How art can define timelessness

May 13, 2012   //   by Matt   //   Blog, Matt, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized  //  No Comments
Portrait of a Young Boy 1515 by Caroto

Portrait of a Young Boy, c.1515 by Giovanni Francesco Caroto

As a parent of two wonderfully exhausting children, aged 2 and 4, I can attest that our home is overrun with scraps of paper, magazines, colouring books, hallway walls, backs of armchairs, the odd paperback book and table-tops littered with the visual musings of small hands: the graffiti of doodles, portraits of family members, animals and general streams of consciousness as perceived and transcribed by pre-schoolers.

As indelible as the ink they are sometimes scrawled with, these drawings are naive, primitive, simplistic, ambiguous and often requiring interpretation or explanation from their originators. At the same time, they express a free-hand, innovation of form, unburden with historic or stylistic influences. All in all, they are what every parent delights to see and experiences in the Early Years development of their children. And of course, we can all expect that little has happened to change both the artistic output of, and emotional responses to, a child’s art/drawings/visual commentaries with each passing generation of children.

But for all that, I was struck hard by the painting shown here, ascribed to the Veronese painter Giovanni Francesco Caroto in 1515. With sharp intake of breath, I experienced a compression of time unlike any other I can remember in recent memory. Within the pages of an art book in the corporate-lit shelves of a well-known bookstore chain, itself located on the sanitized grounds of the financial centre of London, is a family keepsake painting of their son portrayed with one can assume to be something of his characteristic smile and handiwork. Here is a painting, 497 years old and counting, which equates with many images that many parents would recognize, either taped to fridge doors, pinned to Mummy’s office cubical wall or included as Grandpa’s token Christmas card insert.

The painting resonates for several reasons. Primarily,  the incongruity of its subject matter against the tradition of oil painting, and certainly Italian painting, of the 16th century. There are no mythological allegories, no religious connotations nor figures, no kings nor courtiers, no monied estates, no hunting scenes, no Bacchusian revelry, no still lifes. Just a child and his drawing. The lack of formality too, separates this painting from the mainstay of the time. There are also no subliminal messages inserted from extraneous items or motifs – there simply are none present. At heart, it offers a personal visage of someone loved and cherished, an inner-circle memento of a passing stage in a small life. It might even have been a post-mortum relic of a dead child. Whatever the intended use and commissioning (and let’s agree that such paintings were non-trivial items of expense and required some familial status in society), it is a powerful and emotive connection across so many passed years.

The only other notable sense of a historical life – whose, I will never truly know – that I can recall was upon seeing the hollowed, amorphous shells that once enclosed the bodies of the people of Pompeii. Seeing their fleeing, cowering, defensive poses, and understanding the pyroclastic wave that swarmed to engulf them, triggered the same sense of immediacy within me and to feel their presence, as readily as had I felt that uncomfortable warmth of a seat newly vacated by a stranger on a crowded commuter train. In both the painting and Pompeii, I lost the dissociation of time; the numbing gap of prior generations.

As aware as I am of my antecedents, from my family and those beyond any hope of tracing to my lineage – otherwise known as Everyone Else Who Lived – the idea of their prior existence is often divorced from the thought of their lives, fears, wants, loves and losses. This lovely painting has reminded me of the pasts happenings, as immediate and simultaneous as I find them today, as undoubtedly they shall continue into the future – in short: without time to age nor alter. And without changing, this defines timelessness.

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