Song of the Angels and Other Middle-Class Compulsions
Framed in faux-Gothic spires that look like badly cut organ pipes, Song of the Angels is one of Forest Lawn’s top crowd-pleasers. You know Forest Lawn Memorial Park and Museum, I suppose—Evelyn Waugh parodied it viciously and Jessica Mitford scalded it as well. As a proper lit major / knows-his-salad-fork-from-his-dessert-spoon art snob, my inclinations would run that way too, except my parents’ final nursing home was nearby in Glendale, as was the hospital they rotated through for two years.
In naive middle age I had once said that between cancer and divorce, my divorce had been worse. That was nothing like the sorrow of parenting my parents, who some days were not even coherent, let alone cooperative. To process the grief, before driving home I would go to Forest Lawn and stare at Song of the Angels by William Bouguereau, 1881. Proximity drove this more than preference: I could see Forest Lawn from the nursing home parking lot. They shared a brick wall. It was the closest refuge I could find.
Needing whatever it is art gives us, I would drive around the block, pass though the formal entrance with wrought iron gates and grand fountain, cross sections named Vale of Memory and Eventide, and end up at the museum. The grounds look like a page from The Watchtower: bucolically landscaped hills with implied hints of deer browsing and cherubs picnicking. Most people think of Forest Lawn in terms of Hollywood royalty, as last known locations of Spencer Tracy and Jimmy Stewart and Lon Chaney and Michael Jackson. Walt Disney is here, assuming his head is not in cryogenic storage, awaiting medical resurrection; Errol Flynn and Clark Gable are here; many early studio moguls. Ronald Reagan got married here. Anybody remember Joan Blondell? She’s here. She said her ex-, Mike Todd, had held her by her ankles out of a hotel window. We assume he never did that to his next wife, Elizabeth Taylor, who’s also here—along with Sammy Davis and Sam Cooke and two of the Marx brothers.
Besides hosting traveling exhibits, Forest Lawn’s museum also owns a quirky, mostly cheesy permanent collection. One good name for this would be schmaltzy sentimental pseudo-Victoriana, but another would be, a manifestation of the American fear of death, and a third would be, stuff my mom would really, really like.
Bouguereau was a sincere, polished, salon favorite whose academic perfection epitomized everything Impressionists hated; his wistful peasant girls and bland, de-eroticized nudes display what Degas called a licked finish: all technique, no heart. Even so, I spent entranced hours. Everybody in this painting is so clean and white it feels like laundry day. Look at that hair, those feet: the Madonna has a good pedicure, that’s for sure. The cloth drapes convincingly; light falls with gentle, flattering radiance, as if from a China ball, to use the language of film sets. And the seemingly specific (yet still generic) vegetation—see, even the weeds quote Palm Sunday—matches the actual landscaping of Forest Lawn. True, the wings are a bit paltry, with hardly enough lifting surface to propel a duck, but you’ve got to admire how they direct the composition: the V of the violin angel’s wings guides us down to her face and bow arm, which point to sleeping Jesus. Even the French government collected Bouguereau; the Orsay owns twelve.
For most people, arrival into the middle class must feel like hunkering down under a wool blanket after a long night at sea in an open boat. My parents, for example—I would like to say they survived poverty and war and never looked back, but the fact is, no matter how much they squirreled away in their IRA, they never stopped looking back.
Can we escape our own longing? Maybe your family praised Rothko at dinner but in my house we were more about Mt. Rushmore placemats and Thomas Kinkade desk calendars. We went to John Wayne movies and drove Buicks. Sure, it was all easy promises, but then so is a Twinkie and we know what they go for on eBay. Is that why some small, lewd part of me now likes these angels the painter force-feeds us with sentimentality and too much sugar? Brush your teeth twice before leaving. If you had to look at just once piece of art every morning for the rest of your life, Francis Bacon or Lucian Freud might provide more to think about, but once you got used to them, angels by Bouguereau might more often send you out the door whistling.
In a painting like this the lute is forever in tune, the air is always thermostatted at 72 degrees, and the demure headbands always double as halos. So be it. It’s not my heaven but it sure is somebody’s. Do I wish this were a Vermeer? Well, of course—but then I don’t live in London or Den Haag. I live where I live and my museums have the art that they have, and maybe my most middle-class secret of all is that I am fine with that.
I don’t expect more, and in fact, I know that to demand too much puts the whole damn ship in peril. Accept your lot in life: that’s one message of the American dream; even the lottery is more lower class than middle, though my mother had some secret tickets hidden away most weeks. If she had won, she would have bought my brother a car, something small and sensible, and written a quiet and probably anonymous check to the Presbyterians.
I would like to think she also would have treated herself to a framed print of Song of the Angels by William Bouguereau.
If so, what would I have done with it? After my folks passed I loaded almost everything on the Salvation Army truck.
This one, though—this one I think I would have kept.
Charles Hood is a Research Fellow with the Center for Art + Environment, Nevada Museum of Art. His most recent book won the Hollis Summers Poetry Award from Ohio University Press.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings.