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: An Imaginary Dinner Party


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
The party got off to a good start about eight o'clock with two quick, dry Martinis accompanied by diminutive turnovers lined with anchovy paste. Sherry was handed around, but only one member of the group took it. Thereafter the guests assembled in the dining room where they drifted pleasantly through a clear soup of tomatoes and beef stock judiciously flavored with herbs; a fish timbale whose character had not been destroyed by pounding—bathed in lobster sauce and surrounded by baby potatoes untimely ripped from Mother Earth; a coq au vin with the simplest of green salads; and a delectable concoction of peaches and blue plums. A chilled Chablis with the fish and a precious Clos Vougeot with the fowl eased the tempo of the gathering mellowly into the coffee and cognac sequence wherein conversation flourished and the world of 1944 came under the scrutiny of the past.And the guests on this occasion? Eight members of the spirit world now residing, in various guises, in the Institute's collection. They were chosen not only for their several peculiar talents, their wit or beauty, but because each might be presumed to have some interesting comment to make on the present state of civilization. The following preliminary dossiers will give an idea of what those comments might have been.VOLTAIRE. Philosopher, dramatist, poet, historian, tireless crusader for freedom and tolerance. Paris makes an uneasy tomb these days and he does not lie still. The vast network of the underground is familiar terrain to him. Who but Voltaire impelled the placing of Laval's picture in the fifth column of a Parisian daily? Who but Voltaire, haunting the secret chambers of the maquis, keeps alive the spirit that will one day pull down the monstrous edifice of intolerance that now blankets the city of light? The fire of his faith is undimmed, and his satire as corrosive as ever when he observes how insidiously the poison of intolerance still penetrates to every corner of the civilized world, or when he mocks those minds that would have everything for the best in the best of all possible worlds. But he comments encouragingly on the progress of free thought and free speech. The day will come, he believes, when man will have attained his full stature through his struggle for freedom.AGRIPPINA. Mother of Nero, Empress of Rome, past-mistress of perfidy. She is somewhat nettled to find that the enormity of her crimes has been dimmed by the experiments of two parvenus on opposite sides of the world who have shown the barbarians up for the bungling pikers they were. What is the poisoning of a stray nephew, or the strangling and stabbing of inconvenient husbands, or the throwing of a few Christians to the lions, to the deeds of Schikelgruber and Tojo? Agrippina spent part of the evening examining Colonel Dyess' account of the Philipine disaster with the mind of one who can certainly not be called a novice. On one or two occasions she was observed to blanch, and when she laid the book aside with a shudder that agitated the graceful folds of her stola, she remarked to the commander that she really thought she might be transferred to Heaven.RUBENS. Urbane, tactful, lusty, charming. An artist who combined gracefully the professions of painting and diplomacy. He believes in any means to an end, providing the end is harmony and comfort in which he can share, and thinks Neville Chamberlain had something. He recalled the time, when, as an emissary of Federigo Gonzaga, he was taking some paintings as tribute from Mantua to the King of Spain. During the long journey by coach several of them were badly damaged and Rubens, with the best will in the world, took out his own brushes and restored them en route. What matter if they were no longer genuine works of those great Italians with whose paintings Gonzaga wooed Spain? Wasn't Rubens a great Fleming, and a diplomat as well? He laughed gustily as he applied himself to his coq au vin. Rubens always relished the pleasures of the table, and he had been uneasy lest rationing and the high cost of living should deprive him of that.WINTERHALTER'S UNKNOWN LADY. A dark beauty, with a coquettish eye, wearing one of those low-cut, strapless evening gowns that invariably keeps one member of a party in an agony of apprehension. The presence of Agrippina distressed her, and she murmured that such a person would not have been tolerated at Queen Victoria's court. It was astonishing how society had got out of hand. And everyone seemed to be bent on dissolving the British Empire. Dizzy would turn over in his grave if he knew what was going on. And had Rubens by any chance seen those—those—those shameless females on the beach as he came by? They were wearing hardly anything. The dark beauty lifted her bare shoulders and bosom in disdain. “Oh yes.” he'd seen them, sniffed Rubens. “Scrawny, weren't they?”COMMANDER LEWIS WARRINGTON. Romantic, dashing naval hero of the war of 1812. He is wary of the Unknown Lady, and hopes she doesn't bring up that little matter of H. M. S. Epervier, which fell to his ship Peacock after only a few minutes of hard fighting. The British Commander had presented Mrs. Warrington with a diamond ring, he recalled, because the prisoners of the Empervier's crew had been treated with such courtesy. What had the Britisher expected? War was a fairly civilized affair in those days. Now it made your blood run cold. But what a whale of a job the British and American Navies are doing. The Commander's eyes shone with pride as he listened to a description of the latest action in the Pacific. He thought that even if everything wasn't perfect in the world of 1944 things weren't finished in the United States when they could turn out the kind of ships and men they were turning out. Boy, he thought, falling into the vernacular of the day, how he'd like to command one of those battle wagons.THE GRANDMOTHER. Shrewd, kindly, and frankly a grandmother. She wonders, looking around at the company, why she was included. This dinner, now. No one ate like this in France any more unless he were a Nazi—or a collaborationist. Still, it has always been different in America she had been told. But the day would come when France would live again. Her eyes sparkled as she turned to Voltaire and told him how they were making jam of potatoes in her province these days. There is life yet, she promised him, even if we are an old nation. Had he ever imagined anything so young as this America? Even the grandmothers looked like young girls, and when she had caught a glimpse of the hostess' daughter on the stairs she thought it was a younger sister. Really, she confessed, she had felt wizened and dowdy and démodé. She fingered the lace at her throat. “But Madame,” the philosopher replied gallantly, “you are young in spirit, which keeps you forever young.”SHAN JAHAN. Great Moghul, Emperor of India, patron of art and architecture. He finds life in the twentieth century strangely lacking in grandeur and formality, and recalls three great courts of his period: The French, the Chinese, and his own. He admits that present-day chairs are more comfortable than the Peacock Throne, but prefers the latter. Modern architecture bewilders and alarms him. It is a brilliant achievement, yes; clean and spacious and bold. But it has no soul. Can you imagine the memory of a great love being perpetuated in a modern building, he asks, his dark eyes intent above a neatly trimmed beard. The Taj Mahal, now; there is poetry in architecture. No one who has ever seen it, especially in the moonlight with the cypresses standing around it like dark sentinels, will be able to forget that it was inspired by love. Science and hygiene are all right in their places, but great architecture must have soul. Shan Jahan recedes into his dreams brooding, perhaps, over the black Taj which was to have risen across the river from the famous tomb of his beloved, Mumtaz Mahal. He is to be seen any day receiving a communication from one of his ambassadors in the Persian gallery.MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS. Amusing, gay, mercurial, added a frivolous note to the party. She is very happy where she is, being weary of machinations and well-intentioned deviltry, but she likes to come back now and then to see how the great are dying these days. She deplores the return to beheading as a means of execution, considering it mediaeval, but at that it is better than some of the methods she has heard of. She believes a firing squad is the most dignified way of meeting one's end,—if one must be executed—and thinks that Ciano's death became him better than ever did his life.Who drank the sherry?And there is one way in which the spectator can participate actively in art. Of course he can't stand before a painting by Rembrandt applauding enthusiastically; or at least if he did he would feel—and look—pretty silly. But any visitor can do more than just wander around looking at pictures and sculpture and commenting to himself, or his companion, on the quality of the painting and saying such things as “Homely old girl, wasn't she?” before passing on to the next picture. He can relate a work of art more closely to his own experience by finding out something of the artist who created it, the personalities represented in it, and the times in which it was produced. Of course the dissemination of such information, presented so as to pique the curiosity and encourage further investigation by the spectator, is partly the function of the museum. But the value of such knowledge to the spectator is largely lost if he makes no effort to continue the acquaintance thus begun. He can imagine, as many others have before him, that the famous and the little-known figures of the past constitute an inexhaustible spirit guest list upon which he can draw at will when he wants to enlarge his circle of friends or acquaintances. One of the favorite means of doing it is to arrange a dinner party like the one suggested above. Try it some time. It will give you a new slant on art.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Maquette of Voltaire in Fur-Lined Slippers and Scarlet Dressing Gown Lined with Squirrel.
  2. Agrippina the Younger, Mother of Nero. She sees herself as a novice in crime.
  3. Commander Lewis Warrington, naval hero of the war of 1812. A portrait by Rembrandt Peale, American, 1778-1860.
  4. Mary, Queen of Scots. Interested in executions.
  5. The Grandmother, painted by Gustave Courbet, finds American grandmothers bewilderingly young.
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Source: "An Imaginary Dinner Party," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 33, no. 23 (June, 1944): 76-81.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009