dropped such artists as Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Cézanne, and Picasso, at the rate of one lecture apiece, and acquired an architectural vocabulary that bristled with hypostyles, pylons, entablatures, trigylphs, stylobates, architraves, voussoirs, and triforia.

Since it was quite normal, during one’s freshman year at Pritchett, to be subjected to a number of survey courses encompassing hundreds of years of literature, history, or whatever, it wasn’t the amount of ground or the speed per century that distinguished Art I from a dozen other courses; it was the astonishingly brisk hit-and-run fashion in which the ground was covered. For example, in an English poetry course (“Beowulf” to “The Hollow Men”) that I also took that year, my professor arbitrarily omitted numerous major poets and devoted his time to a few poems that particularly interested him; we spent seven weeks on Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” and “The Windhover,” two weeks being spent on “skies of couplecolour” alone. One reason that no such individual and very sensible decisions were made in Art I was that no single person was in charge of the course. Art I was run by the department, and the department had decided we were better off spending five minutes apiece on Gaddo Gaddi, Gentile da Fabriano, Desiderio da Settignano, Fra Filippo Lippi, Antonio Pollaiuolo, Andrea Palladio, Antonio da Sangallo, Giovanni da Bologna, Giacomo da Vignola, and Oskar Kokoschka than dawdling a second fifty minutes over Michelangelo. It usually cost me a good fraction of those five minutes just to spell the names.

Art I has always been a popular course, elected by about three hundred students each year; instead of being divided, in the usual Pritchett practice, into ten groups of thirty to be separately taught by several members of the department, the three hundred are split into two groups; one hundred and fifty are assigned to the lecture given at nine in the morning on Mondays and Wednesdays and one hundred and fifty are assigned to an identical lecture repeated two hours later. Several of the senior members of the department lecture on their specialties. We were passed from Mr. Schwartz, who spoke with sobriety and a German accent on Egypt, Greece, and Rome, to Mr. Gallatin, who cracked good jokes but spoke so quickly on the Romanesque and Gothic that we protested that shorthand wasn’t listed as a prerequisite to the course and never did know which leaping vaults leapt at Amiens and which at Reims, and on, buckety-buckety, to Mr. Beale, who compensated for his deafness by speaking loudly and slowly — a notetaker’s delight.

When the buzzer sounds for the class to begin, the lights are dimmed in the vast, windowless lecture hall and the professor steps to the podium with his pointer, tapping it whenever he wishes his carefully arranged slides to be flashed on the screen behind him. The slide machine is capable of showing two slides at a time and is almost constantly required to do so, for no sooner is one shown a Van Eyck than it is likened to a Van der Weyden than it is likened to a Van der Goes. It was sometime during Art I that I decided comparisons weren’t so much odious as obtuse.

All courses at Pritchett meet three times a week. What I remember best about Art I is the third of our weekly classes, when the three hundred of us were divided into twenty “art conference” sections. We were assigned to conference sections not according to our artistic ability but according to convenient one-hour gaps in our cluttered schedules. Several junior members of the art department served as conference instructors. It was their task to introduce us to artists so major that we all know something about them but not so major that five minutes of precious lecture time should be squandered on them. These instructors also had to answer any questions we might have, and grade whatever exams and papers were assigned in the course. My conference professor, Mr. Watts, a reticent thirty-five-year-old bachelor, whose graying crew cut was far more interesting to us than any mop of jet-black hair could have been, also took it upon himself to console us with a shake of the head and a sad smile on the lunatic quantity of names and dates that we were being forced to absorb.

It was just this lunatic quantity of names and dates that made it necessary for us to get together in twos and threes to study for the exams given twice a semester in Art I, something we would have considered infra dig in any other course. A nice, ordinary course like English poetry had nice, ordinary, more or less predictable exams; if we had spent two weeks on “skies of couple-colour” we could expect our next exam to consist of a fifty-minute discussion of another Hopkins hyphenation, perhaps “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon.” Unfortunately, Art I’s strange teaching methods were reflected in its strange exams, which consisted of a dozen oneto four-minute identifications of single works of art and several of those beloved comparisons.

For exams, we were responsible for the exact identification of every slide shown in lecture, pictured in our textbook, or located in any of the Cambridge or Boston museums near Pritchett, to which we were occasionally sent on a field trip — title of work, name of artist, school, date, location. In addition to those two thousand supposedly familiar works of art, we were expected to be able to give an approximate identification-name of artist, school, date — of any unfamiliar work by an artist we had covered in five to fifty minutes of lecture, stating our reasons for attributing the unfamiliar work to whomever we chose to attribute it to. It was a nightmare. During lectures, about all the professors could do was to attach a few pat generalizations and adjectives to each artist; if our untrained eyes betrayed us, as they often did, and we attributed the unfamiliar work of art to the wrong artist, we also went wrong, simultaneously, on the memorized adjectives and phrases; to mistake a Giotto (“little space or perspective but figures have convincing mass”) for a Duccio (“grace, animated Byzantine, linear”) meant that one was doomed to lose full credit on the question.

The two girls with whom I studied for exams in Art I were, like me, freshmen, and all three of us conscientiously adhered to the Pritchett tradition of never mentioning grades, throughout first semester. However, when it came to Art I our curiosity was too much for us, and we had to find out how well or badly each of us had done in our final first-semester grades. Since we had considered ourselves about equally well matched in the various question-and-answer bouts to which we had submitted ourselves in the course of preparing for the Art I exams, we were surprised when it turned out that I had received an A in the course and that Carol and Mary Ellen had both received C’s. We reasoned it out that somehow or other I must have made the luckiest guesses in identifying various artists, or that when in doubt about an artist, I had perhaps hedged more skillfully than they in setting down certain parroted adjectives and generalizations. Since we couldn’t bear to seem grade-conscious, even in each other’s eyes, the matter was quickly dropped and we went right on, as before, cramming for Art I’s guessing games when second semester began.

My good fortune in respect to grades was all the more conspicuous when, late one night in the spring, Carol came into my room. She was close to tears—most un-Pritchettlike. “I just don’t understand it,” she said. “In the Art I exam we got back today, I had almost all the identifications right, and Mr. Keyser gave me a lousy C. How’d you do this time?” I apologetically admitted that Mr. Watts had given me another A. Solemnly we went over each other’s work, and to our astonishment found that the papers were almost identical. Off we went to Mary Ellen’s room. She, too, had given approximately the same answers as Carol and I, and she, too, had got only a C from her conference professor, Mr. Haynes.

It was then, with virtuous indignation, that we decided to commit a thoroughly unvirtuous act. We would prove to our own satisfaction the injustice o our professors; unbeknown to them, we would draw up a secret indictment of Messrs. Watts, Keyser, and Haynes. The method was easy. The next time we were asked to write a paper, we would simply compose a single essay and each of us would hand in a copy to her professor!

OUR opportunity soon arrived. Art I was dispatched to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where we were to examine the works of all the artists that had been mentioned in the course and write a paper comparing any three. Carol, Mary Ellen, and I decided to compose a joint paper on Rembrandt’s Portrait of the Artist’s Brother, Velázquez’s Góngora, and Goya’s Man in a Brown Suit, each of us preparing a single typewritten page on one of the paintings, and chronology dictating the order in which the sections were to be written. We wrote the names of the paintings on three slips of paper and drew lots.

Mary Ellen got Rembrandt, Carol got Velázquez, and I got Goya. Mary Ellen made much of the “typical Rembrandtesque light" and of the subject’s “inner life,” while Carol’s page dealt with Velázquez’s “uncontemplative objectivity” and I claimed that Goya gave us a “greater wealth of detail than did Rembrandt and Velázquez combined.” We concluded our conspiratorial paper with one of those simple-minded butter-up sentences that all freshmen hope will win their professors’ hearts: “I found this paper both enjoyable and worthwhile to write, and I shall never forget these three paintings.” I took on the chore of typing the three papers, identical in every particular except for the title page, where by Pritchett decree one put one’s own name, one’s professor’s name, and the name and section of the course. I smiled as I typed.

No sooner had we handed in our papers than we began to have second thoughts. Not that our wickedness troubled us; we began to fear that the college was used to such wickedness and had long since taken precautions against it. They would have hit on ways to expose our plot; surely some lowly member of the art department was obliged to read every last one of the three hundred papers submitted. Wouldn’t he find us out and go at once to the head of the department, who would go at once to the dean? Soon we would be in the dean’s office, soon we would be expelled from Pritchett. Pursuing justice by unjust means, we would wind up being justly punished.

One day after art conference, Mr. Watts caught up with me in the corridor and asked me if I would like to have a cup of coffee with him at the soda fountain in the basement of the art building. This was by no means an unheard-of thing for a professor to do at Pritchett; it was simply unheard of for Mr. Watts. It was an awkward meeting.

I assumed that he was going to say he had found us out, and bad as that would have been, it was somehow worse to discover that he hadn’t found us out, that what he wanted to tell me over coffee in that clattering place was how much he admired the work I had been doing in Art I. “It’s an impossible course,” he said. “I’m always surprised and relieved that a girl can get anything out of it at all.” Then, in exactly the same tone of voice, he said, “Are you engaged or anything?”

I sensed that I had to say no in such a way that it was practically yes, and of course I failed. I blurted out the single huge word, and we got up and walked together to the library, he talking, poor man, every foot of the way about artists that he hoped we shared an interest in.

Our perfidy was never found out; Art I was far too big an enterprise to trouble itself with such trifles. The papers were returned in due course. Mr. Keyser had given Carol a C minus, Mr. Haynes had given Mary Ellen an infinitesimally superior C plus, Mr. Watts had given me an A. Someone had given himself away, bravely, over a cup of coffee. The least I could do was be brave enough to betray my fellow conspirators; I said that Professor Watts had given me a C. Carol and Mary Ellen were sorry that our conspiracy hadn’t proved the college at fault. Dizzy with the sense of someone’s having behaved so outrageously for my sake — an A was really going too far — I told them I was sorry too.