Once, at the Art Institute of Chicago, I saw an elderly woman dressed in a bright orange fur coat, shiny lime green pants, and had gaudy gold jewelry dripping off her neck. As I followed her eyes, I noticed she was intently staring at Berthe Morisot’s Woman at her Toilette, her eyes never leaving the confines of the gilded gold frame. The painting is a deceptively simple one, depicting blonde-haired woman’s face as she looks into the mirror. She is simply dressed in a white dress and black necklace, looking at herself in the mirror of a dreary gray room. At the age of thirteen, I couldn’t understand what she saw in that painting that struck her so odd, so captivating. I thought a person as excessive as she is would have been more captivated by the surrealists and the cubists, by modern art and neon prints. There was only one question in my mind for the rest of my visit: what was that painting saying? It’s a question that sits in the back of the mind of many other admirers of art. It’s a question that Christine Coulson explores in Metropolitan Stories, a book that beautifully and honestly displays how art and being surrounded by beauty affects us.
A collection of short stories, Metropolitan Stories explores a new angle and aspect of the Metropolitan Museum in each chapter. Each page is rich with details, as she takes readers through the minds of former museum curators, the thoughts of centuries-old furniture, and the mindsets of wealthy donors. The book even spans out through the decades. The only real connection between all the stories is that they exist within the, as Coulson paints it, wondrous and whimsical Metropolitan Museum of Art. As each chapter unfolds, Coulson to brings the reader into what it means to step into the hallowed rooms of The Met, a place where ancient art that was meant to be lost to time sleeps in peace in shiny glass cases, and beauty and ugliness are depicted in more ways than most can imagine. In an interview with NPR, Coulson, working in the museum for decades, described it as an “exquisite retirement home”. However, the book seems to prove this notion wrong. Instead of depicting the rooms as old and stuffy, her words breathe life in the artwork no one paid attention to and allow the grandiose of the artwork to be more approachable.
Perhaps the only consistency is each story is how Coulson very explicitly allows the artwork to come to life, to communicate with its admirers and users. Simply put, the art can talk and think. Because humans and painting can openly have this dialogue, a relationship of empathy can be developed between the readers and the artwork. Coulson intentionally uses this motif to make the premise of fine art less intimidating and to let them into the world of The Met. The artwork is no longer just a multimillion-dollar price tag or a significant work, but are instead living and breathing things. For example, in “Musings,” a story that delves into creative director Michel Lagerfeld’s waning career at The Met, he must pick a muse to bring to a meeting with a famous fashion designer. In his confusion, he desperately tries to find a piece to bring to the meeting, commanding his assistant to bring him every sort of muse from every department. To his dismay, he is lost in the impossible difficulty of picking one. He looks upon each muse with disdain and they reciprocate that feeling, the women in the artwork gossiping about how creepy and worn out Michel looks. His difficulty in selecting a muse signifies something darker: perhaps Michel isn’t as inspired as he used to be. Just like Michel realized through his conversation with the art, Coulson allows many other characters to do the same. In this way, Coulson encourages the reader to develop those relationships with the artifacts and allow the art to speak to them.
However, Coulson truly finds her strength in the imagery of the novel. The dense, lush imagery of Metropolitan Stories outlines a building that has come alive. In the chapter titled “Chair as Hero,” Coulson tells a story through the perspective of a chair used by Spanish royalty and how it was stuck in a “bulging mountain range of the stored and forgotten” and “rooms of swollen heat and shrinking cold”. In this and many other chapters, the descriptions propel the short stories to places where the readers can, interestingly enough, sympathize with the desolate and desperate loneliness of inanimate objects. Coulson’s intentionally extravagant imagery in Metropolitan Stories demonstrates her strict dedication to encourage readers, for the duration of the book, to imagine the painting lived a life just as vividly as any human. By doing so, she allows places like The Met to burst with the ripe vitality of life.
When you take away the grandeur of the words, the dramatic retellings of the lives of inanimate objects, you’re left with a love letter to the importance of artwork. At its core, Metropolitan Stories is a noble attempt to encourage people to open themselves up to the idea that art can transform the way we are. It’s a testament to the way art speaks and breathes life into us, to the way it demands our attention.
Ashita Wagh is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl