You are looking at a painting. Medium: oil. Size – relatively large, an appropriate frame for pristine historicals, for portraits of kings, conquerors, maybe a god or two. The pigments are monotone, warm, mostly reds, hints of browns, greys, blacks.
It is the reds that aptly tell the story.
It isn’t clear to you what the painting is about. It sits in a corner of the museum, away from the noise of the its travelling exhibition that had stumbled into town at the end of the year without a trackable name, a head or a leader, someone to take the pamphlet up to and question why the artworks have no name, why this wing in particular is devoid of art that complements its tones, its mood, why there is no plaque or sign that might make decoding it easier, might provide some solid footing, because the painting is neither one thing nor the other.
It is an abstract, and it isn’t; there is an attempt at establishing a landscape.
In your university’s history books, you know that art is made for many reasons: politics, divine inspiration, a heart that isn’t broken so much as it has been torn clean out of its place within an already damaged rib cage. You cannot tell what reason lies behind paint being put to this particular canvas. You make out distinctive shapes in the foreground – a tower perhaps, behind it, the far-off gleam of a city, and in the corner of the age worm canvas, those seem vaguely like silhouettes twirling around a spark of fire. You say seem because with the sharp light coming in directly overhead, shapes are moving, drifting in accordance to a slow animation that you cannot pinpoint. It looks like clay animation, the one you have seen the art department in your own tiny academic circle attempt to produce, but when you try to focus on them – the little figures that are drifting, shifting, dancing to something you can only faintly hear – shielding your eyes against the light that has suddenly flared up, brushstrokes diffuse, turning feathery at the ends. The figures dissolve. What should have been a stark scarlet flash turns into unassuming rust, bright crimson souring to mahogany. An almost-painting. A thing in-between.
You think, in lieu of what your professor might have said upon witnessing the lack of any title or distinctive subject, shoulders sagging in his tweed coat, knuckles bright red from a chill even in the summers: Man on the Verge of Revolution.
Perhaps a question mark should be posed in the end. You can’t tell if this is what the artist intended.
The noise around you has ceased completely. You rub your hands in their leather gloves, grateful for the quiet. You had begun to worry about the soft buzzing behind your ear. It had felt like someone standing behind you, lips lightly puckered, blowing a cool breath onto the exposed skin of your neck, but only a few people had come and gone while you stood examining the painting, and in your belly, you considered that it might not be a person at all.
With no one to reprimand you – at least, not immediately – you step closer to the painting, squinting, moving over the thick velvet rope that tells you to keep back for the most comfortable viewing experience. You have not learnt this in your history books, or heard this from your stuttering professor, but you know that sometimes, a piece is meant to be looked at from angles that are unfathomable. You know of a critic who hung himself upside-down from the ceiling, just to make sure that the artist hadn’t meant for the head to feel like it would explode in order for the painting to make sense. You yourself are not at such a desperate stage. Yet.
The step closer has worked. Quickly, like flashes of memories behind your eyelids, you are becoming aware of the underdrawing, the loose pencil sketches, the bones. You have always had a fascination with the artist’s procedure: the creation of the image, the trial and error of mapping it out, the years of study, the years of stress, the eventuality of either a gun in the mouth or centuries on a gilded pedestal. You are glad you can see the story this painting has to tell.
Splotches where pomegranate juice was experimentally spilled. The echo of bloody fingerprints where a nail was tacked in. The artist, paintbrush between their teeth, wondering what to do about the red dots that have flicked onto the pristine white.
The mirth is chafed away; you frown.
The strange thing is this: you cannot see it. The layers of paint are impregnable, the surface slathered in varnish stickier than they make it today. But, either way, you looked and you saw: the rough pencil strokes, the mistakes smudged away with a thumb. It stirs within you a restless urge.
You take another step, closer, closer. You’re not sure of the why, but you begin to think of the how.
Could it be the composition? It is not haphazard; it is a net cleverly made to look like the sweltering reefs. You can see where the artist intended to go, where the reds – carmine, rosewood, dusky, heady merlot – strategically lead the eye: rocks that glimmer with dull red light; a sky alight with it, hazy, dreadful; the violent flood of the river that has engorged itself on red silt and dark trunks; the silhouettes that are back, surrounding their fire. They run from the flood, tiny dark arms waving, their backs steeped in a red glow.
You shake your head; the museum lights flicker far above. Your mind is working doubletime, but it can’t grasp solutions. Memories rise up, trying to offer images that you might find familiar, but they fall short: the drone of a lecture, the upturned edges of an easel, your professor’s limp hand, your professor – tweed coat always so impeccable. Blood on his face. Blood on yours.
There is nothing real to painting, nothing that connects it to history, your history or otherwise, although it feels like it. It feels like it.
You regain your breath; you consider the painting once more. It is not a revolt, you decide, even though that was the first solid idea percolating in your mind, man on the verge of revolution. Those burgundy shapes are not spear shafts, but naked trees. That was not a city you saw before but stars that are somehow visible in the infra-red. There is something among the silhouettes that has escaped the flood but lost its fire. You do not know what it is; it slinks through them with arms that are too long and legs that are too bent, and a head that is large and lolling with features, the only thing in motion. The silhouettes have stopped twirling; they fall to their knees.
The background is a roiling mass. Hills have begun to arc over themselves, apocalyptic. Garnet magma seeps through paper-thin cracks, muted. You can feel its heat; you can taste the smoke.
You shake your head, and lift a finger, but you don’t touch it to the painting’s surface. That pressing, knowing sensation in the back of your throat.
No, it isn’t the composition. There are lines there, sketch marks that press up beneath the paint layer, and your theory dissolves like steam; you can’t make sense of the larger picture. You step back, and then step forward again. You think you’ve landed upon it.
Medium, you think, triumphantly. The pigment sits thickly on the canvas, cracked beautifully with age. You can tell the varnish was syrupy when first applied, now clouded with travel and time. It gives the colours beneath a stickier quality in the way they sit beside each other, in the way they meld. Scarlet bleeds into the ochre bleeds into the black.
The transition renders details obscure. Ah, you think. Here is the secret. The way to see every stage of life the painting went through, the answer to the buzzing in your head, under your skin, the pressing, pushing awareness –
Birth: a congealed mess of maroon on the canvas.
Maturation: soaked paintbrush, a steady wrist, wide-eyed intention.
Premier: the expanse you see before you, the shifting details, the ambiguity. You think you’ve hit your moment of eureka; you think you know what precious bit of knowledge you can bring into the already drowning artworld. It isn’t an abstract. It isn’t –
You turn away, a smile tugging at your cheeks, when, out of the corner of your eye you see the sharp lines amid the nebulous pigments, lines that cut a cliff in half, that part the clouds, that split a neck in two. You look again, and know you are wrong once more.
Images that were not there before surface.
A gibbous red face; a tongue lapping with want; a leg flailing at the mouth of a cave.
Something gurgles; something screams. Something looms out of the bloody clouds towards you.
You rear back. The hallway isn’t dark, but you know the light isn’t the sharp light of LEDs but a dim, rosy hue that has no source, that doesn’t come from your world, that slips under your fingernails and deep into your skin. You blink, trying to shake it off, but you can’t, la vie en rose, a world slowly drowning in grizzly red.
In your haste, you stepped away. Red spots dance in the corner of your eyes: they look like fingerprints, feel like groping hands. You’ve moved far enough to see how the painting sits in its falsely gilded frame, mounted on maroon walls.
You blink, breathing hard.
It blinks, not breathing at all.
It was futile, you think, for them to think anything could dull the red.
That red reaches out; it consumes.
Even halfway across the hall, you can’t get away. The pamphlet had said it was a fabulous painting, a famous one. You know what your professor would say. Your professor whose place you had taken today to see what the fuss was about.
Overall, a solid piece of art. Work fit for the eons, for the textbooks.
But that underdrawing, you think, that scaffolding. You can’t remember if you read about it or not, if you heard about it or not, thought about it or not.
No head, no leader. No one to answer questions that needed asking.You keep backing up. Your feet can’t seem to stop.
Like the warning rock before the landslide, something slides under the door into your mind. You know, instantly. You know, immediately, like a prophet, or a god.
There is no structure to the painting, no landscape, no thought, or artist’s hand. For you now know that beneath the strategically applied layers of pigment, the reds that pull you in, the blacks that drift around you, the images reeled out from your memories, that something watches, something that might have swallowed the artist as he took up his brush to work, that painted itself over, that put itself on this very maroon wall in a very cultured museum so that, while you watch it, it can watch you back.
You hit the opposite wall.