All the Beauty in the World: Book Review By Alarie Tennille
All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me
by Patrick Bringley
Simon and Schuster 2023
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For a book to deserve a glowing review at The Ekphrastic Review, it must be superbly written AND surprise us with revelations about art. This first book by Patrick Bringley goes way beyond that. He also tosses in valuable pointers that may improve our own ekphrastic writing or assist in teaching ekphrastic workshops. Some of his quotes would even make superb epigraphs for poetry or flash fiction. On top of this book’s usefulness, it’s wonderfully entertaining. Who wouldn’t be fascinated by a behind-the-scenes look at how the Met operates? Even art thefts and damage caused by clumsy patrons can be fascinating.
It’s hard to believe how much the author packed into just 180 pages of text (including illustrations). Some readers may plow straight through this book, but I suspect most writers will mark quotes and take time to savor all its beauty. My bookshelves suffer from overcrowding, but this is a book that will have a permanent home.
Fresh out of college, Bringley landed a good job at The New Yorker, a phenomenal achievement for someone so young. So how did he wind up going from there to working the long, always-on-your-feet hours at the Met for much less money and prestige? Why did he stay for ten years? I found it brilliant that page one began, “In the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art…” Our interest is piqued before we even learn about his impressive first job. He chose to set up the museum and the power of art as the focus of the book.
He keeps us in the museum until page 25, when he introduces his not-quite-two-years-older big brother, Tom. Unfortunately, Tom, a newlywed, is dying of cancer. Patrick can’t manage the stress of dealing with his grief and being there for his brother while breaking into a demanding job at The New Yorker. Plus he’s also getting married with all that requires.
Bringley made a wise move and invited us to come along with him. Fortunately for readers, the Met guards are regularly rotated. No matter what sort of art you prefer, you’ll get a taste of it on Bringley’s rounds. From Ancient Egypt (a favourite exhibit for children) to the quiet galleries of Asian art, European Old Masters to Modern, and special exhibits. We get a very thorough tour that even includes music. I was especially excited that he finished off his art talks with the quilts and the quilters of Gee’s Bend. I met those quilts at the High Museum in Atlanta nearly 20 years ago, and they remain inspiring to me.
Almost as fascinating as his art insights is the mix of people he encountered from all over the world. Both guards and guests are international. Almost seven million visitors pass through the Met each year.
After spending long hours in the same gallery, Bringley discovered a new way of appreciating art that’s useful for TER authors. He says, “In time I develop a method for approaching a work of art. I resist the temptation to hunt right away for something singular about a work, the ‘big deal’ that draws the focus of textbook writers…. Art needs time to perform its magic for us.” (Although we don’t have a lot of time for TER’s ekphrastic challenges, it’s a good idea to go back and look at them several times on different days to see if we discover something new to set our writing apart.)
At first Bringley didn’t see the appeal of Monet, suspected his art was just pretty until he spent time with a village scene: “I look…a long time, and it only grows more abundant; it won’t conclude.” He adds that Monet “has painted that aspect of the world that can’t be domesticated by vision…what Emerson called ‘the flash and sparkle’ of it.”
Bringley was certainly right about the healing power of art and contemplation, too. But after ten years he did leave the Met, not because he tired of the job, but because working long hours and on weekends didn’t allow enough time with his young family. He was ready to move on, and the Met gave him all he needed to write a best-selling book.
Alarie Tennille was a pioneer coed at the University of Virginia, where she earned her degree in English, Phi Beta Kappa key, and black belt in Feminism. Alarie received the first editor’s choice Fantastic Ekphrastic Award from The Ekphrastic Review, and in 2022, her latest book, Three A.M. at the Museum, was named Director’s Pick for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art gift shop. [ alariepoet.com ]
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