2015年10月20日 星期二

On a Gallery’s Walls, Life Stops and Restarts. Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch, 1620–1691) |

National Gallery
"Portrait of Jacob Trip," Rembrandt, circa 1661


On a Gallery’s Walls, Life Stops and Restarts

LONDON — From time to time we all like to check in on places or things that, across the years, come to mark the passage of time. At the National Gallery here, in a room where the crowds tend to thin, hang Rembrandt’s two Trips: There’s Jacob, the grumpy Dordrecht merchant, with that eyebrow raised and that vaguely disapproving, deadpan glare. And there’s Margaretha de Geer, his wife, next to him, looking through those pale brown eyes as if into some abyss.
I imagine that Jacob used to be the sort of vain young man accustomed to getting lots of attention. But Margaretha’s the one I always focus on. I note how her head perches improbably above that elaborate ruff collar, like a raisin on top of one of those inflatable airplane neck pillows, which even at the time the picture was painted, in 1661, was already decades out of fashion. Swallowed inside her chair, she clutches a huge white handkerchief. It always looks to me as if she were holding a dead ferret.
So I sit on the bench facing them, discreetly nod hello, then turn around to make sure that what the Trips are ostensibly looking at, across the room, hasn’t changed. It’s a painting of Dordrecht, by Aelbert Cuyp, from 1650, a decade before Rembrandt painted the Trips, meaning that it’s a scene that they might recognize: very classical and bucolic.
Jacob earned a fortune in mining, iron manufacturing and arms trading. I suspect he was not an entirely likable man. But Rembrandt makes him look like Abraham or Moses. Then again, he made nearly every sitter look like some Old Testament prophet. Here, late in his own life, with no time to spare, he painted in a style that’s broad and loose, the colors somber, the light shining as if through amber.
Preserved like that, the Trips over the decades have become my Protestant grandparents, watching me get older while they remain alarmingly the same, a sobering thought that invariably causes me to rise from the bench and seek a portrait by Rubens in a room nearby, the one said to be of his future sister-in-law, Susanna Lunden, a vision of ripe youth. I can’t see the Trips without checking in on her, too.
Correct proportions bow in the case of the Rubens to a higher sexual logic. After the Trips, that picture explodes with passion and color. Big-eyed, Susanna looks to the side, but you know she’s seeing you anyway. She’s the bare-necked trophy bride at the stuffy bankers’ dinner. The portrait dates from the 1620s, four decades before Rembrandt painted the Trips.
So, I realized at some point, Susanna could be Margaretha in her youth.
Time reverses now. I imagine Margaretha and Jacob when they were young, even while I see an anterior future of which death is the inevitable outcome. Art holds the end at bay, briefly.
This is what I go to the gallery for, I suppose. To stop the clock, to take stock. It’s not about seeing the most famous or best pictures in the collection, the ones we’re supposed to cherish the most. Those are a little like the Champs-Élysées: admirable, certainly, but kind of a big highway, which may not lodge in the mind as does a corner in the 19th Arrondissement full of African markets and bead stores, where we stole a kiss or caught the sight of our children passing along the street in a shop mirror.
We’re told that the gastronomic ingenuity of foamed cauliflower at some Michelin temple in Britain or Spain is unforgettable, but it’s the chaats from some all-night Indian joint on Macdougal Street or the spinach pies at a family place in Bay Ridge that release the floodgates of fond memories.
For Proust, it wasn’t spinach pies. It was a small piece of cake dipped in tea. For the German writer Walter Benjamin, “the way into this labyrinth” of his own past, he wrote, “led over the Bendler Bridge,” whose “gentle arch became my first hillside,” as he described that fairly unremarkable Berlin landmark in a late memoir of childhood. I know the Bendler Bridge, which isn’t far from where I live, and it never struck me as special until I read Benjamin, and now I see it differently.
“Everyone has encountered certain things, which occasioned more lasting habits than other things,” Benjamin added. “Through them, each person developed those capacities which helped to determine the course of his life.”
A bridge, a piece of cake or some favorite pictures in London, which help to cope with the impending abyss. Art is not just about what’s great or expensive or scandalous or famous. It’s a mirror we hold up that looks different to everyone who sees it, and whose beauty lies as much in us, and our capacity to dream, as it does in Susanna’s eyes or Margaretha’s tiny, noble head, resting on that airplane pillow.

Happy Birthday to Dutch landscape painter Aelbert Cuyp, born on this day in 1620.
Featured Artwork of the Day: Aelbert Cuyp (Dutch, 1620–1691) | Young Herdsmen with Cows | ca. 1655-60 http://met.org/1jHgVVP