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Jean Frémon: Suspended Time

 


Its neck on the chopping block, its legs tied into a cross, it is defenseless, handed over to death. Yet Zurbarán's Agnus Dei is probably alive: the knife has not yet slit its throat. Its wool is quivering; the painter has depicted it in tiny distinct touches that catch the light. But the half-closed eye, the slackened neck, and the head that no longer seeks to rise suggest that the lamb has accepted its fate as if it had chosen it. This is the sense of the sacrifice, an echo of Christ's when he is handed over to redeem the sins of the world.


In the willingly grandiloquent period of Counter-Reformation imagery, to which the painter often succumbed, this sober image, on the contrary, is impregnated with a kind of mystical quietism emanating from Reformation thought. Yet the Reformation forbade all images and whitewashed the walls of frescoed churches. The lamb, like the same Zurbabán's earthenware cup on a silver platter, like the rose and grey walls of  Saenredam's churches or Chardin's compotier, are all images that sing the glory of the forms of this world.   


***** 

  


Placed at the corner of a table viewed from a low angle, standing out from a plain black background as minimal as the lamb's cutting block, Géricault's cat is assuredly dead. Its head hangs down to the side, its mouth is half open, its eye in the shadow is dull, its legs are inert and slack. It is dead, but has not been so for very long; stiffness has not taken possession of this still-warm body whose beige and grey fur quivers. It is said that the cat fell from a roof trough and was picked up by the artist, who took it back to his studio and painted it immediately. It will never be known if this is true, and it doesn't matter. What matters is what we see: the mystery of life and death in painting. The static and the fleeting. It is a modern Pieta.

 

*****

 

These two images – Zurbarán's lamb and Géricault's cat – contrast with all those still lifes with wild game, painted by Snyders, Oudry, and so many others, which are but pretexts for vain demonstrations of painterly skillfulness. 


*****

  


Kiki Smith drew and aligned with a kind of piety a colony of dead little birds. She borrowed her taxidermised models from the Natural History Museum and brought them to the engraving workshop. Her long engraving resembles a frieze paying tribute to lost life. The artist placed this drawing under the sign of the Bible by alluding, in her title, to the fourth day of Creation when God created the birds, but inverting the proposition into Destruction of Birds. The bird, in the religious tradition that Kiki Smith does not reject, embodies the Holy Spirit, brings back the olive branch and hope in its beak. Saint Francis preaches to it. It is the bird which unites the earth and the sky, whose flight is the symbol of life. And fragility.

 

*****

 

My dear Clément Rosset, whose implacable humour I love so much, had for once made himself guilty of a blunder which, I thought, I needed to point out to him. Like most French philosophers, he was probably more at ease in Greek or German than in English. Indeed, wanting to comment on the term with which English speakers designate what we French speakers call a nature morte in painting, he perhaps confused still life with still alive; in any event, he wrote that still life meant "life still", that there is still life, aliveness, in the object depicted. It was a benign error. Still can have this sense, but in another context. Here, the English still is the same as the Stille Nacht of the German Christmas carol, that calmness of a suspended time when nature is covered with snow under the starry vault. Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, a moment of recollection and peace.


On Zurbarán's lamb, on Géricault's cat, on Kiki Smith's aligned birds, time is suspended.

 

*****

 

The whole matter obviously consists of making the flat image of a being coincide with its body, which is warm and throbbing or which has just ceased to exist, by letting escape that part of it to which, according to Joseph Conrad, it would be unwarrantably rude to refuse immortality. Conrad was of course speaking of a human being who had just been murdered and whose mortal envelope was lying beneath the narrator's gaze. But what is the difference? The formula is amusing and the smile that it triggers on the reader's lips offers a new example of the mind's capacity to flee, flutter and alight wherever it wishes.


Zurbarán's and Géricault's paintbrush touches, and Kiki Smith's sharp burin, are full of empathy for their subject. One senses that the life that has left the lamb, the cat and the birds has entered the painting.

 

Translated from the French by John Taylor


 

Jean Frémon, born in 1946, is a French novelist, poet, art critic, and the president of the Galerie Lelong. Many of his books are noted for the engaging ways in which they blend history, art criticism, ekphrasis, and fictional narrative. Several of his works have appeared in English translation and other languages, most recently Portrait Tales (published by Les Fugitives in London and translated by John Taylor).

 

John Taylor’s most recent translations include Franca Mancinelli’s All the Eyes that I Have Opened (Black Square Editions), Philippe Jaccottet’s La Clarté Notre-Dame & The Last Book of the Madrigals (Seagull Books), and two books by Pascal Quignard: The Unsaddled and Dying of Thinking (also Seagull Books).

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