Monday, September 10, 2007

`Still Life is a Minor Art'

Of the few paintings I own, my favorite was done in 1994 by a friend in Schenectady, N.Y., who retired after decades as a lineman with the telephone company. Bob is now almost 80 years old, but until a decade ago he was still teaching phone company recruits how to climb wooden poles. He had no formal training in art but had painted for years, for his own amusement, in a studio he built at the back of his garage. One Sunday morning I admired the picture and without pause he took it off the wall and gave it to me.

It’s a 10-by-13-inch watercolor of an old washing machine with three green tomatoes on the lid. The body of the machine is blue-gray and the lid is white. It sits on a triangular metal frame with a small wheel under each of the three angles. Sticking out to the left is the hand-cranked wringer. Bob painted the plank floor a marbled blue and white. Behind the machine is white wainscoting and the wall above it looks like a cloudy sky of blue, white, gray and hints of rusty orange. The machine casts its shadow to the right, on the floor. The picture has no title, as Bob has never titled his paintings.

Bob told me he based the scene on a real washing machine he found in an abandoned farmhouse near Cooperstown, N.Y. He added the tomatoes because he wanted something green in contrast to all the icy blues and whites. I have always loved still-life painting, especially as practiced by the Dutch and Flemish masters of the 17th century. I take pleasure in realistic renderings of common, recognizable, unheroic objects. The paintings of gooseberries and asparagus spears by Adriaen Coorte, for instance, are prayers of thanksgiving for creation. In Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature, Guy Davenport writes of still life painting:

“Still life is a minor art, and one with a residue of didacticism that will never bleach out; a homely art. From the artist’s point of view, it has always served as a contemplative form useful for working out ideas, color schemes, opinions. It has the same relation to larger, more ambitious paintings as the sonnet to the long poem.”

Fine work done in a minor art results in major accomplishment (consider Shakespeare’s sonnets, to use Davenport’s example). “Minor” is not pejorative. Based on a cursory Web search, the machine Bob painted seems to date from the 1920s, his childhood, so the picture has documentary value, but more so it possesses a bittersweet human aura. Someone, probably a woman, used the machine in rural upstate New York, perhaps when it was still “modern,” a wonder of labor-saving invention. Technology tends to erase memories of its precursors, but I wash clothes for four people every day, and I can’t imagine the bother of washing them in a pot of water steaming over a fire. John Cheever, of all people, gives us a priceless description of what a washing machine meant to a woman who had never seen one before, in his story “Clementina,” first published in The New Yorker on May 7, 1960. The title character was born in a village in Italy, and comes to the United States to work for an American family:

“At first she was suspicious of the washing machine, for it used a fortune in soap and hot water and did not clean the clothes, and it reminded her of how happy she had been at the fountain in Nascosta, talking with her friends and making everything as clean as new. But little by little the machine seemed to her more carina, for it was after all only a machine, and it filled itself and emptied itself and turned around and around, and it seemed marvelous to her that a machine could remember so much and was always there, ready and waiting to do its work.”

In Italian, carina means “pretty” or “nice,” in this context probably the latter. The washing machine is both pretty and nice, as is Bob’s painting, which hangs on the wall in my kitchen.

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