The gaze and the breeze
It’s early in the morning and she feels a light headache. The cold air tingles sharply in her nose. The house smells as if it hasn’t been warm for a long time.
While slipping out of her coat, she breathes in the cold smell. Her feet nearly soundless on the plush carpet. Her hands unmoving from numbness. Somewhere far away, she hears P calling. She walks into the house.
At the beginning of the hallway hangs an old thermometer. The mercury seems incapable of rising further than the brand name. Only above that does the indication of the temperature begin, in seven stages, from Very Cold to Biting Frost, Freezing, Moderate, Warm, Hot and then Sweltering. It will never be Sweltering here. Not even if the world ends as it’s going to. When P calls again, she walks down the hall and mounts the stairs to go up.
Pretty nice, huh?
Whether P is impressed by something or is making fun of it, you’re never quite certain.
M walks into a room further along and is clearly excited.
But whether M is really enthusiastic, you can also seldom tell…
She is unsure. The house has so many faces, is hung full with faces. A satyr on the back of a chair, a parrot in stained glass. Too many dogs and cats for residents who could have been contented. A cat figure purring by the hearth seems to make light of anyone who has ever been lonely.
The bygone presence of an old woman keens now and again like a passing breeze. A breeze just warmer, not colder, than the cold-smelling air that hangs in the house. As if she’s flitting by. Like a falling star. As if she dwells in radiant heat.
The effect is tepidness. A scorching tepidness.
The old woman was young once, and married a creative spirit with less money. Oh woe to us women who fall for poor creative spirits! The café walls along Amsterdam’s canals see everything and sing their laments in turn. Yet this man was not bad. Capricious, but not wanting. Every year she gave him 4,000 guilders so he could lead his life. To bring art into the home together and later give it away or sell it. A museum was never the goal. Museums had just begun to exist. Yet around the time of his death it was clear that it had something to do with eternal capital and a claim to the truth.
Eternal capital forever manifested as a tepid wind. Tepid due to lifelessness, the first curator might have said half a century later. The curator was a writer without capital. He did, however, have a power over words that could singe your fingers worse than money springing from the blackened lungs of coal miners.
In the museum of dead beings, the curator gathered a collection of art books. Some thought they were morbid creatures, those art historians. Types that parasitize the imagination of others, imagination that is trapped in lifeless objects. But in Amsterdam the art historians were mostly magpies in bars, or girls from a good home.
She herself is perhaps a girl from a good home, too. A house with warmer floors. A home in the middle of the country, a place where the temperature is measured and the little princesses have gone to school. Measuring held little interest for her and, at barely twenty, she left for Italy to paint. Her representations are faded, blended, built up from unrestrained contours and light colors, full of love for that which isn’t visible, belief in what appears in the background. An ode to those who take their time. A resistance to giving up. A blossoming anthology on that which refuses to show itself.
The coat stays on.
P looks at her, are you alright?
Her lower abdomen palpitates wonderfully. She doesn’t want to say it aloud.
Did we take a good look at the bedroom? Do we know if the wallpaper can be painted over? Will there be preliminary studies on the wall? What does the gallery say?
M brings commotion into the cold-smelling house. Everything is silent and everything is remarkable. A collection from times that were so different, created in places far removed from one another, brought together by a person for people who delight in curiosities. A suspended, perhaps even futile place.
The tepid breeze. Suddenly she’s back. As if we shouldn’t think on it. Forbidden to detract from the legacy of her husband, the magpie from the cafés.
The old woman passed away after he did. They made the house into a museum. In the Netherlands something like that only existed in Haarlem. For decades, people would think that he was the one who collected. But it was her family fortune. New money from industry. They spent it together.
Frivolous furnishings in the French style of Louis XVI and without any real purpose recall the unsung eve of a headless revolution.
To a queen who retreats in an artificial cave because she wants to know what it’s like to be a shepherdess.
To lethal class differences.
To a court painter who was a woman.
On the service floor, in the basement, a caged bird is divided over six tiles. On the second floor, an old gray-blue public transport ticket worth 12 guilders rests on the windowsill. Above the doors are mounted long, abruptly sawed-off horns that seem to yearn for the beautiful ibex who had to lose them.
(How many creatures and eras are there here, anyway? They hear Z ask.
Her voice sounds thin and a bit uneasy.)
A dreamed opulence of plants, beyond people. The suggestion of more. Much more.
She removes her coat. Places her paintings in between the things. New panels or portals to another world.
She takes a step back from the world.
Does it look good here?
M thinks so. P isn’t here.
The art historian wants to discern apolitical waterlilies and nude odalisques from bygone times. Or a geometric construction en route toward complete abstraction. But the paintings hold more enigma than that. Their elusiveness contrasts with the multitude.
Clouded landscapes don’t lend themselves to being placed in a house of resplendent objects. They divulge a truth that we don’t own. They won’t let themselves be known.
Yet, time is its own reward. Slowly a soul emerges from the cloaking fog. The silhouette of a body, the eyes of a person, woman conversing with animal.
And there she is again. The tepid breeze brings a wrinkle in time to the cold-smelling house.
During the fin de siècle the warm house became a cold museum. The end of a century when people sought to master the world and carve it up into categories. A century of domination and oppression. Of invented borders. Of men elevated above all, and each other.
But the divisions would backfire as partitions, the categories as hierarchies. A hundred years later, no one would believe in it anymore. By then it’s the turn of the millennium and she’s singing in a post-punk band in London.
Before post-punk came punk, when New York’s critical mass of collecting was overtaken by women in gorilla masks.
Keeping the voices and touches of cast-aside women alive. The unmasking of the museum as a mausoleum for wealth and power.
She looks at the functional objects that you could never be sure whether they were really used. A mirror, a sponge, a jug to wash with. She picks up her telephone. This bedroom is a strange place. Breathless, not heartless, but the décor is out of sync with real life.
Across from the bedroom is a study with prints, books and replicas. The room on the northeast has wood covering the walls and a carpet reminiscent of a postmodern Italian design. A lush bouquet of fake flowers stands in the garden room directly below.
She is no less of a collector than he.
The sheer number of things will cause them to resound in collages. The life that she misses will be regained through editing photographs. From these preliminary studies, she makes the hardly recognizable foundations of her paintings, the new words, her new worlds. Worlds for the animals and the people who are yet to come.
Years from now, when the canals are inundated and the houses subside. When the doomful portents of the magpies have come true and their cafés become fused with the heat. What happens to the animals?
P regards her questioningly.
The animals don’t die, she answers, because the animals were already eternalized.
Don’t be melancholic, mutters M from a distance.
An old woman donated a museum out of her husband’s character. Like a whispering wind, she keeps him company. A presence marked only by creative spirits. The scorching tepidness that wrinkles time and opens up panels.
The house will always have this cold odor. But the paintings to the other worlds bring more than tepidness. Warmth in the lower abdomen. Women and animals who look each other in the eye. The embrace of a couple with an unknown legacy. A breeze.