A successful repetition

Posted: Aug 30, 2006 12:00 AM

BOSTON - I'm in luck, it's raining. Just as it was the first time I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here just off Louis Prang Street on the Fenway. It's a nice soft rain, just as it was then, nothing violent, but enough to cool things off and bring out the greens in the landscape against whatever sky you can see in a big city. It's a perfect rain in which to repeat my first visit to the Gardner. Binx Bolling would call it a repetition. Binx being a fictional character, he never changes. Neither does his natural habitat - pre-Katrina, 1960ish New Orleans. His time and place are fixed forever, like a butterfly sprawled on a pin. Binx is the moviegoer in Walker Percy's "The Moviegoer." Good ol' Binx, formally John Binkerson Bolling of a good/strange Southern family, would go to the same movie years apart to make himself aware of the passage of time. Or just to make himself aware. Lest he sleepwalk through life. It was a rainy day in February the first time I went to the Gardner, or rather was taken there by a lady who loved it. She didn't specify why she did or, at the end of the visit, need to. She was never one to lecture, only to introduce. What you did with her gift was up to you; her pleasure was in the giving. It's a great luxury to get to a place early. It allows you to anticipate what's ahead, and contemplate how you got there - rather than rush into it. It's still half an hour before the museum opens. My daughter has insisted on driving me, rather than letting me take the T, so we wait inside the car as the gentle rain splatters on the windshield. I can't remember the year I first saw the Gardner. It was probably before she was born - or maybe when she was a little girl. Now she has children of her own. It is a fine thing to sit silent with your only daughter in a gentle rain. She reads her book, and I think back, taking notes for this column. (For some of us nothing happens, even a silent wait, unless we put it into words. Writing Behavior, the psychiatrists call it.) Then it's time. Snapping open my umbrella, I walk around the corner and join the short line waiting at the entrance to Mrs. Gardner's house. It's a modest entrance, belying the dream palace inside. Hanging in their accustomed places, the paintings remain the same. Mrs. Gardner's will specified that nothing must be changed, which may explain why some of the works that have grown in fame over the years are hanging in dusty alcoves, or in the dim corner of a guest room, just where she put them in her time. Some of the best are missing - 13 of them, stolen in a notorious art heist in 1990 that remains unsolved. If you happen to spot Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee," the only seascape the master ever painted, or the inexpressibly beautiful "The Concert" by Vermeer, give the Gardner Museum a call. Or the FBI. There's a $5 million reward for information leading to the return of the missing works in good condition. All in all, the stolen treasures would be worth some $500 million in today's market; this may have been the largest art theft in history. But many of the familiar faces are still right where Mrs. Gardner put them: Here is Manet's portrait of his mother - the bright birdlike face and gnarled hands peer out from her black widow's weeds. Nothing, you feel, must ever have escaped those sharp eyes. At one illuminated end of the Spanish cloister on the first floor, there is John Singer Sargent's magnificent "El Jaleo." You can almost hear the dancer stamping her heels. In the center of the courtyard is an image of Medusa's serpent-wrapped head surrounded by classical figures frozen in place. Mrs. Gardner may have an iron will, but she was not without whimsy. You, too, are hypnotized by her treasures. Masterpiece succeeds masterpiece. Time has stopped, and on leaving I scarcely notice the rain has, too. I look back at Mrs. Gardner's house and can almost hear her response to my silent Thank You. It's the motto she carefully chose, like everything else, for her house and showplace: C'est mon plaisir. It's my pleasure. The repetition is complete.