Monday, February 1, 1999

New Rembrandt life of party at Mobile museum


MOBILE, Ala. — If you're a friend of Rembrandt, you get a double during Happy Hour in Mobile, Alabama. Make it a triple if you know both Rembrandt and Georges Boka, the Saint Eustache art historian who owns a painting by the master valued in excess of $55 million U.S.

I'm entitled to the three-for-one deal because I wrote a 28-page booklet outlining the proof and the story behind Boka's 1980 discovery of what art experts describe as a unique painting by Rembrandt van Rijn and his student Benjamin Gerritsz Cuyp.

The booklet I wrote just before last Christmas in collaboration with Boka is available at the Mobile Museum of Art, which unveiled The Adoration of the Shepherds to the public for the first time on Jan. 22. It was a big do — a black-tie affair followed by a news conference, where Mayor Michael Dow presented Boka with a gold-plated key to the city.

They like Boka in Mobile. He's knowledgeable about art, he's a talented painter and he's going to be filthy rich.

"It adds to the beauty and quality of our city to have you here," Dow said as he presented Boka with the key to his city. The mayor encouraged Boka to set up a studio on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico. "But if you stay more than two weeks, we'll have to start charging you tax," the mayor said with a laugh.

At the same news conference, an obviously happy Boka thanked Mobil for its warm welcome and pledged a contribution to a building fund for the Mobile Museum of Art, where his painting will hang until March 21 as part of a collection of 82 Rembrandt etchings from the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam. There might have been a tear or two of joy in the blues eyes of museum director Joe Schenk as he listened to Boka.

Everywhere you went in Mobile that week, Boka was front and centre. He was on the front page of the Mobil Register daily newspaper on Jan. 22 and he was prominently displayed on local newscasts that evening. ABC's World News Tonight sent a film crew from Atlanta. If he had prolonged his three-day visit, they probably would have named a dance after him — the Boka Polka.

Schenk invited me to join the fun as his guest at both the news conference and the black tie affair held the previous night in his museum. The black suited gentry and their elegant ladies turned out in force for the Boka bash.

It was the first time in my life that anyone — other than a tax collector or banker — has been so insistent on capturing my signature. Not that I was the first choice. As the circumference of well-wishers around Boka grew more extensive, some patrons of the arts spied me in a corner trying to look elegant as I shoveled the shrimp mousse.

They transmogrified into hunters — on the prowl for mementos. Although not as exotic a catch as the French-accented Boka, I was famous by association. I demurred. They insisted. "Ya all" can't refuse a southern belle — the perfume, the pout, the persistence.

Give it up. Sign the inscription, but make sure the prose flows and is witty. If you run dry in English, switch to French. Unlike the language police in Montreal, Mobilians don't care if there is an accent or two missing.

They can't be bothered with trivialities. Chivalry and culture — that's their calling card. It's in their blood. They invented the Mardi Gras long before New Orleans borrowed the idea.

A bon mot or two in French goes down well with them. After all, Boka is not the first Quebecois to come down the pike. Three hundred years ago, two Montreal brothers — Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, and Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, sailed down the Mississippi River and ended up near Mobile Bay where they founded the city. Bienville Square in the heart of downtown Mobile pays tribute to the younger brother who served as governor of French Louisiana in the early 1700s.

It's easy to understand why they left Montreal for southern climes. Even 300 years ago, palm leaves and balmy winter temperatures in the 60s and 70s Fahrenheit must have been alluring.

Of course, the Le Moyne boys probably didn't have a feast laid on them like Schenk did for the friends of Rembrandt — buffet tables stacked with beef and pork tenderloin, smoked salmon, lobster thermidor, meringue brûlée and vidalia onion pie.

"Very southern, very sweet" cooed Cindy Raymond, a museum staffer, as I eyed the vidalia, a southern specialty. Her soft accent caressed my senses like a warm gulf breeze. Nearby, local pianist Bob Holm played a harpsichord, releasing sweet notes aflutter.

Raymond is what southern chic is about. She wore a cream-colored skirt attached to a bodice and a backless black velvet top with criss-crossing straps adorned with costume jewelry. Her brunette hair was swept into a bun.

Museum curator Paul Richelson with his mop of white hair freshly coiffed delivered his artistic didactics in a British-accented southern drawl.

Then there was sleek Marjorie Brumfield, in her décolleté black gown. She called me "sir." I parried with a two-cheek Montreal kiss. Thereafter, she called me by my first name.

Art, wine, haute cuisine, music and glib conversation.The evening was intoxicating and I was intoxicated. It was both esoteric and ethereal — sipping brandied coffee out of a silver chalice and nibbling chocolate truffles while we discussed the brush strokes of Rembrandt.

I tried hard not to dribble on or stain my borrowed tuxedo. After all, there is only so far one can breach southern etiquette even in the throes of revelry. Does it sound like I was having too much fun?

Well, there were some heart-thumpers coming my way later. Montrealers hear about hurricanes and tornadoes, but rarely experience them. During my three-day visit to Mobil, a twister hit nearby states causing heavy damage.

The night after the black-tie affair, I lay recuperating in my hotel bed, drifting into a gentle doze with the weather channel playing in the background. I was blasted awake by a shrill beep emanating from the television. An orange band with white text scrolled across the bottom of the screen: Local warning in effect. Heavy rains with possibility of a tornado.

What precautions could I take in my second-floor room at the Ramada? As if to answer my unspoken question, two commentators came on air and suggested that viewers take shelter in their basements. Hardly practical in my case, I thought.

As if they had read my mind, the two experts went on to suggest that those who had no basements should sleep in their bathtubs because the walls there are usually reinforced.

I envisioned the chambermaid finding me asleep in the bathtub in the morning and spreading the mirthful tale throughout the hotel. That could kill my chances of any more triple Happy Hours as a friend of Rembrandt.

I was relieved when the only unpleasant folly visited upon us by Mother Nature that night turned out to be a 75-minute thunderstorm and blackout. I'm proud to report that I faced the storm like a man from under the covers of my queen-sized bed.

Far be it for me to break that 300-year tradition of intrepid Montreal adventurers who have shown such meritorious courage in sampling the delightful challenges of Mobile Bay culture.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.