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Winter 2006

Rendering Life Harmless

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Mimi Chubb

My great-grandfather, Robert Robinson, was a genre painter of the Norman Rockwell brand. From around 1910 up until the early 1950s, his paintings were often the covers for The Saturday Evening Post, Harper's Weekly, Collier's, and American Druggist. The originals for the covers—before they were shrunken down, made glossy, and printed over with magazine banners and bits of text—hang in my parents' house, and in the houses of my relatives. They tend to depict New England spirit, in a comical, jaw-clenched, human-interest kind of way. At the beginning of his career, my great-grandfather painted a lot of red-cheeked, bug-eyed, gaunt and bespectacled old men caught in moments meant to carry a crusty charm. In a cover he did for The Saturday Evening Post, one of these old men pokes his head out the door, gingerly because of the winter cold, and purses his lips to release a jet of frosty white air. In another, the old man's brow creases and his lips seem to mutter disapproval as he watches a young couple kissing from behind a white door. We don't see the couple. They are outside the picture; we only catch a glimpse of their silhouettes projected against the door.

I have looked at some of Rockwell's pictures, and I think that those of my great-grandfather have a tendency to be a little bit sharper, and a little bit slyer, although, in all fairness, it has to be said that my great-grandfather did paint his share of beaming, freckle-faced schoolboys, which are what jump to mind when I think of Rockwell. In the front hall of my house, above a basket full of old straw hats, old walking sticks, and some crumbling pine cones that must have once struck someone as being especially big or especially pretty, there is a graying painting by my great-grandfather, from sometime in the Twenties, of a farmer and a politician. The two men are shaking hands, and their mouths are turned up into identical friendly smirks. Their eyes are squinted-up so that they have matching three-pronged wrinkles at the corners. Both have fat new cigars in their mouths, just lit, and in his free hand the farmer holds a flier with the politician's name on it. The politician thumps the farmer warmly on the back with his own free hand. Homespun electioneering, my great-grandfather tells us. Worthy of a wink and good elbow in the ribs; of a quick, happy national chuckle before the magazine is opened and its pages are thumbed through, and it is set down on the coffee table.

All pictures of this kind—genre pictures of American families, politics, and small-town life, of the kind that were painted by my great-grandfather and by Norman Rockwell in the early to mid twentieth century—strike me as having a peculiar aim: that of rendering life harmless by capturing moments in which everything is fully apparent. We are able to learn the farmer's and the politician's entire life histories, their entire emotional frameworks, through a prolonged glance that takes about as long as a deep breath of air. This is not to say that there aren't pleasures to be had from continuing to look closely at these pictures; they are bursting with pleasing, confirmatory details—they live in details, in the crafting of details. In an effort to reclaim Rockwell's paintings, critics have described them as being engaged in hyperrealism. The extra fliers, for instance, that peek discreetly out from the politician's suit pocket and suggest the transience and expediency of his encounter with the farmer. The rolls of cushiony flesh in the politician's cheeks and jowls, and the red wattling at the back of the farmer's neck. These are pictures that want to seem benignly explosive, to catch our eye, to pander. But the details they give strike me as being revelatory only in predictable, comforting ways. They create the illusion that the excitement of life—its double-crossing and its vicissitudes—can be fully disclosed and fully understood, and that this excitement is, in fact, something safe and apple-cheeked, something that really ought to be called excitement rather than, say, disarray. They invoke nostalgia for some bygone day when people were schematically quaint and pleasant; this bygone day takes the shape of a fuzzy, luminously colored, anytime Americana. If Rockwell used this creamy American myth, with its lipstick reds and mint greens, to get at a sentimental smirk, then my great-grandfather used it to get a wry grin.

This feeling of irritation over such paintings' sentimentality, over popular aesthetics that have come to seem passé, is not something I would ever claim to be the first to feel; Rockwell and his kind are often recognized as schmaltz. They are classical masters of an ongoing American tradition of schmaltz. But my great-grandfather's paintings lack, for me, the dull and sticky innocence that I would assume to be a part of the sentimentality other people might find in them. When I say that they are disguising disarray as excitement, I mean that, to me, they seem full of veiled and insidious danger. Their re-coloring and re-creating of American life feel to me like jagged stitches put in to close up a wound, an imperfect barrier beneath which there might be—there is—unknown pain, rawness. I have come to realize, also, that it is impossible for me to make sense of my great-grandfather's paintings by deciding to view them as schmaltz, or even as bad art. They are too smart—oddly enough, too genuine. It occurred to me, looking again at the farmer and the politician, that the picture perfectly conveys their ironic parallelism. Neither one of them is innocent, neither one is being fleeced; both of them understand and appreciate the shady ingenuity of the transaction occurring between them. Appreciating this about the scene both requires and yields energy—it is the core of the painting, and I never discovered it until I realized that in spite of all my highbrow scorn and my eagerness to write it off, I actually liked it.

And take another picture that hangs in our guest bedroom, and that still carries an aura of cigarette smoke from the days it spent in the house of my great-uncle and my great-aunt. It bore witness to their long and sarcastic alcoholic marriage, and its paint is a little the worse for wear. If it ever had a title, no one in the family can remember what it is now. In its foreground, to the left, it depicts three children ranging from about age seven to about age eleven: a red-haired boy seems to be the youngest, then a blonde girl, and then a brown-haired boy. Behind the children, to the right, is an older, official-looking man standing behind a pharmacy counter. He is solemnly pouring into a cup from an old-fashioned glass jug labeled "CASTOR OIL," while the red-haired boy looks on nervously, his eyes wide and his mouth open in an anxious O. The red-haired boy has a white bandage pinned loosely to his head, and he is sitting in a toy wagon painted with the word "AMBULIANS." The little girl and the brown-haired boy are wearing placards around their heads that say "NURSE" and "DRIVER" and they are looking up at the pharmacist, smiling in anticipatory pleasure. Their game has taken an especially delightful twist; their little brother is about to receive a big helping of castor oil from the poker-faced druggist, whose mind we can feel twinkling away with a particular kind of humor —the humor of the idea of the genre scene itself, in which a situation becomes something delectable, something with safe parameters, something acommodatingly malleable.

It occurred to me recently that this druggist was the figure in my great-grandfather's paintings that comes closest to being a representation of the artist himself, with his quirky agenda of the private joke. My father told me that my grandmother, my great-grandfather's daughter, referred adoringly to the way her father would conceal his sneezes by shouting, "Bow-wow!" The pharmacist, my winking great-grandfather, is clearly the figure of control in the picture. His torso, exposed above the counter, looms far above the heads of the children looking at him, and he pops out from the grayish-white background in a way that the children do not. He has edges, somehow, where they are softer.

I did not notice until even more recently that we are not given any glimpse at all into his eyes; he is peering intently down into the glass he is filling, with his mouth wrinkled in concentration. All we see is the pinkness of his eyelids and then a dense fringe of lash. This feels appropriately guarded. When I first noticed it, it made me look differently at the painting for a moment; the whole thing seemed to have become a minefield, more self-knowing than I had been imagining, eager to expose itself and in fact only gesturing at what had always felt before like an effort at concealment, perhaps out of some effort to defy me. The gray-green blur that oozes its way into the shelves of the pharmacy counter, into its boxes of blurry candy bars, seemed vaguely menacing, bent on undoing the specificity of the forms in the painting. The smoke-stained background could have been full of some kind of poisonous gas, wrapping itself around my great-uncle, who was the model for one of the little boys, and my grandmother, who was the little blonde girl wearing the nurse placard. I wondered whether the whole thing was some kind of code; I wanted it to be prophetic.

The painting has always hung on our wall, and since I was a child it has given me pause. Just as it can be absorbed in a long glance, it provokes long glances. Like the painting of the farmer and the politician, it is geometrically striking. When I was very little I didn't understand the scene. I needed to have it explained to me repeatedly. It struck me as being funny when I was about eleven years old, when it seemed to be an embodiment of the adult world, of adult humor—an access point through which I could see childhood the way adults saw it. Probably someone told me around then that the girl in the picture was my grandmother, and it was probably around then, as well, that someone told me that I bore an uncanny resemblance to that girl—to my grandmother, Lydia Robinson. She was killed in a car accident when my father was sixteen years old.

Lydia is not a bubble of silence in my family, she is not something cursed that has been carefully shut away in a leaky attic, but she is fragmented, dissolved. If I ask about her, my relatives ask me, "Well, what do you want to know about her?" There is no tight narrative of her that comes together naturally or that makes any sense. What I know about her is that she first dated my great-uncle, who introduced her to my grandfather, whom she married. She studied art at Cooper Union and continued to paint for most of her life. She painted clumps of Cubist fruit. I have spent a long time looking at the one of these paintings hanging in my parents' house, and have never managed to feel much of anything or to muster up an opinion. Someone who saw it once said she had seen others just like it—that it was an exercise done by many students moving through Cooper Union at the time, rather than a little shard of Lydia's own artistic talent. Lydia was schizophrenic, and she underwent electric shock treatments during the 1950s, when she also gave birth to my father and my uncle. She was a terrible cook, and she made terrible 1950s casseroles even worse than they needed to be. My father and my uncle had a game they would play with her, in which they would both sneak up on her. They would pop out from behind a door, and one would throw a ball in her face while the other snapped a photo. She never looks angry in the surviving photos that were shot this way, but she does look fat, pop-eyed, and intelligently kind, like an absurd queen. Her paranoid fantasies excluded her children—she always imagined them as needing her protection—but they included her husband. I have always known my grandfather to be soft-spoken and gentle, a man-lamb, but during one of their screaming fights he became so enraged that he pounded a hole in their bedroom wall with his fist. She had a cat named Fluffin whose kittens she was always having to rescue, to make nests for, because Fluffin gravitated naturally toward places where they would drown—the sink in the basement, for instance, where the water from the washing machine would drain.

I think it is obvious that my grandmother is an obsession of mine. I used to imagine her as a Sylvia Plath figure, or as fitting into a certain legend of Sylvia Plath and of 1950s-era thwarted womanhood. She was an artist forced to be a housewife, a genius subdued, a beautiful fury. This idea soothed me. I felt that my resemblance to her and our blood link might make me a phoenix rising from her ashes, might have given me the vividness I felt I lacked. The narrative I built out of my grandmother made me feel that I was carrying vividness just beneath the surface of my skin—an internal star, or a hand grenade, something secret and potent that would give my life a sheen of meaning. I think that, for me, extremes have a seductive power. I often find that life feels like thin gruel, not dazzling or electric or vivid enough to be real, and I think a large part of the appeal of realism is its power to convince us of the possibilities of reality; we seek out those epic moments of suspension at which reality is secure, but pulled taut—at its farthest edge, close to shattering. The little girl dressed up as a nurse, grinning at the druggist, seemed to counteract violently my story of my grandmother; it converted her into an extreme of happy normalcy. But, most maddeningly, what she really was in the picture was a small piece of a grand and vivid banality, a state of being that had no place in the schema I had developed for myself. The violence and the disruption of the facts I had gathered about my grandmother were absorbed by instead of freed from normalcy, and the hyperrealism of my great-grandfather's art, used as it was to emblazon the everyday, the small, and the harmless, made a new myth of Lydia as powerful as my own—more powerful. My own began to feel like a husk, dry and even pitiable. The edge I was gripping with the tips of my fingernails came to seem eroded and doughy, lacking the sharpness that felt so necessary. The need I felt for it came to seem like an indication of my own immaturity.

My great-grandfather painted the pictures I have mentioned already in order to make money and to support his family. What he really wanted, it turns out, was to have been a portraitist, but this was not a lucrative enough path in the post-photographic era he worked in. He did, however, paint portraits of Lydia. I grew up with one of them. It is as engaging, in its way, as any of the cover artworks with their sense of spotlighting. It is full of soft charcoaly tones—rich browns and heathers that all seem to crescendo in Lydia's eyes, which gaze out at you full of a doe-like and intelligent glow. Lydia is about ten years old in the painting, with the same heart-shaped face I had at that age, and she is sitting in some dark and cozy interior (what it makes me think of is a carriage) wearing a fur muff. The Lydia of the portrait is much softer, even, than the already soft Lydia of the pharmacy painting; she is smudged with what I imagine must be tenderness, as if my great-grandfather's brushstrokes themselves were caresses. She looks out at you with great intimacy, and with some other emotion that I have never been able to read well—it could be sympathetic amusement, or, I realized recently, it could be precocious empathy, as though she is taking into account and reaching a conclusion on some suffering of your own. And, looking at her, I wondered if it was an expression someone else would have recognized in my own face. I was not sure of where I was in relation to this portrait Lydia—was I myself knowing and judging, smudged into my grandmother along with the gracefully blended pink in her cheeks, or was her gaze in fact intended for me? It came to feel like a rebuke that the portrait was encased beneath a layer of glass, which always gave off faint, distracting beams of glare, and that the grandmother it gave me—the most real and most imminent grandmother I had been able to locate—was a child of ten. It did not even make sense for me to encrypt her gaze with mystical power, as I felt tempted to do. This child-grandmother had not lived out, or even begun, the narrative I wanted her to sort out.

There is another portrait of Lydia, at fourteen, which was retrieved from my grandparents' attic just a few years ago, and which now hangs in my parents' living room above a battered and sinuous old silk sofa that has faded from a rich crimson to a melon pink. The picture is all pink and green, and painted in oil so thick that it might be pastel. This Lydia is the most beautiful of all of them. She is wearing a pink dress, and its color combined with the green of the background makes her skin rosy and lovely, like the delicate underbelly you can see where a conch shell curls into itself. She is recognizably the child from the previous portrait, but her face has lost some of its roundness and her expression is more confounding, more disturbing. It could be petulant, even childishly seductive, or it could be the first framing of some seed of bitterness. Her lips press up slightly, and she looks out at you through her eyelashes, less directly than she did in the other portrait. Her eyebrows have been plucked and her hair is loose, tucked behind one ear with a flower that droops back suggestively. Here she is on exhibit, an artwork and a compendium of colors, as she has not been before. When I looked at it recently I was surprised to see that the picture could almost be a subdued Gauguin. Looking closely at the petaling of Lydia's ears, her cheeks, the curves of her temples, and the delicate skin beneath her eyes, I felt they had been painted with an urgency that outstretched the natural; the pink seemed feverish, a lovely inflammation. I wondered suddenly if Lydia had been crying-if my great-grandfather had caught her with the swollen traces still on her skin, her eyes drooping slightly from weariness of feeling.

I have never been painted, but it is something I have imagined for a long time, in an obscure, half-dreamt way. When I was sixteen I wandered through the Picasso museum in Paris, and I read about how his models became obsessed with posing for him, how when he gave them up they often attempted suicide. Some went mad. I remember, maybe falsely, that one had said that nothing compared to the feeling of having him look at her-that compared to the brilliancy of that, the rest of her life was unbearable. I think it is this idea that both attracts and troubles me-that it is being looked at that matters, or, really, that all the power of vibrancy and meaning lies in the eye of the artist or the interpreter, in the one who looks. When I stare at my grandmother I do so through the eyes that we share, and through the mind of my great-grandfather, which has conspiratorially narrowed her and tenderly dilated her, so that she has become a vast swath of silk, swept repeatedly into and out of the eye of a needle with the energetic dexterity of the showman.

My myth of her has eroded, but it has left behind a few potent traces that make little sense to me—they, like everything else I have of my grandmother, defy narrative. What they consist of is an imagined feeling of sitting to be painted—the effort of keeping still and the pleasure of having thoughts turn in my head unspoken, of considering the pebbled white of the walls. For some time I traced this feeling back to an idea of a quiet rebellion against a sense of being watched, to the contained and passive fury I imagined would be the result of being rendered by someone else's brush. Now, though, my feeling seems inexplicable and far less graspable; my grandmother and I might be paint fixing itself to a canvas in a pattern of permanence, while simultaneously pouring onto the ground into a soup of color. It is as though we were water that washed without erasing. What I am responding to is a sense of loss, I suppose—the most profound I know, because it is a longing for what I cannot know and have never known, and because it bleeds covertly into my own flesh, my own mind.

Mimi Chubb is a student at Princeton. This is her second publication in The Threepenny Review.

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