The familiar strange

by Ben Van Heuvelen

At dinner on Tuesday night two friends were reveling in their recent trip to the Museum of Modern Art, raving about de Kooning. I loved their enthusiasm, but I couldn’t quite relate. I’ve never been moved by de Kooning.

Visual art penetrates my consciousness even more rarely and capriciously than music does. I can listen to a song for years and not even register the lyrics. Then one day I’ll be driving in the car with an album playing and realize not only that I know all of the words, but also that they are describing the contours of my soul. About a decade ago, for example, I was listening to Bob Dylan sing “Mama You Been On My Mind” —

Perhaps it’s the color of the sun caught flat
And covering the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather
Or something like that
But mama you been on my mind.

— when all of a sudden I realized that he was in that state of new love in which you are so taken with a girl that everything reminds you of her, but you’re playing it cool because you’d seem obsessive if you showed your feelings, even though you’re secretly hoping that she would find your manic enthusiasm flattering and endearing, and might even reciprocate it. At the time I made this realization, I was in such a state myself. I was ready to hear the song.

The last time I was in MOMA, I looked at almost the entire collection but didn’t really see anything. I walked past de Kooning without pause. I probably just wasn’t ready. But then I came upon Oskar Kokoschka’s “Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat,” a marriage portrait that the eponymous couple commissioned in 1909. I stood there and stared for what felt like an hour.

The reproduced image here fails to convey the painting. The scratches of the artist’s fingernails and the excess daubs of paint and the intensity of some colors and the dullness of others somehow combine to evoke a combination of intimacy and anxiety. I could imagine their conversations: every time they decide to reveal something to each other, they also withhold something greater.

This type of interior tension between two people is almost impossible to express with a just measure of beauty. I have seen dancers achieve it. In writing, the grand master is D. H. Lawrence. Here is a passage from The Rainbow, describing an early scene in Tom Brangwen’s courtship of a Polish widow, whom he’ll eventually marry:

Sometimes her vagueness, in which he was lost, made him angry, made him rage. But he held himself still as yet. She had no response, no being towards him. It puzzled and enraged him, but he submitted for a long time. Then, from the accumulated troubling of her ignoring him, gradually a fury broke out, destructive, and he wanted to go away, to escape her.

It happened she came down to the Marsh with the child whilst he was in this state. Then he stood over against her, strong and heavy in his revolt, and though he said nothing, still she felt his anger and heavy impatience grip hold of her, she was shaken again as out of a torpor. Again her heart stirred with a quick, out-running impulse, she looked at him, at the stranger who was not a gentleman yet who insisted on coming into her life, and the pain of a new birth in herself strung all her veins to a new form. She would have to begin again, to find a new being, a new form, to resopnd to that blind, insistent figure standing over her.

We are all so much weirder than we pretend we are! That is the lesson that leaps forth from almost every page Lawrence writes. Civilization has rendered us civil, but beneath our composed exteriors is a teeming fount of uncatalogued feeling that only great writers sometimes name. Words usually fail. I had tried to describe the Kokoschka portrait to my friend the de Kooning enthusiast over dinner, and then helplessly sent her a JPEG image the next day. Wisely, she responded merely with a hyperlink to an image of another painting:

Just so!

I thought immediately of a painting by an artist named Motke Blum, a Romanian by birth who now lives in Israel. When I was visiting Jerusalem, I wandered into a touristy artists’ colony just outside the old city, expecting to buy a kitschy drawing of the Western Wall that I could give a friend. Motke does make such drawings, which were displayed along one wall. But the rest of his studio was stacked and hung with hundreds of paintings, all of them seemingly united in the faith that their primary subject — light — has the power to reveal the essence of things. I sent an image of one painting to my friend.

“They are definitely speaking to each other,” my friend responded. I assume she was referring to the two paintings. And the beauty of their conversation is especially sharp because, though I’ve so far failed to translate it into words, I can still hear it.