‘OPULENCE’ – a cultural ‘short story’, by Philip Mount
Some time ago I was asked to write a piece of work regarding ‘Opulence’. I don’t really know what I wrote, or in fact if it really looks directly at opulence. I’m not really sure which of the below has any ‘truth’ in it. Which is truth – thought, memory or history? If any of it. Some of the people are, or were.
It is what it is
Living in New York offers the privilege of being a part of a wealthy family. A commune of one and a half million, in Manhattan alone. Of the many advantages to a large family, one is being privy to, and sharing, the collective turn of phrase. I left the city in 2006 – at this time the phrase on many a New Yorkers lips was: ‘Suck it up’.
One of my favourites was ‘This is not my movie’, or variations of: ‘This is turning into a bad movie’ or, ‘Thisisnotmymovie’ (in monotone, under breath). Of course there are the New York Staples: ‘…the f***?!’, shortened from ‘What the f***?!’ ‘Fergedaboutit, what are you gona do?’ There are more, many.
So, in my brief visit there, in early 2008, whilst delivering a new piece of artwork to collector Darren, and wife Margarete, and in the company of my young friend, Mary the Dancer, we decided we should celebrate with a drink and a bite. Dipping into fondue, whilst sitting around an elegant kitchen table, in their newly decorated minimalist Soho loft, I was pleased to be witness to the phrase of the moment, delivered to me from my young friend, Mary. Darren scans the artwork from a distance… ‘And have you titled this one, Philip?’
‘Ammiratore Vicis…Which, loosely translated, is the vicarious admirer… The painting is most happy when seen. It likes to be seen. Doesn’t hide away, it’s not introspective – it looks out, comes out – it’s bigger than the canvas. It demands you look at it and then sees itself through your eyes.’
The eyes of the table move off me and look toward the painting, hanging above the fireplace, a few painful moments pass and, much to my relief, heads begin to nod a little in collective agreement…Mary comes to my rescue; ‘Yip, I guess… It is what it is.’ ‘It is what it is,’ agrees Darren.
The next morning I’m walking with my young friend, Mary the Dancer, back to the apartment on W19th; I’ve asked her if she’ll let me photograph and sketch her. As we cross our street South to North, through the jammed up traffic, a driver leans on her horn for a nerve breaking amount of time.‘…the f***?!’ hollers Mary, ‘Y’know, people have a greater sense of entitlement in New York more than anywhere else in the world. It drives me crazy.’
IT IS WHAT IT IS? by Philip Mount – Later that day I’m on my way to an apartment in ‘Nolita’. I pick up some perfect roses on the way to Mulberry Street and duck into Fanelli’s tavern on Prince Street for a quick sharpener. I see Bill, the NYU film professor, in his usual seat at the bar.
His head cranes a hypermobile 180.‘Hey there… take a seat!’ he beckons, patting the bar next to him. I ask him what movies he’s seen lately and what he thinks of it all – ‘Coen Brothers – Thieves, totally derivative. Kevin Costner – guy still can’t act. Diving Bell Butterfly – artists becoming filmmakers – what are you gona do? Favourite film of the year – without question – Ratatouille! Y’know who I bumped into the other day…? That actor… English guy… worked with Sean Penn…’
‘Gary Oldman?’ I try.
‘Naaah… Tim Roth! So we’re at the bar talking and I say ‘Is Roth your real name?’ He tells me – Nah! It’s Smith – he changed it to Roth out of respect, something to do with his father, who knows, maybe he liberated a camp back in the war…’
Equity of fear
The motivation for Louis XIV to build Versaille, and to such Majestic splendour, was possibly brought about from an equity of absolute fear. The fund from which his inspiration sprang most likely derived from a glamorous party, hosted by Nicolas Fouquet (then finance minister), at his proud residence – the chateaux at Vaux-le-Vicomte.
In 1661, then green-eyed Louis claimed the finance minister had built this estate through embezzling from the crown. Louis confiscated Fouquet’s property and took into employment the talents used by Fouquet – the architects of his stolen dream; Louis Le Vau, André Le Nôtre (landscape), and decorator and painter Charles Le Brun, to build Versailles.
He was my first thought, as I walked into Darren’s loft. His new development , Tower Soho – 460 million dollars, 45 floors – is clearly visible from the north windows of the apartment. A couple of weeks before I arrived, Margarete heard a bang, an explosion, she called it – ‘well, after what happened… you hear a bang and think God no!’, but it wasn’t a bomb, or an airplane, it was a construction worker falling to his death, hitting the ground with such force that Margarete could hear his finality 4 blocks away. Some of the gaudy creations of Trump may put Midas at a loss for things to do. There is probably some other psychological or god-worship intention behind his wish to alchemize. Compromise comes when there are two elements in conflict. Doesn’t it? Following this logic, is Versailles compromised? And many other Grand Palaces I can think of.
I’m often lightly charmed at the amount of serious landed-gentry millionaires I know that ‘don’t know where the next pint of milk is coming from’ or announce they’re heading off to Barbados or Monaco in the ‘in-season’, but will walk around in worn out shoes, telling of how ‘vehy pooer’ they are at present. This false poverty serves the upper classes and their peers well – they have little need to show wealth, though this binary living may compromise their residences, their context.
So I looked to Waddesdon Manor. The Rothschilds, upon building it, were neither established nor noble, nor were they new money. Their Manor at Waddesdon, transformed a hill top into uncompromised and sheer sumptuousness. Opulence. In it’s pure form. A very rare thing. With no other intention, from what I can feel, no compromise or conflict, it simply is what it is.
Philip Mount – February 2011
Return to Cultural Essays
Philip is profiled with his web link below. The second Phoenix Cultural essay will be another perfect addition to ‘The Storyeller’s Publisher’ and entitled ‘The Child’s Eye’ by Donald Sturrock, music impresario, and the hugely lauded biographer of Roald Dahl.