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The museum is free today, and I’ve come back to look at just one picture. The painter was, for my money, a professional trickster, but brilliant at his trade. His central figure is walking at about forty-five degrees away from the viewer and seems static, but the bricks on the wall to his left are slightly blurred, revealing to me, and to anyone else who takes the time to look, the figure’s point of view. The trick is that we are seeing what the walking man sees, not what we would expect to see on the street—a blur of a dynamic man, the detail of a static wall. It’s a subtle idea, and the artist has brought it off shrewdly—perhaps well enough that not everyone would notice, but feel somehow puzzled by the picture, disturbed, wondering what’s wrong with it. I get it and, feeling suddenly glorious in my own shrewdness and cunning, I laugh out loud.
I don’t look around. Am I supposed to? For years, I have often laughed in galleries and museums when an image was simply funny, like so many Dutch paintings of the seventeenth century, or was manipulating the way the viewer sees the painting or, as today, playing a sly trick. Yet maybe I should look around and, if anyone has heard me, look sheepish. Laughter is in need of an echo, as Henri Bergson thought, and in the palace of art laughter doesn’t echo at all, no matter how much marble there is. I’ve known this for years and had my belief confirmed when I went to a lecture called, more or less, Why We Don’t Laugh in Museums.
It was dreary. The lecturer began by showing some genuinely funny pictures—people with tongues sticking out, obscene gestures—and the audience barely made a noise: the sounds they made rang of embarrassment, not mirth, a polite exhalation, like saying Uh-huh, un-huh to the person on the other end of the telephone. The echo was dim, or perhaps they thought there was some trick in the lecturer’s method or maybe it was too dark though people laugh at the movies. Then she began explaining—quelle pitié, quel chagrin—our failure to laugh in museums in terms of solemnity, of art as the secular avenue to God, or maybe just as a substitute for going to church. Not a laugh, and I left early, which was still an hour longer than was worth staying.
But she did not manage to stop me from laughing in front of pictures, including on occasion such unlikely images as still lifes and landscapes. It’s my right, however skewed my laughter or right or understanding of pictures may be. I can get lost in thoughts of how enlightening it would be to go to an exhibition where everyone was laughing, slapping himself on the thigh or others on the back, pointing and guffawing and wiping tears out of his eyes, and that is what I find myself doing, then something interrupts me. It is a woman’s voice, not an especially pretty one, powered by two robust lungs, and speaking in the school-marmish French which may alone be responsible for the high dropout rate in the lycées. She is narrating another picture in the same room. She is in her forties, maybe her fifties, and is holding a much older man by the elbow. He is facing the picture she is describing. She reminds me of Brendan Behan.
When he was in a reformatory for delinquents, Behan wrote that one of the pastimes of the boys in the Borstal was to “tell a picture,” to narrate from memory a movie, everything about and in it—the plot, as much dialogue as remembered, the scene, the clothing, the time of day, the props. The teller would add gestures and would have to speak up pretty well since the audience tended to be large, especially if someone remembered a movie not yet told or if a new boy, just arrived, had seen a movie the others could not have. It was a public performance and could take up hours—where were they going to go anyway? and what were they going to do?—but also gave a good kick in the shins to the imagination which could have started to turn and smell bad in the ice-box of a boys’ prison. No harm, and good for you, Brendan, and for all your voyou friends.
But in a museum? Do you tell a picture in a museum? In a Paris musem? Perform it as if on a stage? There’s a reason staring me in the face today, I know, but still, still… The woman holds the man’s elbow because he is blind and she needs—I don’t know why—to aim him at the picture. I assume he may also be a little deaf because he is an audience of one and standing seventy-five centimetres from her, nose to nose, the classic thirty inches of conversational distance, and she is booming. But still, still…
I turn and look: she pays me no mind and shows no sign of being self-conscious. This is not the first time she has told a picture in a museum to the old man who could be a little dur à l’oreille. I want to get away from them, but there is something equally annoying and magnetic about the performance. She has no particular insight, no modulation, no pianissimo or fortissimo, no underscores or rule-throughs. Like the bored Borstal boys, she starts at the beginning, which for her is the center of the picture, and continues to the end, moving out in a spiral, like the uncoiling arrondissements of Paris. He says little, only sometimes to ask about something like the color of the coat the woman in the picture is wearing or if there are clouds. He wants the whole picture, and she is giving it to him even if he needs to prompt her now and then. I almost expect credits to roll when she is done, but she takes him by the arm and aims him at my picture, if laughter entitles me to possession or merely possessiveness.
C’est une homme dans une ruelle, she tells him, and a man in an alley would be a perfectly good title, but it’s not the one the artist chose, and she does not go up to read the tag on the wall, that habit that is so hard to break, yet often tells us nothing we need to know. So she has decided, and I give her credit, because what she sees, and narrates, is what the picture is—or will become. She tells the old man there is a man walking away from us in an alley. His coat is brown, there is a red brick wall to his left. No, you cannot see how the alley is paved and there are no shadows, but there up at the top left near the center you can see the bottom half of a window. And more and more. Two more minutes and they are done.
Two minutes, maybe, because in the minutes that pass I am distracted and irritated. I want to tell her to stop, to shut up, to cease and desist from disturbing my peace. But the woman did not bother to look at the explanatory tag on the wall, and I like her for that, and the old man has a look of pleasure on his face, and I like him too. By the time the two minutes or whatever they amounted to have passed, I guess I have counted to ten, taken a deep breath, a cold shower, meds. I’m all right.
As she begins to aim the old man at another picture, I walk up, say hello, and ask if I may point out something they might find interesting. As I talk, the woman aims him right at me. He says hello, and by all means, and what is interesting in this picture? The woman doesn’t say anything at first, but smiles pleasantly, then says they’d both like to hear. I explain the painter’s trick of shifting the point of view away from our eyes and into the invisible eyes of the walking man in the picture who has his back to us. The old man asks me to tell him the bricks in the wall in detail, and I do as well as I can. Yes, he says, yes, I can see that. He smiles and says, C’est un rusé, ce salaud! I agree—the painter is one sly son of a bitch—and the old man and I smile broadly. He thanks me, sticks out his hand to shake, and breaks out laughing.
© Joseph Lestrange
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