Lost: 1 x heart, last seen: San Francisco, CA.

September 12, 2011
People you meet on the streets of San Francisco

There must be some secret genetic affinity between Americans and Far North Queenslanders. Queensland is the only other place I’ve found where people are so willing to talk to total strangers, asking the most intrusive questions and giving back a volume of personal information beyond the bounds of all curiosity.

And how did “shit” became the all-purpose American noun of choice? Put four hoodies together on a tram and the variations occur with relentless frequency: This shit, my shit, that shit, your shit, etc.. Let’s hope it doesn’t catch on Down Unda. There’s already enough shit here.

After having spent last week in San Francisco I’m full of amazement at the United States and its talkative, ingenuous inhabitants. It takes the merest snippet to set them off. On the train one day a guy struck up a conversation with the man next to me, discovered he was orginally from Russia (30 years ago), and launched into a vivid description of a movie about Stalin. This was on a par with those Americans I used to see riding the U-Bahn in Berlin, head buried in a large book on Hitler or the Nazis. Then there are those who have read Jung Chang’s book on Mao, and feel obliged to inform every Chinese person that the Great Helmsman was actually a very bad man.

This extraordinary openness is complemented by the mechanical enthusiasm one encounters in shops or other businesses, where the “How ya doin’?”, “Have a great day!” stuff is laid on with perfect insincerity. If it were sincere it’d be even scarier. Then again, such emoting may be preferable to the surliness and suspicion one meets with in other places, including the Transylvanian village at the foot of Dracula’s castle, numerous shops and cafes in Britain, and – alas! – bits of Australia. No matter how crazy the United States gets, whenever I’ve been there I feel bowled over by it. You may meet some dumb people, but you also meet some highly impressive ones. Despite all their economic and political trials, for Americans that sense of boundless possibility is still part of everyday life. Maybe Larry Crowne got it right.

There was no shortage of good things to see. I was in San Francisco to view the Picasso exhibition at the De Young Museum before it opens in Sydney on 12 November. It did not disappoint, and neither did the De Young’s permanent collection. The New Guinea art alone was astonishing. I was also lucky enough to catch the last day of The Steins Collect, at the local S.F. Museum of Modern Art, before it travels to Paris and New York. Within two days I had viewed some of the most remarkable works by Picasso, Matisse, and other great Moderns. The Steins Collect may turn out to be the international blockbuster of the year, as the difficulties of re-assembling such a collection mean that it will probably never be repeated.

Henri Matisse, Femme au chapeau (Woman with a Hat), 1905; oil on canvas; Collection SFMOMA, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bequest of Elise S. Haas; © Succession H. Matisse/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

As for the Picasso, well I’ve seen most of these works before, at the Musée Picasso, and I knew it would be an impressive exhibition. For Australia, it will be one of those rare instances when we are able to see a big collection of first-rate works, rather than a handful of highlights and a lot of filler. What was most suprising was the quality of the hang, personally directed by Anne Baldassari of the Musée Picasso. Labels were very brief, giving no long-winded extraneous information, while small works were hung in clusters, providing illuminating contrasts and comparisons.

Pablo Picasso Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937 Oil on canvas Musée National Picasso, Paris

The problem of labels is a tricky one for art museums, as there is always the pressure to appear “educational” in front of the public and politicians. This has reached an extreme with the Queensland Art Gallery’s extensive ‘childrens labels’, which seem to be pitched at 2 year olds; and with a show I saw at Tate Britain once, in which a second set of labels had been added, providing the views of various celebrities, such as Bono from U2.

The original solution of David Walsh’s Museum of Old and New in Tasmania – to do away with labels altogether and provide an iPod with various kinds of commentary, turns out to be even more intrusive. One has to keep consulting the iPod to find out what’s on the wall, and the other material – from “artwank” to “gonzo” – is so mixed that it becomes a distraction.

For the record, nobody at the De Young seemed to be enjoying the Picasso show less because they did not have massive labels to consult. If you really want to know something about Picasso is it that hard to read a book?

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