Chasing Shadows (I)
(Meissen Cup and Saucer, circa 1750 - Offered by Seidenberg Antiques - Item #E4705 - $9,500)
“Now you know it’s a meaningless question
To ask if those stories are right
‘Cause what matters most is the feeling
You get when you’re hypnotized
Seems like a dream
They got me hypnotized”
-Bob Welch (Fleetwood Mac)
You are in a deep hypnotic dream. Everything seems real - familiar faces, familiar surroundings. Conversations are earnest and logical. But something becomes skewed – you can’t put your finger on it - and you suddenly awake. And even now as you lie awake attempting to recall the sequences of the dream you begin to lose your grip on its details and very soon – poof - it all vanishes.
Sometimes a painting or a work of art, in its clarity and beauty, can transfix us into a hypnotic dream. And just as suddenly we become aware of some dissonant detail that can jar us out of our reverie. We can then either shrug our shoulders and move on or look a little deeper.
Now let us examine with our 21st century eyes this Meissen cup and Saucer circa 1750. The saucer depicts two proud mustachioed Hussars astride their caparisoned horses in a landscape with buildings and castles in the background. A few birds fly overhead and a dragonfly hovers above. The colors are lush and the quality of the painting is superb with meticulous detail even down to a truncated tree limb. The cup has a vast and ambitious panoramic scene perfectly compressed onto its exterior. Here the Hussars are strutting their stuff near a moat or a river wherein a paddler steers his canoe. A fancy town lines the background and birds again fly overhead.
So far so good. We are now deeply enmeshed in our dream world of 18th century Germany. But let’s look at the painting inside the cup. Another mustachioed Hussar, no doubt on an important scouting expedition, has stumbled across this semi-clad woman covered up with the flimsiest of robes (and not too securely fastened at that) taking her afternoon nap. He removes her robe with his left hand – she conveniently remains in her deep sleep – and his right hand is held high in an exclamatory gesture of delight and wonder.
We awake (she doesn’t!) – what’s going on here? What kind of unusual sequence of events have we witnessed? Why would this 18th century ceramic artist present us with this illogical image? Why disturb this cushy image of the Noble Hussar – defending his homeland and battling the enemy – with this somewhat comic and erotic scene? Possibilities abound. Perhaps this naked woman is Venus and the painter is injecting an artistic riff on a popular 15th century image of Venus asleep in the forest. But regardless of the woman’s prototype, the question remains, why insert her at all into this scene? Perhaps he is skewering our preconceived sacred notion of the Noble Hussar and presenting the flip side and showing us his sordid obsession with sex. Or, perhaps there was an intention to surprise the tea drinker with a little comedy – imagine the drinker’s surprise at a cozy and affluent tea party when he looks into the cup filled with tea - even more so as he almost finishes the tea and becomes more aware that at the bottom of the cup, a naked woman appears like a fish glimpsed under water or a mirage in the desert.
Can our 21st century sensibility still bridge the chasm and make the leap into the 18th century world and into the mind of our painter? This is the question and the mystery that confronts all of us as we look back on the art of the past. For those of us who have the time for research, a whole world beckons. For those of us who don’t, we can still be fascinated and hypnotized by the mystery and by a past that may be irretrievable – growing dimmer and dimmer – like a dream - more elusive with each passing moment.
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