Dennis Kennedy

Art Lesson

You stare at the prospect: the back of a man at middle distance in front of a stream. The bank slopes toward the water. His left arm is at the side, the hand in what may be a fist, while the right bends at the elbow so that hand is not visible; he might be fishing, though there is no rod or tackle; he might be picking his nose. His head, covered by a floppy rain hat, may be inclined to the water but you can’t be certain because the limp rear brim disguises it. The effect, however, is that of a dreamy gazer rather than someone in activity. He’s dressed in brown-grey tweeds, or so it seems from your distance, nondescript most people would say, but with an old-fashioned cut. It looks like a standard man’s jacket and wool trousers. Is that a tear at the bottom of the hem? His feet cannot be not seen because of the slope but the legs are slightly apart, a solid stance. He could be wearing boots or waterproofs, that’s speculation. He is completely still, though you’ve been looking a long time and have seen the breeze move the branches.

The stream, describe the stream. It’s three or four yards wide, assuming the man is of average height. A few protruding stones or boulders make small eddies to his right; at his left it curves slightly away from him, giving the impression the current moves left to right, though that could be illusion. The water is opaque and just slightly algae-green. The opposite bank is lined with trees, cypresses maybe or some kind of pine with dark green needles. The word Impenetrable comes to mind. There’s something familiar about the panorama but you can’t say what. Your eye rises with the trees and makes you wonder what is beyond them, up the steep bank, but you see nothing above except a hint of sky between two branches, suggesting a partly overcast day: the light is opaque like the water. The green of the trees takes over the background; if there is sun, it is not producing yellow light.

Raising your glance further you realize you can’t see any higher because you are looking through a window frame, standing slightly to its side where a metal bar at your waist fixes your view at a fifty-degree angle, plate glass it must be as there is no sash. Or perhaps the glass is hinged open outwards since you can smell the pine.

Step back. You must imagine the smell because you see it is a painting, in oils, and wonder why you thought it the scene in itself. The breeze disturbs the branches only in your imagination. The painting is in an undecorated wooden frame, its color like yellow-varnished pine, the pine perhaps deliberately echoing the trees in the image. You see that the picture continues a few inches beyond the edge of the frame. What is hidden there, you wonder, something important, a brighter sky or just more of the same, and why, if the artist worked to the edge of the canvas, did the framer cover it? The frame is professionally mitered at the corners with a small brass plaque fixed to the bottom strut. From your position you cannot read the lettering or deduce the language.

It hangs on a wall of a neutral color, more beige than white. Do museums paint walls beige? Perhaps this is a private house. You judge it an attractive painting, executed in a middle style with enough realistic detail that at first convinced you it was an actual landscape, but the application of the paint also shows skill in evoking a somewhat melancholy or mysterious moment without resorting to obvious shading or melodramatic chiaroscuro. You’re not sure of its date but it is obviously after the height of the modernist movement, probably the last quarter of the twentieth century. You are too far away to see the brushwork but you can imagine it dense, especially in the greens, without being thick or buttered on with a palette knife.

Buttered on? Is that the right term?

Step back. Your eyes adjust to the additional ambient light that appears as you retreat in the room and the new perspective makes you realize it’s not a painting on a wall but a photograph of a painting on a wall. No wonder you could not see the brush work. Wait, the photograph is also in a pine frame and seems itself to be hanging on a beige wall in front of you. What’s the French phrase? Mise en ab-something. You promise to look it up when you’re home. Which means you’re not home, but where are you? You are looking at a picture of a picture you thought was real life and isn’t but this is real, you are really in a room, this is not a dream or a daydream, you can feel the floor through your shoes, which are made of canvas and a rubber-like artificial material on the soles and are sometimes called sneakers but are Converse as if they were worn backwards. Are you expecting to run away or are they a fashion? You see you are dressed remarkably like the figure in the painting, though you don’t wear tweeds or even own a jacket like his, what your father would call a lounge jacket, so what are you doing in one? Some women wear those jackets, you know, but not you—you think the appropriation of traditional male clothing by women to be slightly, what’s the word, appropriating? Capitulating?

But stop. Why do you think the figure is a man? Because of the clothing? The height of the figure cannot be determined by the evidence before you, it may be shorter than you said and the stream wider, so why not a woman? You wonder for some minutes whether this matters before you return to the dilemma of image reproduction, analyzing a painting through a photograph, but you do not get very far. You feel stuck, analytically speaking, and sick, physically speaking. The experience is dizzying, which your stomach registers as nausea. Does the voice come from within or without? It sounds like Professor Clark who taught you art history, West Country English accent modified by years in California. Polite but commanding, encouraging but definitive, much like your father.

Step back. You stand just under an arched doorway and look around the room, a large room, it turns out, with no windows, recessed lighting, and temperature control. You forget the season outside, whether it’s hot or cold or snow, it has slipped your mind, you have been so engrossed in this work, the work that is the picture and the work you do to understand it. No, you have not got that far, not sure you wish to understand. As you look at the floor of the room, which is the same color of pine as the frame on the photo and the frame on its painting, Norwegian pine comes to mind, you see how the polished surface reflects the light without creating glare, up-light from the floor, hidden down-light from the ceiling. The two sidewalls are bare, though their shade of beige is slightly different from the far wall that supports the picture. The archway is not centered and to the right this wall, the fourth wall, holds a second picture directly opposite the first.

You are about to re-enter the room to study the new picture but as you lift your foot something stops you, you don’t know what, a minor electric shock in your head, a signal that it’s against the rules, you don’t know how. It isn’t physical, this arrest, but powerful nonetheless, as if a Star Trek force-field had descended from the arch and centered itself in your stomach. You crane your neck but you’re not a crane; the view is partial and you wonder why you hadn’t turned around to it when you had the chance. Too much focus on the primary object, there’s a lesson there. You can see the second picture is larger than the first and with similar colors. More you cannot determine.

Step back. You are in the marble foyer of a large public building, it must be an art museum because there is a ticket counter and a gift shop with framed reproductions. No one is there, however, and the lighting is dim, the museum closed for the night or the season. You can’t see outside. You still feel ill, more so, look around and find the women’s toilet, it says Ladies on the door so it might be America and since it is slightly to the rear you are permitted to go there and you do but backwards. Five sinks in a row and you throw up in the second one, bile in the mouth, nothing in the stomach because you haven’t eaten since don’t-know-when. You wash the liquid sick away—it’s that same color of pine, you notice—and drink from the tap by cupping your hand, a little at a time, breathing deeply until your stomach settles. The running water makes you want to pee. You back into a stall but can’t go and wonder if you’ll be allowed to come out, so you do that backwards just in case. You suck on a TicTac you find in your jacket pocket as you reenter the foyer, moving back towards the outer door, and notice a plan of the building done dimensionally in four colors and deduce the picture of the man by the stream is in a gallery designated Installations, but that picture is just a picture, not an installation.

Step back. The air is bitter and a slender rain falls on your head, which you notice is covered by a waterproof hat. You take it off: not flattering, not one you would have selected. You’re standing across the street looking at a building, which seems familiar. Pseudo-Greek or Edwardian baroque, warm stone, imposing in a Mussolini way. It’s not America, though, because the cars splashing by have right-hand steering. It’s grey outside but not night after all and people are entering and leaving the building, so where were they a moment before? You hear the accents on the street—you were always good at English accents, since you were born in Bristol though schooled in London before university in Berkeley—and realize these are in fact salty accents with a touch of Wales like your father and Professor Clark, and you are looking at the Bristol Museum. You were here before, to attend a lecture on Burne-Jones or Haydon, and once for an opening of something, which has floated away like the ships down river with their sherry and slaves, but have no idea how you got here today. You know the building is early twentieth century, maybe you were wrong and the picture dates from then as well, you’re suddenly unsure of all knowledge.

Since the accident you have trouble remembering facts, even those you’ve known forever. You begin to doubt the virtue of fact. You can’t escape the sense that you’ve seen the picture before, in another context, another wall. Your right hand goes up in the rain as if to touch the painting, to point out some feature on the opposite bank despite its absence from you, but stops halfway, unsure of purpose. Pictures need walls, like windows they are always about the wall, and before you is wet air. You feel the damp on your shoulders, under the wool of the jacket. You sneeze and reach for a handkerchief and find a Kleenex in the right hip pocket along with a set of keys you do not recognize. One looks like a car key but you don’t own a car, you can’t remember when you last drove a car. The other key might be to a house or flat. It has Yale imprinted on the head, its jagged teeth stare at you inexplicably. You blow your nose; the effort seems enormous, exaggerated by the noise of passing traffic coming up the hill from your right. You notice you’re still holding the hat; your hair is sodden. You look around for a café or pub, you long to be elsewhere with a notebook to record your thoughts of the painting and the wall, you feel the lack of context is disturbing you more than it should, it’s just a picture after all and you are you, here on the pavement where the canvas tops of your Black-and-White High-Top Con-Verse All-Stars on your hyphenated feet are sodden as well.

You replace the hat and touch your neck and feel a chain there, a necklace you can’t see but feels like no jewelry you own. Three polished stones hanging from it, two small and one larger at the center. You turn the large one three times. Your mind goes to a day-trip from London to Margate when you were fifteen. In the evening you went with friends to Dreamland, the amusement park at the edge of the town; even then their names seemed figurative, impermanent, Jeannie and Jonno and Basil the Oddo. You were Billie; your parents named you Wilhelmina for reasons they never explained, and this was before you assumed your art name, Pictorix Smith, which you thought clever. It was 1969 and Doctor No was playing at the Dreamland cinema for no reason but you said no and chose the big roller coaster. Jonno had his arm around your neck, pulling you tightly into his shoulder as you screamed on the great descent and he broke your silver necklace, ten small blue stones scattering in the air, speckled with white. Years later you read the roller coaster burned and you painted it as an image of death, red and black like an ogre eating its children.

Step back. You are in your studio in San Francisco, the one you had when you were enthusiastic about the revival of painting, a revival that didn’t occur, for you anyway, and you look at the back of a canvas you had stretched yourself. You know that because you always burned your initials into the back of the lower wooden strut when you started a new canvas, a fear of identity loss your gallery owner laughed at. Your actual initials, birth initials, WP. You made a special brand for the purpose by welding old iron nails you found at the flea market, which you heated in the wood burner and held with your father’s vice grips. You can see the large Manet calendar on the wall above the easel, showing a woman in a hat with a cigarette and a glass of something before her on a café table, May 2008, the month of the accident, five years ago now, which happened just after you finished a painting whose subject you cannot remember.

Turn and step up. And you are back inside the museum, having skipped the rain and the vomit, standing under the arched doorway and at last can look at the second picture in the room, allowed to get close to it, and are amazed that it is exactly the same picture as hangs opposite, except it is larger, a larger photograph of a painting of a man in front of a stream with his back to you. No, wait, that’s not correct: right and left are reversed, the stream flows in the opposite direction, the man’s left arm is bent, his right hand a fist, no, it holds a cigarette and for the first time in years you crave a smoke, anything, a cigar, a hash pipe. It can’t be, but it is, the first image you saw is actually a mirror in a pine frame that reflects this larger image in a pine frame opposing it, which is a photograph of a painting in a pine frame. Because of some optic principle about distance you can’t name, the reflection is physically smaller than the original. The picture and the mirror are so cleverly aligned you cannot see how the light on the original projects it across the room to its reverse copy. Of course the original is not original, is itself a photographic copy, you’re doubly sure of that. You wonder if the real original, the painted original, still exists and whether it in turn is larger than this photograph. Who painted it, who took the photo, who hung the mirror? Some French philosopher wrote about this, the absence of the original, and you promise to look that up as well and put him on a list.

You can see that the brushwork, as much as is revealed in this photo, is similar to your own. The colors, however, do not seem to belong to you at all, and the bucolic subject is far from your usual concern.

Turn and step up. To the first picture, the reflection. You see the brass plaque, but the lettering is too small and of course reversed – you forgot to read it from the larger version and now it’s too late. The metal bar is gone, inviting close viewing. You stand at a ninety-degree angle to the frame and can take in at the corner of each eye both images, distorting them, liberating them from rational obligation.

Your nausea has disappeared and suddenly you are elated, as if you’d taken a deep hit on a spliff, that sensamilla they have in California, it is a wonderful moment, a split-self moment, and you long never to feel whole again. You are purged of every desire except the desire to know this picture, to stay with this absurd divided picture, this tiny part of the reflected universe, the stream and the figure of a man. In your left eye the branches of the green cypresses, they are definitely cypresses, are swaying, definitely swaying, the breeze brings their aroma clearly to you, mountain air, resin-heavy. You shiver once, twice. Of course you cannot hear the stream, but you hear the stream. The little figure in the mirror turns his head but looking quickly at the opposite wall you see that is not happening in the photograph so it cannot be happening in the mirror but it is, in the mirror the small head continues to turn slowly, the shoulders steady, you can just begin to make out its features, the neck is strained with the odd angle, you look more closely at the face, you see that it is you.

Dennis Kennedy

Dennis Kennedy is a theatre historian with a number of books, the latest two being The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance and The Spectator and the Spectacle. He has worked often as a playwright and theatre director, and writes song lyrics for Junk Ensemble, a Dublin-based dance-theatre company. His short stories appear in Confrontation, Slice, Witness, War, Literature and the Arts, The Write Room, Vine Leaves, and Underground Voices. Born in Cincinnati and raised in California, he now lives in Dublin and France.

Photo: Ted Jones