Friday, February 28, 2014

The Anatomy Lesson of a Goldfinch

I just got through reading the 2013 fiction novel, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt. It was so good. The character 'Boris' might be the most interesting character in anything I've ever read. The book was about a guy who accidentally kind-of stole a painting from a museum under bizarre circumstances and how his life unfolded after this event. Tartt is wonderful at composing literary analyses of artworks, and seeing a piece for what it really is: what it represents, the story it tells, how it explains the artist, the feeling it gives the viewer, etc. Below are a few excerpts from the book and a picture of the artwork being discussed. Here is Tartt at her finest, describing the artworks as a human and not a robot museum docent.

"The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp" 1632, Rembrandt

Image source: Wikipedia

"Everybody always says this painting is about reason and enlightenment, the dawn of scientific inquiry, all that, but to me it's creepy how polite and formal they are, milling around the slab like a buffet at a cocktail party. Although -" she pointed - "see those two puzzled guys in the back there? They're not looking at the body-they're looking at us. You and me. Like they see us standing here in front of them - two people from the future. Startled. 'What are you doing here?' Very naturalistic. But then" - she traced the corpse, midair, with her finger - "the body isn't painted in any very natural way at all, if you look at it.. Weird glow coming off it, do you see? Alien autopsy almost. See how it lights up the faces of the men looking down at it? Like it's shining with its own light source? He's painting it with that radioactive quality because he wants to draw our eye to it - make it jump out at us. And here" - she pointed to the flayed hand - "see how he calls attention to it by painting it so big, all out of proportion to the rest of the body? He's even turned it around so the thumb is on the wrong side, do you see? Well, he didn't do that by mistake. The skin is off the hand - we see it immediately, something very wrong - but by reversing the thumb he makes it look even more wrong, it registers subliminally even if we can't put our finger on it, something really out of order, not right. Very clever trick."

"The Goldfinch"1654, Fabritius. So there's a lot of text here, but the book is named after this piece. And I typed this all out so, you know, don't let me have done this for nothing. read it

Image source: Huffington Post

It was a direct and matter-of-fact little creature, with nothing sentimental about it; and something about the neat, compact way it tucked down inside itself - its brightness, its alert watchful expression - made me think of pictures I'd seen of my mother when she was small: a dark-capped finch with steady eyes.
Anyways, if you ask me," my mother was saying, "this is the most extraordinary picture in the whole show. Fabritius is making clear something he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the world knew before him - not even Rembrandt."
"Such a mysterious picture, so simple. Really tender - invites you to stand close, you know?"
Steadily the Goldfinch gazed at me, with shiny, changeless eyes. The wooden panel was tiny, "only slightly larger than an A-4 sheet of paper" as one of my art books had pointed out, although all that dates-and-dimensions stuff, the dead textbook info, was as irrelevant in its way as the sports-page stats when the Packers were up by two in the fourth quarter and a thin icy snow had begun to fall on the field. The painting, the magic and aliveness of it, was like that odd airy moment of the snow falling, greenish light and flakes whirling in the cameras, where you no longer cared about the game, who won or lost, but just wanted to drink in that speechless windswept moment. When I looked at the painting I felt the same convergence on a single point: a flickering sun-struck instant that existed now and forever. Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch's ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature - fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.
And this description, hundreds and hundreds of pages later:
"That little guy, said Boris in the car on the way to Antwerp. You know the painter saw him - he wasn't painting that bird from his mind, you know? That's a real little guy, chained up on the wall, there. If I saw him mixed up with dozen other birds all the same kind, I could pick him out, no problem."
And he's right. So could I. And if I could go back in time I'd clip the chain in a heartbeat and never care a minute that the picture was never painted.
Only it's more complicated than that. Who knows why Fabritius painted the goldfinch at all? A tiny, stand-alone masterpiece, unique of all its kind? He was young, celebrated. He had important patrons (although unfortunately almost none of the work he did for them survives). You'd imagine him like the young Rembrandt, flooded with grandiose commissions, his studios respondent with jewels and battle axes, goblets and furs, leopard skins and costume armor, all the power and sadness of earthly things. Why this subject? A lonely pet bird? Which was in no way characteristic of the age or time, where animals featured mainly dead, in sumptuous trophy pieces, limp hares and fish and fowl, heaped high and bound for table? Why does it seem so significant to me that the wall is plain - no tapestry or hunting horns, no stage decoration - and that he took such care to inscribe his name and the year with such prominence, since he can hardly have known (or did he?) that 1654, the year he made the painting, would also be the year of his death? There's a shiver of premonition about it somehow, as if perhaps he had an intimation that this tiny mysterious piece would be one of the very few works to outlive him The anomaly of it haunts me on every level. Why not something more typical? Why not a seascape, a landscape, a history painting, a commissioned portrait of some important person, a low-life scene of drinkers in a tavern, a bunch of tulips for heaven's sake, rather than this lonely little captive? Chained to his perch? Who knows what Fabritius was truing to tell us by his choice of tiny subject? His presentation of tiny subject? And if what they say is true - if every great painting is really a self-portrait - what, if anything, is Fabritius saying about himself? A painter thought so surpassingly great by the greatest painters of his day, who died so young, so long ago, and about whom we know almost nothing? About himself as a painter: he's saying plenty. His lines speak on their own. Sinewy wings; scratched pinfeather. The speed of his breath is visible, the sureness of his hand, paint dashed thick. And yet there are also half-transparent passaged rendered so lovingly alongside the bold, pastose strokes that there's tenderness in the contrast, and even humor; the under layer of paint is visible beneath the hairs of his brush; he wants us to feel the downy breast-fluff, the softness and texture of it, the brittleness of the little claw curled about the brass perch.
But what does the painting say about Fabritius himself? Nothing about religious or romantic or familial devotion; nothing about civic awe or career ambition or respect for wealth and power. There's only a tiny heartbeat and solitude, bright sunny wall and a sense of no escape. Time that doesn't move, time that couldn't be called time. And trapped in the heart of light: the little prisoner, unflinching. I think of something I read about Sargent; how in portraiture, Sargent always looked for the animal in the sitter (a tendency that, once I knew to look for it, I saw everywhere in his work: in the long foxy noses and pointed ears of Sargent's heiresses, in his rabbit-toothed intellectuals and lenience captains of industry, his plump owl-faced children). And, in this staunch little portrait, it's hard not to see the human in the finch. Dignified, vulnerable. One prisoner looking at another.
But who knows what Fabritius intended? There's not enough of his work left to even make a guess. The bird looks out at us. It's not idealized or humanized. It's very much a bird. Watchful, resigned. There's no moral or story. There's no resolution. There's only a double abyss: between painter and imprisoned bird; between the record he left of the bird and our experience of it, centuries later.
And yes - scholars might care about the innovative brushwork and use of light, the historical significance and the unique significance in Dutch art. But not me. As my mother said all those years ago, my mother who loved the painting only from seeing it in a book she borrowed from the Comanche County Library as a child: the significance doesn't matter. The historical significance deadens it. Across those unbridgeable distances - between bird and painter, painting and viewer - I hear only too well what's being said to me, a psst from an alleyway as Hobie put it, across four hundred years of time, and it's really very personal and specific. It's there in the light-rinsed atmosphere, the brush strokes he permits us to see, up in the light-rinsed atmosphere, the brush strokes he permits us to see, up close, for exactly what they are - hand worked flashes of pigment, the very passage of the bristles visible - and then, at a distance, the miracle, or the joke as Horst called it, although really it's both, the slide of transubstantiation where paint is paint and yet further feather and bone. It's the place where reality strikes the ideal, where a joke becomes serious and anything serious is a joke. The magic point where every idea and its opposite are equally true.
And I'm hoping there's some larger truth about suffering here, or at least my understanding of it - although I've come to realize that the only truths that matter to me are the ones I don't and can't understand. What's mysterious, ambiguous, inexplicable. What doesn't fit into a story, what doesn't have a story. Glint of brightness on a barely-there chain. Patch of sunlight on a yellow wall. The loneliness that separated every living creature from every other living creature. Sorrow inseparable from joy.
Because - what if that particular goldfinch (and it is very particular) had never been captured or born into captivity, displayed in some household where the painter Fabritius was able to see it? It can never have understood why it was forced to live in such misery: bewildered by noise (as I imagine), distressed by smoke, barking dogs, cooking smells, teased by drunkards and children, tethered to fly on the shortest of chains. Yet even a child can see its dignity: thimble of bravery, all fluff and brittle bone. Not timid, not even hopeless, but steady and holding its place. Refusing to pull back from the world.

Very nice. As optimistic as Tartt ends her description of the painting, the next few pages go on to say life is one big catastrophe blah blah blah. And what if, what if Fabritius just did it for the hell of it? And from memory NOT a particular bird? The narrator's philosophy would say more about him than it does the painting. Which is maybe what Tartt was going for anyways?

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