Saturday, February 12, 2005

As we blaze steadily into oblivion

I can hardly think of it now without being overrun by them. They swirl about me in a black vortex of wingwaves, tearing the fabric of an inner sky. They burst forth from out of the middle of my chest to give the void of twilight its place and texture. Here is the beauty of loneliness set to color and canvas, the blissful tragedy of being human rendered in the overbearing need to express it.

In September of 2002, I left the Rijksmuseum passing beneath the domed arches of its red-bricked underbelly where pedestrians, cyclists, motorscooters, and small service vehicles pass through from one side to the other in a constant flux of human tideswell. One has to be mindful of walking across these various designated lanes and divisions or accidental collisions are unavoidable. Hence, the air is filled with the perpetual ringing of bicycle bells as tourists lose themselves in the grandeur of old Amsterdam, mindlessly backing up directly into lanes while trying to frame yet another uninspired, badly-framed photograph.

Emerging from the west side before a large reflecting pool, I crossed the seated path of a group of Mongolian throat singers colorfully attired in their cultural traditional garb. This was an odd sight. Mongolians in Holland. I reminded myself that I was in Europe. There was immediate relief in this reminder. It's why I love Europe so.

I listened to them a short while, the mysterious sounds of their uvular language, tried to imagine what it might mean, allowing the strange music to tell me enchanted stories of desolate love in a desolate terrain. I moved past them a short distance, turning around to see them set against the background of the Rijksmuseum, their bows slowly pistoning across the strings of their instruments, imprinting an indelible image in my memory. As I approached the far end of the reflecting pool, I could see the famous golden lyre-crowned Concertgebouw across the green buffer of communal parkland. Here the world's great musicians have performed in every style from classical to jazz to rock.

As I continued, the building I was seeking came into view. Gray, blue, there. I had one hour to spend with Vincent before I had to meet people for lunch. The Van Gogh Museum is the prime feather in the cap of Holland. That a poor, rough-hewn, grit-ruddied Dutch painter who made all of his paintings during a 10-year mania of compulsive purpose should be the reason for its existence is beyond imagination. But once inside, there is no doubt.

I stood briefly in line to obtain the necessary entrance tickets knowing that what lie just beyond the doors would stun me. Here the best Van Gogh collection in the world rightly resides. Once inside, I knew I would have to hurry to see it all, to climb the stairs and pass down the many hallways into the labyrinth of the scattered collection.

When I visited in 2002, the museum was already promoting and preparing for the following year's sesquicentennial of the birth of Van Gogh. There was an extensive exhibit of his many personal letters to his brother, Theo, without whom Vincent would never have had the financial wherewithal to continue his painting.

The art lovers of the world owe Theo's wife, Johanna, a great debt of gratitude. For it was she who ensured that Vincent's legacy would be enjoyed after both he and his brother died within six months of each other, Vincent from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Theo, supposedly from a broken heart. It was Johanna who gathered as many of Vincent's paintings as she could and saw to it that they were kept safe. Somehow, she must have known their true artistic value and had the foresight and vision to see that the world would one day agree with her.

Through the labyrinth I moved, down into the subsections of the museum to see his letters. I wanted to save the paintings for last. I could see them upstairs as I passed through the main floor, hanging in frames just beyond the backs of the many tourists who shuffled before them. I wanted the people to all to disappear. I wanted Vincent alone. I was supremely selfish after my private audience with Vermeer's Milkmaid. I was unrepentant in this attitude.

The hour seemed to race by as if time's steady governors were removed from the clock. Upstairs now, I moved behind and among the throng of gallery visitors, pausing before his many portraits, his sunflowers, his trees and landscapes, tender scenes of Dutch life, French life, Belgian life, fields adorned in the tapestries of farming crops and harvest furrows, bridges arcing gracefully over streams and rivers, recognizable images, and many I'd never before seen.

Then, with about ten minutes left before I had to regretfully leave, I strolled over toward a northerly wall corner. Something there attracted a tight gaggle of lookers. I caught a glint of color. I knew what it was. I walked slowly, with unhurried purpose, the same way I'd walked toward the rim of the Grand Canyon the first time I visited there, so that the panorama would unfold gradually before me. I know the intrinsic power of such things. And I revere them with awe and a sacredness that delves into the stuff that makes me who I am.

I made it to the middle of the room and heard myself gasp. I tried to stifle it. I couldn't. I didn't care. I was overcome. I might never again stand here and I didn't care if people saw me openly weep. Without breaking my slow, unensuddened stride, the burning blue sky opened before me as the lookers, as if on cue, moved off to the right to produce an unobstructed view of Wheatfield With Crows.

There was something about seeing the real thing that broke my heart right there on the museum floor, flooding uncontrollably from my eyes. People turned to look at me. I was aware of them, but didn't care. For several moments it was mine alone.

They were the crows of his approaching madness. They were the serrated dreams for something that summons from beyond the unfathomable beauty of this world lifting themselves into the deep twilight. It was black hope emanating from golden promise. There was serenity in the angled spikes of screamless wheat. In the heart of the canvas, amid the blood-rust foreground, arise the green ruts of a well-traveled belief that something outside of us endures to matter in the textured silence of wind through field and feather.

I understood everything. I understood nothing. I stood. I wept. The light at the faraway edge of that sullen field, delicate and decidedly dusklorn, whispers tomorrow in spite of all the tragedy to come.
It was time to leave. I backed away just as slowly and turned for the stairs that led down to the exit. I had several blocks to compose myself before meeting my companions for lunch. The last thing I wanted to do was to have to share this, explain anything to anyone who most likely would not get it. Besides, one cannot share such sacred things with just anybody.

Too many of us lack any true sense of the brevity with which we move upon this blue globe. We wander without meaning, lacking the unquenchable yearning that makes it all so perfect as we wheel chaotically beneath the dizzy business of living under the endless, tragic stars. But for those of us who believe we are but creatures of a dimming solar wind, that our light will one day be extinguished, who know and honor that we share this kindred fate of our luminous star brothers and sisters who blaze themselves steadily into oblivion, it could not be any other way.

Nor would we want it to be.


Blogger Kyle parried...

Joseph, have you seen Kurosawa's Dreams?

There is a part of the film in which he dreams Van Gogh - the crows and other paintings. It's wonderful.

February 13, 2005 1:00 AM  
Blogger ankhara99 parried...

That is exactly how I felt when I saw the sculpture of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Thanks for the reminder.

February 13, 2005 9:29 AM  
Blogger joseph parried...

Kyle: Yes, I did see Dreams. Several years ago. It is a magical film. I do remember the wheat field, but barely.
I should see it again sometime.

Joni: Isn't it galvanizing to encounter such pieces that do this to us? It's like when I saw Andres Segovia play "Requerdos de la Alhambra" by Tarrega.

Or Stefan Grappelli play the music he did with Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France. I have a confession to make in my next post. You somehow reminded me of it. Thanks to you both for posting.

February 13, 2005 1:17 PM  

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