Art Elsewhere: Sven Birkerts’ "Grandfather’s Painting"

I’ve been thinking about opening this blog up a little – since there are so many more beautiful things out there besides painting and sculpture. So welcome to the first post in my weekend series, Art Elsewhere, where I’ll begin with stories and songs that express the beauty of the art this blog is usually about, and then move towards the stories and songs that can be considered art all by themselves.

“This morning, going against all convention, I turned right instead of left.”

The first fine art mention comes from a book of short stories I’ve been reading by the American essayist Sven Birkerts. His family is Latvian, a fact pretty tied into most of the book, and the longest story only lasts about 10 pages. They’re mostly just short, descriptive little anecdotes or memories that somehow get stressed to have a grander meaning at the end. I like them because they’re so short, and because his sentences run long with description. This excerpt comes from a story in his collection The Other Walk, called “Grandfather’s Painting,”

My hesitation makes it clear that I am no expert in the terminology of painting, though that didn’t stop me just the other day from launching into a long aside in a writing workshop comparing the essayist’s notion of a narrative destination to the painter’s marking of that point on his canvas. Here on the canvas the eye is drawn ineluctably to the small reddish-orange oblong, and it happens to be the only trace, in a world otherwise just land, sky, and water, of human presence. Was this a formulated idea? I don’t know. I never think of painters as intending things in quite this way, and to be honest, the possibility that Mike [his grandfather] might have come to it by way of an idea rather than by pure visual instinct slightly disconcerts me. It wars with the sense of his character – who he was – that I had as a child.

The painting, two feet by three, is signed M.A Zvirbulis in the lower right corner and dated 1960. As he died the very next year, it counts as one of his last. I took possession of it long after, when I began to live away from home – it became part of the very minimal decor of my life. No doubt that’s why those colors and hazily rendered shapes are so utterly familiar. I have stared and stared, often without knowing I was staring – which is maybe the real penetration. The landscape hung on nails in the living rooms and bedrooms of so many different apartments before ending up here in our house, where it has sidled from this room to that, finally mounting the dark stairs to come to rest against one of the attic bookcases. This is temporary, I say, and at some point I will give i its right new situation. But the temporary positioning also serves it: for I notice it several times every day when I come up to the attic to work. I mark its glow, or the bit of flat blue that is the lake, in a way I wouldn’t if it were to fall back into bewitched slumber on some wall. To be seen a painting has to keep announcing itself; it needs strenuousness, a way to stake its claim over and over. This landscape does many things – to me anyway – but it does not exert itself. Rather, it gives way to the gaze, subsides into itself; it makes no pitch about the world except, unadventurously, that it is. But I don’t mind. Again and again I contemplate a beautiful vista painted by an artist who loved the look of the world but was also tired, a man for whom seeking serenity had become the first priority. 

My dog Ollie:)

Email me if you have any suggestions for upcoming Art Elsewheres – and happy Sundog!

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