Midnight at the Oasis: breaking into the Manhattan Beach Creative Arts Center at 3 a.m.

In which the intrepid Count Eugène de Panthémont urges his friend to break into the Manhattan Beach Creative Arts Center at 3 a.m. so that they can contemplate the photographs of Laura Orr

Jan Milhomme’s portrait of the Muse, Laura Orr, as illuminated at 3 a.m. Photo by Beth Shibata

“Don’t worry about the broken glass,” said Count Eugène de Panthémont, calmly brushing aside cobwebs and dust. “One of my bodyguards will replace it after we leave.”

As he handed me the lantern – our only source of light – I noticed the time: 3 a.m. Outside it was dark and quiet; the city’s generators had been switched off for the night. The Count’s personal helicopter would stealthily return in one hour.

He and I had just shimmied down into the Manhattan Beach Creative Arts Center through its fragile skylight, but we hadn’t come to pilfer or vandalize, only to quietly admire and discuss, at our leisure, the collection of photographs on view in the gallery. I held up the lantern, its eerie light faintly illuminating and enhancing the nearest pictures. It felt like we’d entered a mausoleum, but at the same time each image seemed to stir and come to life.

A personal sanctuary

The exhibition on display is titled “Alone in the Moonlight: Portraits of the Muse,” and it was initiated by this writer well over a year ago when, with her consent, I began to ask various men and women to photograph Laura Orr. I was enchanted by her then and remain so today. A Muse as the word is classically defined, she inspired me to pay homage as best I could and to create something of beauty in her honor. It wasn’t always easy, and it didn’t always make sense, but as the Count aptly points out, “Under the spell of a woman one cannot accurately weigh the practical concerns. Nor should one try.”

Eugène de Panthémont of Belgium had read the article I’d written about the then-upcoming art show (Beach magazine, June 9) and proceeded to underline the quote I’d inserted by André Breton: “How much I admire those men who desire to be shut up at night in a museum in order to examine at their own discretion, at an illicit time, some portrait of a woman they illuminate by a dark lantern. Invariably, afterwards, they know much more about such a woman than we do.”

I’m not supposed to be in here, but… Bondo Wyszpolski listens carefully to what the picture is saying. Photo by Jan Milhomme

The Count is a risk-taker, albeit wise and calculating. He goaded me to take Breton’s words to heart, but I was reluctant: I didn’t fancy spending time at Guantanamo Bay if something went amiss. But the Count is also very persuasive; and so here we were, the two of us in the gallery in the middle of the night.

“Bring the lantern over here,” the Count said. “Now hold it a little higher.”

I raised my arm, and the image seemed to move in the flickering light.

“When we are quiet inside,” the Count went on, “things come to tell us of themselves. Every man thinks himself a connoisseur of female beauty, but what a woman looks like is not something to be known with the eyes alone. The sculptor Rodin once remarked that beauty is character and expression. What we adore in the human body even more than the beautiful form is the inner flame which seems to shine from within and to illumine it. The soul, he also noted, is what the sculptor or painter – or in this case photographer – should seek beneath the mask of features.”

“By soul,” I replied, “are we referring to some ineffable essence?”

“Let’s study this one,” the Count said. “Move the lamp closer.” Several minutes passed in silence.

“Essence, you were saying. Yes, Wyszpolski; essence is a quality that speaks, or shall we say whispers, and can be likened to some metaphysical perfume that combines and then yields the exquisite, the rarified, the elegant, the ethereally sensual. As with art itself, the essence of a person – when glimpsed, because that is all we can ever hope for – both transcends and adds up to more than the sum of its parts.”

“And do you see that with these photographs of Laura?”

“A camera works at the behest of the individual who looks into the viewfinder. A passport photo, or the one on your driver’s license, serves to identify you. That’s it; the picture is lifeless, it has no value outside of that purpose.

“The photographers in your show understand that the camera doesn’t just record or document, it discovers. With their refined sensibility they capture what the face or the body says, not just what Laura normally conveys through her expression. To their credit, most of these photographers waited patiently, found something pertinent, vital, and carefully brought it to the foreground.”

One by one, we examined each of the portraits by the glow of the lamp. I was reminded of a poignant line by the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, that things in a room can be looked at in one of two ways, as if we are seeing them for the first time or seeing them for the last. At the busy opening reception on June 10 such an insight would not have been possible.

The Count stood meditatively, his hand stroking his chin, his eyes fixed on the picture in front of him. He might easily have been the man André Breton had been referring to.

“A body of work like this,” he said at last, “so much of it graceful, poetic and sublime, is clearly the manifestation of the deep passion you hold for this woman. With this collection, sensitively mounted as it is, she validates you and you validate her. Critics may have their say, of course, but neither you nor she needs anyone else’s validation, blessing, or approval. This may be a public venue, but it is a personal and private agreement, or acknowledgement, that exists between the Muse and the person she’s inspired, a pact that stands outside of time.”

“I saw this through,” I said after a few moments, “because I didn’t want to be one of those pharaohs who builds three-fourths of a pyramid and then calls it quits. Even so, perhaps someday we will look back upon this as one man’s unfulfilled quest for truth and beauty, the story of what he was and was not able to accomplish.”

“Sometimes,” the Count replied, “we need to be reminded of what the Muse demands, and why we should risk it all for her. As for the individual woman’s part in all this, she may be flattered, but she may also be embarrassed by the spell she has cast upon her poet or artist; and she may seemingly repudiate it. But only seemingly. Remember that.

“Standards of beauty change,” he continued, “and men and women in the future may peer at these pictures and wonder what it was you saw in Laura Orr. But if they are human beings like the rest of us, if they are still listening to Beethoven and Schubert and Chopin and Mozart 500 years hence, they’ll recognize that this endeavor was driven by someone’s true passion. And she allowed you to express it, that’s evident. Lya Luft phrases this well: Are there really impossible loves or are there only cowardly hearts? Your perseverance has enriched us, for here is a statement and a journey that will continue long after the close of this exhibition. And, right on time, here comes the helicopter. Put out the lamp and let’s get out of here.”

Alone in the Moonlight: Portraits of the Muse is on view through Wednesday, June 29, in the Creative Arts Center, 1560 Manhattan Beach Blvd., Manhattan Beach. Hours, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 2 to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. Call (310) 802-5440 or go to citymb.info.

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