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?

14 comments:

galincal said...

Careful--Northern California is very seductive.

KATE EVANS said...

To me it looks like a mound of gold--apropos since this is the gold rush state (that has seduced many).

Have you kissed the sunset pig yet?

Bill Matthews said...

I didn't get to San Francisco until I was in my 30's, but after just two days there I knew that if I had come when I was in my 20's, I never would have left. Yes, it's the light and that displacement that comes from having the ocean on the wrong side of the horizon, but there is something else to it...and that sense of being seduced that gets those East Coast antenna all stirred up....I don't know Mark, sometimes you gotta dive into the butter. Just think, if you were in Iowa the only thing that butter would be considered good for would be the creation of the "butter cow" at the State Fair.

Robert said...

It always strikes me what a huge (but taken for granted) difference it must make to live in a place where the sun sets rather than rises over the ocean. And then there are islands where it does both .... P.S. Love the butter = paint image!

bkrajewski said...

Thanks for bringing this painting to the attention of others, Mark. A 2004 NYT piece about an exhibition of 70 of Vollon's paintings shows that the reviewer, Grace Glueck, was also struck by the painting of butter. What you say about the butter and the oils in the painting seems to be corroborated by the painting itself, the "o" of the eggs, the "i" of the knife plunged into the butter, and the "L" that comes from the directional cues in the painting. If you were to draw a line from the top of the knife, and follow that line down to the egg at the bottom of the knife and then over to the second egg, you would have your "L."
While I love the title of the painting with apotheosis in it, the original French is Motte de beurre avec deux oeufs. Motte is a block, or a mound. Does anyone know whether Motte is linked etymologically to motley or mottled? A quick look through the OED did not produce a decisive answer.

Mark Doty said...

"Apotheosis" is my doing -- somehow this seems like butter raised to the nth power, the very soul of butter. Which is why it's very inviting and a little offputting all at once, I think, the way it simultaneously suggests pleasure and overindulgence.

Elizabeth said...

One must give in to California, despite oneself.

Nice plug in Snodgrass' obit today in the Los Angeles Times. Did you see it?

BarbaraS said...

To me it looks like a partially formed bust with the head cut off, underlined by that knife In turn the eggs are pointing to a show of fertility; either breasts or gonads... but I have a perverse way of reading pictures. I love it.

With regard to the Motte part of the title, I am thinking of Motte & Bailey, a method of constructing fortified buildings from long ago...

susanstinson said...

Spread it on, make with it, or just roll around in it? All of it's at least a little risky. Then there's the fact that it melts, although it wouldn't around these parts at 8 below. It does seem California colored -- and so good that there's so much butter to be had there.

Jeff said...

The painting looks like the breakfast Henry James describes eating in A Little Tour of France (Elizabeth David quotes it in one of her cookbooks):

"Nous sommes en Bresse, et le beurre n'est pas mauvais," the landlady said, with a sort of dry coquetry, as she placed this article before me. It was the poetry of butter, and I ate a pound or two of it; after which I came away with a strange mixture of impressions of late Gothic sculpture and thick tartines."

That's Henry: eats two pounds of butter at one sitting and walks away feeling a bit like a piece of Gothic art. Perhaps you could try a similar experiment with Palo Alto butter?

Jeff said...

Hi Mark,

You might remember the passage in Henry James' A Little Tour of France where he breakfasts in Bresse (Elizabeth David quotes it in one of her cookbooks):

"Nous sommes en Bresse, et le beurre n'est pas mauvais," the landlady said, with a sort of dry coquetry, as she placed this article before me. It was the poetry of butter, and I ate a pound or two of it; after which I came away with a strange mixture of impressions of late Gothic sculpture and thick tartines.

A nice picture of Henry James: eats two pounds of butter at one sitting and walks away feeling a bit like a piece of Gothic sculpture. Who knows what would happen if you tried a similar experiment with Palo Alto butter?

Mark Doty said...

Jeff, that's an amazing passage. Palo Alto is so deeply health-conscious that I imagine there might be some kind of ordinance against eating that much butter, honest. I overheard a flustered woman on a streetcorner telling her friend, Well, I go THERE for yoga, THERE for weights, THERE for Pilates, THERE for kettlebells...

Howard C. Rubin said...

Ah, California. It took me 5 years to realize I could never move back to New York again, that and a February visit to Manhattan.

The photograph doesn't quite capture the painting's rapturous creaminess. I wanted to dive right into it and went back to see it a few times before I left the museum. Astonishing and transfixing. Makes you wonder if he used "butter" paint instead of oil....

Mark Granier said...

Lovely. Reminds me of Pound's couplet, 'L'Art': http://www.americanpoems.com/poets/ezrapound/16163