Friday, January 16, 2009
The Apotheosis of Butter
This still life appears in the online edition of the Times today, as part of a slideshow of highlights of the National Gallery. It's called "Mound of Butter" and was painted by Antoine Vollon, ca 187-85, and it's completely startling. The Times' writer, Roberta Smith, thinks it's "perhaps a comment on the excesses of Impressionism." And maybe so, but it seems a multivalent image, inviting us to think about greasy, tactile oiliness, be it butterfat or oil paint. The picture conjures up verbs of oily substances, the way butter and paint are spread, slathered and smeared, how they live in between the liquid and the solid, so that this incredibly wet-looking pile is also capable of holding that knife perfectly upright.
And it seems an invitation to indulgence, that mound, an opportunity for complete sensual immersion, its lack of boundary emphasized by the neat containment of the two eggs. But there are only two eggs, for all that butter!
I can't help but connect this painting with my new pleasure of living temporarily in California: the softness of the light, the just-right temperature of the air, the piles of beautiful citrus on the sidewalk this morning on my walk to the bank, the way the cologne of Mr, Bonduk, the banker, strikes a subtle but very vibrant note of physicality -- truly, it's all the experiential equivalent of butter. Though without the immediate prospect of over-indulgence; Palo Alto somehow is about pleasure melded with some seemly degree of restraint. Why do I feel I shouldn't like it so much, I should know better?