art is a time machine

John Singer Sargent with his Portrait of Madame X, Paris 1885, photographer unknown
Some works of art enter through the eye into the mind and heart, and stay there forever. For example, John Singer Sargent's paintings. It's been years since I last looked at them in New York, and no matter: they communicate an indelible living world, in which his sitters from another century continue to breathe and give off their own special light.

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles, Baudelaire wrote in 1857 of the interconnectedness of human experience across space and time; a truth everyone may glimpse to varying degrees, according to their individual sensibility, but which only a work of art, like Keats' Grecian Urn, can clearly spell out for us, in a way that we can all understand. The urn is a time machine from Mediterranean Antiquity, held inside another time machine, the English Romantic poem of 1819. 

In 1617, Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant gazed at certain trees and wrote a poem called La Solitude. Katherine Phillips translated it into English in 1664, Henry Purcell put it to music in 1684, and the countertenor Andreas Scholl, like me a huge Purcell fan, sings  it to us in the 21st century. 

Every time I listen to this song I think: "That's true...when I look at trees I feel the same way. How precious they are - how mysterious and life giving and perfect! I could lose myself in them - surely only a divinity could design such marvelous entities...?"

What content is mine
To see these trees, which have appear'd
From the nativity of time,

And which all ages have rever'd,
To look today as fresh and green
As when their beauties first were seen.

So Sargent's sitters, upper class 19th century women and men in their stuffy, complicated corsets and customs, whose particular private experiences were light years away from my own, nevertheless appear to me intelligible and graspable: I can relate to them, because his brushstrokes, just as the notes of Vinteuil's petite phrase  - itself one of many time machines within the meta time machine of Proust's novel - did for Swann, pluck something of the living essence of their psyche and ferry it to us, whole and intact, all the way across the constant streaming of space and time. 

Those who have stuck with me across the galaxies know that, whereas I once used to spend most of my time taking pictures and dancing, I now practically live in the fields with my dogs. Which is where, just yesterday, I saw a woman communing with a tree. She was alone - no dog or human companion. She was leaning into the trunk, and yes, kissing it. Does she know Purcell's song? I wondered, feeling a tiny thrill... 


J said...

Kissing trees and rocks is, ahem, more common than people think, I suspect.

girlontape said...

i've been known to kiss trees, animals... but rocks?!?!

J said...

I used to live near stone circles, the mystic earth energies must have gone to my head.

girlontape said...

ah yes.... THOSE rocks. now i understand :)