In a museum to see four-year-olds touching da Vincis. Couples nearly making out. Black sneakers and rude bodies moving like slow fish between me and the art, distorting, altering the shot pheasant on a table with movement of bodies absorbing the pheasant, momentarily, unless they pause to take a picture of the picture to look at it in their kitchen or not at all, a dead image in a phone, testament to them. French everywhere. I stand before a clear, crisp painting of a brown and white jug on a brown and white table. Flat linear, it’s all about straight lines and where they intersect with diagonal ones and how the diagonal ones parallel each other. It’s all about that, meaning what? Why a sudden interest in the angle that a jug makes with a table? What perspective when I place a pitcher of maple syrup on the table, and sticky rings gaze heavenward. Strollers plod like mules, flung jackets, toddlers at the breast. Dark Dream, disguised elephant, broad leaves. Tail-lit lion. Moon, white moon, marble moon. Nude on a sofa in the jungle. Clearly, Rousseau never left France. I’m three times removed. So why is this pleasing? Is it pleasing? My dreams aren’t in color. Now I see blurry images of pines growing out of rocks by Cézanne. Yes, the colors are pleasant (earthy ochres and reds and turquoisy blues) … do I feel affirmed that another eye sees trees smudge, rocks stand at attention, branches cry? Is that why? Suppose I’m off-kilter, out of whack, mortality skewing my city till it blurs, brilliant street light supercedes car light supercedes trash bin on the corner, guy selling pashminas for $3. I always went to museums to see pictures I knew from books, to recall words constructing context and describing painterly qualities, the interplay of light and life, to think I know that, it’s familiar, familiar odalisque on a duvet naked and rosy a full century or two ago so was it about me or her? Sad Picasso eyes head on, the girl braiding her hair, all triangles, triangular chin, triangular vulva, rope of hair over her shoulders, but form be damned, it’s those sad head-on eyes. Same eyes in the three women from Avignon, straight on, but blank and empty, way past sad. Whip through social realism … all thick army green and garish. Woman’s torso tied up, very subtle, guy sitting by pigs on a farm in Anywhere, America. On to the clean Mozarty world of Mondrian. I had a dress like that, crisp red line intersects with yellow square, intersects with thicker blue square. No confrontation, just gentle crossings, and plenty of white space in between. Not NY. Space, cleanliness, order, idea. But I move on, not knowing exactly what that is. Like jazz. My husband always gets the form. But it’s out there gyrating in space just asking, begging to be translated into I’m a lonely bum or I’m about to come and can’t wait another second or the world is too ineffable, I just can’t tell you. And the gypsy dreaming feet sticking up, flute slippering around his head, everywhere smooth round lines and moonlight and a lion licking in your ear, telling you of dark tree roots and ribs and prides and not hungry … van Gogh’s swirling café at night looks like too many posters of same, sickly suspicious skin eyes askance under your straw hair—were you really crazy or was that a stunt after your mom used your paintings as fuel? Gio wafts from old men. Artists with names like pasta, Severini, Broccoli, I don’t know you, you don’t move me, I move on to an undisguised room full of photos where a gaggle of middle school girls giggles at the naked black man with shiny shoulders, the naked plump girl beside her fully clothed mother, the contortionist in tight jeans, her back bent, legs splayed, head coming between her knees. Tiny black and whites, could be my dad on horseback in Montana in 1921 when he had polio and was sent out west for health, could be my dad watching Lindbergh’s plane land outside Paris after the first trans-Atlantic flight … too small now, I’m impatient … stunning blue white apricot, woman head flung back in cloudy white, floating in what she feels, that head thrown back, and beside it in the shadows of trees face hidden by shadows a boy or girl I can’t tell holds a sheet of paper and lights it on fire, fire licks up the page, but the page is still white, something still legible on her side, his side, not mine, what black words turning blacker, charred, smudged, I can’t see can only imagine, like Antigone when a messenger recounts the battle that killed her brother and left his carrion body in the dust, she cannot see him, only a negative of a picture a messenger creates and leaves unhung. Always the state of burning, always the state of being eaten, of turning to smoke. Around the corner, a line of models in designer shades, how implacable and chiseled, red political pamphlets all balled, strewn across the floor denouncing Tito, suddenly art. Women in media, women abused, male-conceived, framed and sold. In this morning’s paper: Somali girl buried to her neck and stoned for saying no to Shabab commander. Gang rape as political gesture. Pretty victim covers her face, covers her eyes with her hands in shame, blue chador over her head and shoulders, early-morning blue, blue memory of Vermeer’s girl with a white pitcher before a sunlit window, white face in the sunlight, Somali in my recycling bin in the garage. Photo glass and frames gleam like so many knockoff Rolexes. On to the great Metaphysical Interior. Meta-art, meta-spectator, meta-painting, a lesser known one, the wiry blonde in Prada shades and bunny fur nudges past, but wait, there’s an easel in the picture, a three-story building, fountain, ripply mountains all complete, a tease or an excuse, still propped inviting the painter’s invisible hand, and beside it could that be bread, a painting of a painting of baguettes? The café will be jammed. De Chirico’s train stands frozen in departure, smoke pluming upright like a soldier at attention, plume erect in a simultaneous world of vagary wind streaking taut (fap-fap-fap) the banners over Gare Montparnasse. Buy postcards of favorites, get the express.
Caroline Sutton’s essays have appeared in The Literary Review, North American Review, Cimarron Review, Fifth Wednesday, and Ascent, among others. She is the recipient of Southern Humanities Review’s 2012 Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award, and she received Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays 2013 and 2014. Formerly an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons and Hilltown Press, Sutton currently teaches high school English in New York.