On Friday, a softly somber summer day, I rose with considerable resolve (1) : this was my day off and I was going to a cathedral, oh yeah (2). It was to be the Tournai-cathedral, that wondrous, awe-inspiring building, combining Romanesque gravitas with Gothic splendor. From a previous visit I still remembered the sheer delight of that silent space, a space rhythmed by pillars & arches, and shot through by dancing diagonal shafts of light.
But it was an overcast day without any frivolous sunrays. So in the train I had already shifted my aesthetic expectations from limpid luminosity to muffled hues, if only to better appreciate the somber greens and inky grays of the landscape outside.
Tournai was as muffled and subdued as the weather, and as provincially quiet any town can get. But nothing, no banal red-tiled roofs, no trite baskets of red & white flowers on poles in the shopping street, no commercial neon signs, not even the pervasive provincial ennui could diminish the ominous power of those spires. Yes, walking those streets, it was impossible not to look up, not to succumb to the pull of those spires, so immemorial and harsh against a stern grey sky.
But as immemorial as the cathedral might seem, it was obviously not immune to the ravages of time, and thus still subject to a vast restoration program. So not only did the overcast weather preclude any picturesque shafts of light, the extensive inner scaffolding also woefully obscured the grace of columns & pillars.
So I had to renounce my cathedral-spaces-yearnings, and seek pleasure elsewhere. Such as reading complex Borges on a bench in a provincial park, near an old, but still vigorously spraying, fountain, surrounded by tired red roses.
However, Tournai did yield an unexpected aesthetic insight – signaled by the one moment that I instinctively halted and drew my camera before I knew what I was seeing .
It was a café interior, a simple empty café interior, which I spotted through an open door. A tiled floor, wooden tables and chairs, a dark-green plant in the corner, a bench and wainscot with old-green upholstery. All equally & un-dramatically lit by a pale light. A sturdy & solid still life, in muted browns and greens. Utterly uneventful and unassuming, but somehow so striking in its quiet, authentic solidity.
And if I was struck by these muted browns & greens, by the humble solidity of that interior, it was undoubtedly thanks to Chardin, the painter of simple sensuous still lifes without a trace of ostentation. (3) (4)
more about Chardin & BlackBerry in the notes
(1) Please note that I do rise each day, but with varying degrees of resolve – on workdays the rising is done with dutiful resolve : thou shall make thyself useful, in accordance with prevailing rules of usefulness (but not necessarily in accordance with your own impulses).
(2) a desperate longing for cathedral spaces had engulfed me earlier in the week, while facing a very angry colleague at work. He was deeply hurt and indignant, not about the latest round of redundancies at our company, but about the fact that he hadn’t yet been awarded a corporate BlackBerry . And the worst of it was that I knew I had to suppress my annoyance with his gadget-obsession, since his longing to possess this state-of- the- art tool is in fact far less misplaced in productive company life than my own shameful contemplative longings.
(3) Later at home, I gazed for a long time at a couple of Chardin-reproductions. And realized how immensely subtle his hues are, how tangible his atmosphere, and how his unobtrusive light refracts rather than reflects. His humble, muted still lifes are a far cry from the richly attired, scintillating 17th century Dutch stil lifes with their opulence of silver & crystal & lobsters & fruits. And yet, Chardin’s world of simple durable objects possesses a suggestive richness of texture and tactility which our own disposable world of synthetic materials utterly lacks. Who would ever lovingly contemplate the picture of a BlackBerry? (see above)
(4) Too good an occasion not to quote Proust on Chardin: « prenez un jeune homme de fortune modeste, de goûts artistes, assis dans la salle à manger au moment banal et triste où on vient de finir de déjeuner […] L’imagination pleine de la gloire des musées, des cathédrales, […] c’est avec malaise et ennui [qu’il observe ] la banalité traditionnelle de ce spectacle inesthétique. […] Si je connaissais ce jeune homme, [je l’emmènerais au Louvre et] je l’arrêterais devant les Chardin. […] il serait ébloui de cette peinture opulente de ce qu’il appelait la médiocrité, de cette peinture savoureuse d’une vie qu’il trouvait insipide »