Turner, My Big Mouth, and I
I did not paint it to be understood. – J. M. W. Turner
Not long ago, my husband and I attended the opening of an exhibition at the Lucerne Museum of Art, Turner. The Sea and the Alps, of more than one hundred paintings and works on paper by Joseph Mallord William Turner. Our children, who are both artists, grew up amid the alpine panorama that lured J. M. W. Turner, on at least half a dozen occasions, to their city of birth. Our son now lives in Berlin and our daughter in London but, whenever they’re here, we go to Café de Ville, the former Hotel Schwanen, to have lunch at a table next to one of the windows where, almost two hundred years ago, Turner himself sat for hours, observing the changing light and sketching Mount Rigi, the Alps, the Lake of Lucerne, and all the grandeur before us.
At the exhibition’s opening reception, I’d boasted to anyone who’d listen that our daughter had been accepted for postgraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Arts, where William Turner, one of its most illustrious academicians, began his formal training. A young invigilator—most likely alerted by the magnitude of my hand gestures and the fortissimo of my voice—had followed us from room to room and interfered with my view of the pictures, despite the fact that I was using my eyes to merely gaze at the artwork, not burn holes in it. In front of one watercolor, “Lucerne with Pilatus beyond,” as I commented to my husband on the familiar contours of Hotel Schwanen and how the lake waters had once lapped at the foot of the tower still attached to the Zurgilgen House, my nose broached an invisible clearance and set off a neurological alarm in my stalker. She shrieked, “Half a meter! Half a meter!”
I countered with an intensity I’d later regret, “It was more than half a meter!” and glared at her until she backed away.
My husband laughed. “Let’s go to the bar and get something to drink.”
We usually communicate in German, never in Schwyzerdütsch, the dialect the locals speak. With our two children, I slide between English and German, while the Ukrainian I once spoke to my babies has faded into a collection of childish phrases. Our son and daughter know that growing up in Canada, I was often embarrassed by my immigrant parents’ foreignness and by their Slavic-accented language acrobatics, which I now recall with nostalgic affection. I’ve also grown to appreciate my mother’s insistence on old-fashioned, European rules of etiquette and deportment. Still painful to recall, however: my father’s violations against personal boundaries, and his breaching of social limits on gesticulation and voice modulation. In earsplitting tones, he’d ridiculed women’s hats in church, insulted friends and neighbors, complimented young girls on their “shapely” legs, questioned me on the flatness of my bosom, and ordered my would-be boyfriends to go to hell. If nothing else, his verbal excesses taught me to examine the effects of my own unfiltered displays of emotion on others and—if moved to share—to stress joy over irritation.
Accompanied by my son, I was back at Lucerne’s Museum of Art a few weeks later, channeling my father’s vocal volume at the ticket counter. In German, I asked for a members’ discount while over-explaining why I’d forgotten the membership card. My son echoed my request in dialect, which moved the staff member, an unsmiling matron, to grant me the reduced entrance price. Once inside, I approached the first invigilator I saw, and lectured her on the source of the English word “invigilate.” The young woman turned out to be someone my son knows, so I threw in a bonus fact she hadn’t been aware of: that “Bill” is a nickname for “William.”
The museum was crowded. Despite flocks of schoolchildren and herds of retirees whose presence demanded a great deal of patience while navigating from masterpiece to masterpiece, I found this second visit far more gratifying than the first. I’d already encountered a number of the displayed works in London, at Tate Britain, and had admired the greater part of the depicted Swiss views and landscapes in real life. Now, assisted by audio guides and standing closer to the artwork than a mere half meter, my son and I discovered many subtle details in the sublime brush strokes. Inspired by Turner’s transcendent, timeless style, exhilarated by a sense of recognition, I was overcome by the desire to share my elation with others, even complete strangers. A group of teenagers stood nearby, clustered before a magnificent oil painting, “The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grisons.” Some appeared attentive to their droning teacher, others not. I’ve never met a young person in Lucerne who doesn’t understand basic English but, when I asked one of the boys which school they attended, he merely stared at me. I repeated the question in German, with the same result. Another youth intervened in Schwyzerdütsch, naming a Realschule and a nearby town. It seemed pointless to start riffing on the English term “secondary school,” not only because their teacher had stopped her lecture and was scowling at me.
“Enjoy!” I called out to her, the students, and all the other turned heads.
My son laughed. “Let’s go to Café de Ville and get something to eat.”
Genia Blum is a Swiss Ukrainian Canadian dancer, writer and translator. Her literary work has received a Best of the Net and several Pushcart Prize nominations, and her essay “Slaves of Dance,” based on excerpts from her memoir in progress, Escape Artists, was named a “Notable” in The Best American Essays 2019. When not writing, she tweaks fonts and photos on her website www.geniablum.com and haunts Twitter and Instagram as @geniablum.
"Let Me Clarify: Unsolicited Advice by Genia Blum" a series of short pieces, based on Blum's personal opinion and experience.