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Megan Hunter – In praise of New York

Friday, 13 August, 2010

Honoré de Balzac, the 19th century French novelist and playwright, once wrote that art was ‘nature concentrated.’  Van Gogh promised that a love of nature was the only ‘true way to understand art.’  And Rembrandt famously recommended that nature should be our only master.

I spent seven wonderful years living in New York, the foremost altar to humankind’s ability to create.  The city’s sharp lines and hard edges speak to something in stark contrast to Rembrandt’s ‘master’; it is the ultimate example of the civilized industrial spirit.  My time there was also some of my most defining, at once inspiring and overwhelming, and each moment spent surrounded by concrete was a reminder of how incredibly lucky I was to be living in the place of my childhood fantasies.  It is also impossible to escape the infectious buzz of Manhattan once you have been immersed in it.  Even now, after a year spent away, I can sometimes feel its energy coursing through me, and there are nights when I wake up with a gasp after a particularly vivid dream and sit awake in the cool darkness of our bedroom, longing for home.

In Horniman Gardens

In the final days before my departure, I ran frantically through the streets taking hurried pictures of my city.  After my time at work had wrapped up and there was nothing remaining in our apartment except for a few bulging suitcases, the only thing left for me to do was say my goodbyes.  With my camera in one hand and a scribbled piece of notebook paper in the other, I retraced my steps: from my first tentative days spent in student accommodation (a grand old hotel in the heart of midtown), to the site of my wedding (a grand old penthouse in the heart of Wall Street), I rushed to capture each memory feeling that if I did not preserve it for myself, it may disappear.  By making a project out of something that should have been cathartic, I was distancing myself from the overwhelming sense of loss that was settling in.  And looking back at these photographs now, I realise that they capture my mood upon leaving, but little else.  New York looks cold, angular, and grey.  These are architectural shots, a documentary of my movements through time, but they feel impersonal and distant.  In my memory, it was nothing like this; there it was, and always will be, in Technicolor.

As I begin to settle into my new life in London, a fascination has gripped me and for the first time in my adult life I am able to fully appreciate de Balzac’s sentiment.  There is individuality to Greenwich Village, but the rush of the city pales in comparison to the perfect solitude of a well manicured garden.  London, to its credit, is an undeniably green city, placing an extraordinary amount of importance on the seamless blend of urban and nature.  Within walking distance of our central London flat are no fewer than 3 parks, 2 public gardens, and a forest.  Streets here are leafy in a way that makes ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn’ seem like a delightful afterthought.

Rembrandt and Van Gogh were obviously masters of the canvas.  And with one look at their subject matter, it’s easy to see why they were so fascinated by it.  These glimpses of nature are, perhaps, more subtle and fragile in their power than a towering art-deco facade but their appeal is also, arguably, more timeless and universal.

If the time ever comes when I leave London, I hope that it will be just as bitter sweet for me as it was leaving New York.  This is our home now, at least for the moment, and while it may not yet have the memories, it certainly has the Technicolor.

(c) Megan Hunter

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