Mr. Janson opens a window.
Having just returned from two weeks away seeing great works of art in New York and Boston, I’ve begun to consider the deep impact that certain paintings had on me in adolescence. In fact it came to me in a flash just yesterday that there are three paintings in particular that, looking back, seem to have prophesied my life-path as a historian. Three paintings that over a period of twenty years lived with me, watched over me, offered in an inexplicable way not merely encouragement, but some ineffable sort of wisdom. I think of them as three magic windows into the past- my personal past, our cultural past. These works are teachers of three very different visual languages. They also represent three distinct periods of the historical epoch that is now my concern as a historian.
Professionally I consider myself a European historian of “the Long Nineteenth Century”. We call it long because we start with the French Revolution (1789) and stretch the period to the end of the First World War (1918). It’s good for one’s career since it widens the scope of possible teaching topics- but there are other reasons too. This is the period of “the modern” and it is the advent of so many of the social promises and pitfalls that fill our days: democracy, industrial production, colonialism, class warfare, global military strife, art for arts sake and mass media! The three paintings in question date from 1931, 1884 and 1788. They came to me in that particular order- as if the cosmos was luring me back in time in stages. As if, like Merlin, I was aging in reverse, experiencing the finish first and ending with the start.
It wasn’t until college that I visited a major art museum. My first knowledge of painting came from an old copy of H. W. Janson’s “The History of Art” found on my aunt’s bookshelf when I was eight. I was particularly enthralled by the High Renaissance, Mannerism and the Baroque. As time passed and I became acquainted with all of the contents of the Janson book, it was the 20th century modern art that pulled at my mind- I couldn’t figure it out. Like hearing a foreign language which appeals through its qualities of cadence or vowels, but which is incomprehensible, the visual language of modernism reverberated in my imagination, but found no reference point in my worldly experience.
As time went on however, and I began to wander the large art book collection of the local library, taking down this and that monograph and doing my best to read the short blurb beneath the reproductions, a sort of skeletal grammar of modern art began to materialize for me. The first incandescent web of art knowledge in which I found myself happily captured was Surrealism. Magritte, Dali, Ernst and Duchamp (the one who puzzled me the most) settled in around me like benign spiders. I was a fly, dazed and facet-eyed before the mysteries of their work. But in all these books the paintings themselves were so small. It was often hard to make out the details.
I had no idea how a change in size would alter my perspective. I found out one day in 1987 when I was 12. Wandering in the photographic supply and scrapbook aisle of Long’s Drugs in Lodi, CA, I was taken aback- I stood stock still- frozen again like a fly in the web. There turned on its side and shimmering under a thin layer of icy shrink wrap was a giant poster of Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory.” It seemed to leap into my hands. In an instant I was at the counter. “That’s um… an interesting one.” said the clerk as I handed her the cash. (They don’t get much Surrealism in Lodi- at least not the artistic sort.)
For once in my life I was at a loss for words. I don’t think I looked up at all. My spellbound eyes were so intent on taking in the details of the painting, which were totally new to me: the cluster of ants on the closed watch, the delicate shadow of the solitary fly and the crenelations in the cliff and its reflection in the eerie seascape. It was immediately hung over my bed where it began to silently (and persistently!) do its strange and important work upon the core of my being.
Lost liquid days and the rubber mask of age
Looking back I can remember how much the textures of this work inspired mental sensations. The watches made in the rubber-chicken factory, the sad deflated face with its Groucho Marx bristles stretched like a cheesecloth over a hill, the hardness of the reflective slab and the wavy cliffs mirrored in a quicksilver sea… sometimes it reminded me of the qualities of a fever… and at other times it seemed the most comforting of stage sets: a world where I could wander and be my truest, my most secret self!
Years later I would learn that Dali was making allusions to Freud’s psychology of erotic dreams and social masquerade and Einstein’s theories of relativity. Although these bodies of knowledge were unknown to me, somehow the more general notions implicit in them were effortlessly communicated through the imagery. Time had never seemed regular to me. It could be glacial like enforced nap time, everlasting as summer vacation, or gloriously glowing and short-lived as Christmas Day and Halloween Night.
From the age of five I was somehow convinced that I had lived on planet earth before. My grandparents (60 years my seniors) seemed like equals and would in time become two of my closest confidants. I relished their stories of childhoods spent with model T Fords and silent films- their memories of their own grandparents who had come west in wagons or steam-driven trains and were born before the Civil War ended.
I wore the mask of age whenever I could. In kindergarten I lobbied to be the father-of-the bride in a female class mates’ after-school mock wedding. I begged to play the part of Methuselah in a Sunday School play about the patriarchs- imagine living to be 969! At 11 I discovered a book on special effects makeup and spent many afternoons after school layering my face with tissue paper dipped in latex to simulate wrinkled skin. This was usually followed by a generous dusting of my head with talcum powder until I had hair as snowy as my grandfather’s.
My other grandfather (who happened to be bald) was a hobbyist clock-maker. Each year he would make a clock for someone in the family. What made these time pieces special was that the face of the clock had letters and not numbers. He was very clever at finding 12 letter phrases related to time. The clock he made for me spelled out:
And indeed it did- although I was none too happy with what it had to tell me. For as adolescence dawned I found myself in a panic. Both my sexuality and budding intellectual doubts about Christianity kept me awake at night. The fluid and never-ending days of my idyllic childhood, where I wore a white beard and pretended to be an old man, seemed to be solidifying, hardening into an epoch of adult responsibilities. The concerns of the quotidian world came scuttling toward me, just as that army of ants streamed across Dali’s watches. I was becoming A YOUNG PERSON!
In horror I clung to the world of the ancient ones even harder. I took photographs of myself dressed as Moses, King Lear, Merlin and Father Time. I played an octogenarian in my last high school play- so well in fact that most of the senior citizens in the preview audience were convinced I was actually 80 (or so they told me afterward). At 17 my best friends were Ken and Dorothy Austin, a 70-something year old married couple who took me with them everywhere. They were aesthetes, highly educated therapists, music lovers, agnostic ecumenical pacifists. They were my peer group.
But inside I still couldn’t face the curse of young adulthood. I yearned to skip career, sex, political engagement- I yearned for the autumn of life. For the Golden Years. The old-man mask seemed not to fit me anymore. My body cried out with its own rebellious Eros. A rift was forming inside of me. One night all the watches in my body got rewound. In the morning I found that they kept regular time. Ken died. Dorothy fell into a deep depression from which I could not rouse her. I went to work to earn money. I fell into hopeless and unrequited love with straight boys. Sex was still out of the question. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the real world. It had been so easy in the old days- dressing up as Hoary Wisdom Personified. I was a boy waking up every day in a young man’s body. I was nowhere near the Age of Retirement. The Age of Surrealism dissolved into the Age of the Bourgeoisie!
A boy-man goes looking for a month of Sundays
… to be continued…