|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
29 Nov. - 5 Dec. 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Tipping the jigsaw
It begins with the mildest of discontents. You sit, reading, and though you know, absolutely know, that this is one of the more significant passages in the novel, the key to the narrator's character, or the twist on which the denouement will almost certainly hang, it is difficult to concentrate. You read the paragraph a second time, noting the slight shift in tone, enough to sensitise the antennae, and still your concentration slips. Rather than the page, you are looking at the wall. And in looking at the wall, you are looking at a painting. And you know it has to be moved.
It has taken some time to reach this stage. For a while it was a case of rubberising those particular coordinates on your perceptual grid, of simply looking away and not letting the thing impinge. And then there is the sneaking suspicion that perhaps you never liked the image in the first place, that the painting you prevaricated over, that you convinced yourself you could not afford, that you did not need, and then convinced yourself was an unjustifiable extravagance, and then caved in, and spent rather more, it turned out, than you really could afford, on buying the thing, is not really what you wanted in the first place. At which point you begin to look at it a little more. And then more, until it is difficult to be at home and concentrate on anything else.
Elsewhere, it is possible to take things down, store them for a time, and then put them back. Cairo, though, has a peculiar double knack of causing the walls to fade except where they are protected from the sun, while at the same time highlighting the process with an otherwise invisible layer of -- one would want to call it dust, but dust is too concrete a term for the translucent but palpable layer that casts a shadow over everything and has the miraculous quality of resisting all known cleaning techniques. It is a kind of protoplasmic grime, that probably exists more certainly in a parallel universe, but manages, somehow, to leave its traces in this world. All of which means that taking down a painting that has hung for even a short time leaves less a ghostly imprint on the wall than a gaping hole. It is, in most circumstances, not an option. Leaving, in the end, the solution you had been trying very hard to ignore: a general reshuffle, a rehanging of several pictures.
Matisse at work in the early fifties
Many people will undoubtedly feel that there is something far too precious about dwelling on such matters. But then these are the very same people who would come to the house and not notice what was on the walls in the first place. And if, perchance, they do notice, because something is perhaps a little too clamorous to be completely ignored, they will frown quizzically, and then ignore it, feeling that any sign of interest would be a betrayal of something best kept hidden. Should curiosity get the better of such people, the general direction of any interest will eventually lead to the question of how much you paid for the picture, at which point they will take you in with a single glance, managing to suggest that you are completely mad, before settling back into an armchair, the shape and colour of which they will be totally unable to recall the moment they have left your house (that they are, one suspects, blithely unaware of even as they are sitting in it) and calculate exactly what they could have bought with the sum in question.
It is a pointless, though sporadically interesting exercise, to divide your acquaintances into those that buy art and those that do not. The latter, I suspect, will be in the great majority, regardless of levels of disposable income. Quite recently I was taken to the newly acquired apartment of a friend, a splendid, high-ceilinged, old fashioned, spacious, downtown apartment, and in the huge sitting room, positively crammed with furniture, was asked what should go on the walls. And taking the question seriously, I suggested something, large enough, imposing enough, not to be drowned by all the bric-a-brac, by an artist whose prices are by any standards modest, and whose best work can be breathtaking and would be unlikely to be more expensive than the curtains at the two large windows. Only to be asked, after answering the question, why one should settle for the third rate, when it is just as possible, and much less expensive, to buy prints by real artists, by Picasso, and Gaugin, Van Gogh and Matisse.
It would have been relatively easy to point out, I suppose, that a commercial print is what it is: that the reproduction reproduces nothing but an inaccurate impression of the original, that the colours will be wrong, that the scale will be wrong, that any surface qualities, any texture, will be absent, but none of these things would have mattered. I could have pointed out that what I had suggested was not third rate, but such is the power of brand names in our wonderfully commercialised world that that argument, too, would have held no water. People want labels, be they Gucci or Van Gogh, Prada or Poussin, and they want them as a guarantee that they are not wasting their money, that there is nothing questionable about their taste. It's a no win situation. And this is without getting into any thorny, aesthetic questions about the nature of an artwork. Besides, if someone is content with an Athena poster, they are content with an Athena poster, though the truth of the matter is that they would probably be more content with nothing at all. So this fretting over a painting is, in many people's eyes, a matter of not having enough to think about.
And the problem is, having taken the picture down, having put something else in its place, having removed another, having rehung three, everything else has to change, so the whole jigsaw puzzle that was your living space is suddenly dismantled, and at three in the morning you simply abandon the whole thing, with furniture pushed into the middle of rooms, canvasses lying face to the wall, knowing that it will be weeks before everything is back to a semblance of normality.
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