Saturday, September 15, 2007

On wanting things

Wolfgang Heimbach, Maid looking at a table
A maid looks through the window at the remnants of a feast. And she wants. She wants what she cannot have—not just the things she sees on the other side of that window but the way of life she knows exists on the other side of an equally transparent but very real social divide. You can tell by her round eyes and raised brows that she is amazed. Such sumptuous foods!—the leftovers alone worth several of her own meals. Given the chance, she would drain the wine goblet, polish off that hunk of bread, and carry off the ham bone, still heavy with enough meat to feed her family for a week.

With her nose pressed to the glass and her fingers resting on the window ledge, she has a hungry “puppy dog” look; I half expect her to start howling any minute like a hound who wants the moon to not be a quarter of a million miles away. I am tempted to say her expression is one of longing, but it strikes me as a cruel word, one which implies distance even while it means that she yearns to close the gap. She will never taste the food or touch the starched linens and silver plates that rest few inches away because things more substantial than leaded window panes bar her from a place at that table. She will always be on the outside looking in.

The real appeal of this painting to me is the way it foreshadows Surrealism by 300 years and calls our visual assumptions into question. Is seems that we are on the same side of the window as the feast, and, unlike the maid, we are within reach of everything on that table. But then again, the trick is that we aren’t. We are just as much on the outside as she is. The picture frame, like a window, allows us to see things but never have them. Even if we stood in front of the original painting in the Staatliche Gemaldegalerie in Kassel Germany and risked a fit from the guards by reaching out a finger, we would feel only oxidized chemicals on canvas. The whole thing (as is all art, but we like to forget) is a hoax, a tease, an attractive lie.

The food isn’t all that appetizing to me, but what I want is for that scene to be real, or at least for it to have once been real. The more I look at her, the more I imagine that this woman once existed in the flesh. I have deduced a whole personality for her, a hungry family at home, an errand to run. I want to believe that she lived. And like her (who was never truly a her, but an “it”—an idea in the mind of an artist—and a “those”—the pigments spread by a brush) I want even more what I cannot have.

My daughter Nora is also going through a phase right now where she spends most of her waking hours wanting things. She wants up. She wants down. She wants to be outside. She wants to be in. She wants whatever anyone else currently has, whatever it is. She wants to play with the prohibited object you have just taken from her. This morning I confiscated the following contraband: a pair of scissors, McKay’s math homework, a tube of lipstick (which she was not too sad to lose since it tasted far less sweet than she had expected), two permanent markers, a bear-shaped bottle of honey that she was sucking on like a bottle, the dish detergent, my car keys, and a box of Kleenex—the contents of which she had been gleefully liberating one by one while telling each tissue what I can only assume was: Fly, be free, be free!

Nora only has four words in her English vocabulary, but—don't worry—she speaks 12 different dialects of Whine and has no qualms about making her wants known. If I’m carrying her around and she has a new destination in mind, she will grunt and try to steer me like a pack horse, turning my shoulders or pulling at the reins of my hair. She also points at things. Sometimes she aims both pointer fingers at what she wants and then vibrates them up and down furiously like she’s conducting a tiny, tiny orchestra made entirely of piccolos. If she sees anyone else eating or drinking something, she insists that we share. Yesterday I had to eat the last ice cream sandwich surreptitiously, ducking behind the screen of my laptop whenever she wandered through the kitchen. She caught me on the last bite and I gave it to her before wadding up the wrapper and throwing it away. She wailed for more but it was all gone. “Sorry kiddo,” I said sympathetically. “Life is frustrating. You’re just going to have to get used to it.”

At this stage, Nora’s whole life pretty much consists of longing for things she cannot have. What a drag for her. The most frustrating part is that she’ll beg for something and then decide that it really fails to give her utter fulfillment, so she’ll chuck it aside and look for something else. This makes me crazy and anxious so I cope by opening one cupboard after another in the kitchen hunting for a snack. Something salty? Nope. That’s not it. Something sweet? No, that wasn’t it either. Maybe I need a Diet Coke. Now I’m craving chips. Or is it chocolate?

And then I ask myself, mystified: What in the world is my daughter’s problem?


Gill said...

I love that painting. Brilliant post!

MsPrufrock said...

I have a background in art history, but I'm not familiar with that painting. Thanks for introducing it to me, it's lovely.

Great post too. I'm always impressed with your abilities to create a real-life tie in with art. It's a dream come true for me to read.

bubandpie said...

Sometimes she aims both pointer fingers at what she wants and then vibrates them up and down furiously like she’s conducting a tiny, tiny orchestra made entirely of piccolos.

I covet this sentence. What a vivid analogy - one of those rare similes that makes the image suddenly explode into being in my mind's eye.

Heffalump said... are bringing art to my life. Since I didn't go to college, and never took art in high school I am happy to get my art education here. Thanks!

Luisa Perkins said...

Fantastic. Really.

Kimberly said...

That was brilliant Julie.

Brooke said...

Too funny. I thought I was the only one who hid while eating. My kids have the "monkey see, monkey do" syndrome! LOL

Richie said...

Remember what the Buddha said is the root of all suffering...