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One Encounter: El Jaleo

By (October 1, 2011) No Comment


When we were twenty-one, I knew a woman who fascinated me. Our time together felt like a romance, though I can’t say how it felt to her. She was nominally gay but when a bunch of free condoms came into her hands at a pride parade I found myself promoted. We spent nights out at clubs, or reading each other our high school poetry (she worried it was her best work), or dive-drinking around Boston. We were just out of college and of course a little lost. She worked at a movie theater in Harvard Square, and when she gave me a tour behind the screen, where the Cambridge homeless drank and slept, plastic bottles scattered over the bare rafters, I felt like I’d really been someplace.

She was tall and thin. When we were naked she said, “if I were a boy, you’d look like me.” But we were separate souls: she could dance, she was easy with people (if she didn’t like someone, she ignored them, whereas I either sat around parsing my failings or started a fight); her feelings were close to the surface but she didn’t mind that they were. And she moved with an arrogant grace—her smile was half a sneer, or at least it looked that way to me.

Over her bed hung a poster of the famous John Singer Sargent painting, El Jaleo: a flamenco dancer poised mid-step in a dark café. It’s one of these pictures that everyone’s seen, maybe flipped through in an art book somewhere or tacked on a dorm wall, only I had never laid eyes on it before I saw it that summer in her room. For a couple of months, here and there, I’d wake up underneath it (glitter on the sheets, a Massive Attack disc still repeating on the stereo). When she left the room to wash off last night’s eyeliner, I’d take the picture in. It was rectangular, like the painting, about three feet long and two high; I was frozen by the grace of it, a static image of what I saw in my friend, I think: the dancer with her head thrust back, pivoting back from her center of gravity—I’d seen my friend do this countless times in clubs—and her attendants cheering; she’s haughty, seductive. There’s an orange sitting alone in a chair to the viewer’s left—as punctum-perfect as the dangling egg in Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madonna. One might be tempted to think of sacred conversations like Piero’s, seeing the dancer in El Jaleo as a dark reflection of the virgin and the revelers behind her a host of saints. Only they’re the dark saints of romanticism—the orange both sexual and lush, the girls in lurid Toulouse-Lautrec light—the men ecstatically lost.

And inscrutable. My friend had the sort of charismatic hauteur that makes everyone around her feel both flattered to have her attention and a bit awkward; the woman in El Jaleo has this too, and I wanted it for myself. I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum for the first time that summer to see it there and I bought my own poster to hang over my desk like an amulet. I don’t have any memory of taking the big painting in (it’s as tall as a grown person and twice as long), but this would have been when I assumed that a reproduction was better than an original, because I’d be able to contemplate it in my own time and space.

It hung in whatever room I worked and wrote for over a dozen years. It was still there when I attended the wedding of the friend who’d inspired its purchase (she married a lucky woman I’d never met before), and it was there through at least half a dozen jobs, half a dozen apartments, and a few aborted attempts to write about it when I couldn’t think of anything else to write about and it was there, as always, before my eyes.

Of course I stopped seeing it, at least most of the time. Like the cliché of an old married couple, the picture and I gave each other the space we needed and avoided catching one another’s eye. Sometimes, usually after something to drink, I’d drift into an observational reverie, usually centered around that orange on the chair—a sexy burst of color, the refutation of an ordered world—but I found myself there only sparingly and only when sleepy-eyed.

I spent much of August of 2011 packing up my possessions to leave Boston permanently. I was moving to Denver, set to teach at an art college, and because everything I boxed had to be driven across the continent I was forced to reconsider a number of possessions; more and more got left on the street. Every object was a new evaluation, each decision a pointer toward the life I wanted next.

One week before I departed I went to The Gardner Museum. I hadn’t been there in awhile. Once inside, I unexpectedly found myself frozen in front of El Jaleo, the real thing. Of course it was different, entirely so, from what I remembered it to be: it didn’t resemble its paper copy, not simply for the sake of it’s thingness, what Walter Benjamin famously called aura — no, it was a different picture. For more than an hour, breaking to watch it from a distant bench and then rising again to pace in front of it some more, I re-thought everything I knew about it. What was it about the picture that had ensorcelled me in 1999? And was I still susceptible? Had possession of the poster conferred on me the grace I’d hoped for? And why was it changed?

The museum’s presentation is enough to color anyone’s take. El Jaleo is their gem and they know it. Recessed in an alcove, dramatically framed in gold, it’s surrounded by a hodgepodge of Moroccan and Asian curios: tiles, a lazy statue of the bodhisattva Avalokitésuara, pottery. They lend it exoticism, sure, and mystery. Spain can be African or Mexican or Arabian, and all of these objects from affiliated cultures enhance, as designed, the luster of that dark café. According to the Gardner’s own write-up, when the painting’s previous owner saw the cloister the famous curator had designed he “apparently gave her the painting on the spot.” This is the kind of friend we all should have.

After taking in the knickknacks and the leather rope (like an aged sausage or, in the context of the Spanish corner, like a bullwhip) I looked at the painting. The first thing that struck me was that—unlike the direct lighting of the reproduction—the colors of the original aren’t bold. The small orange at the left and ochre shawl on the right are visual afterthoughts, respite from the darkness of the background and the sooty white. It’s sordid: the brushstrokes more obviously blurry. You can see the motion of the artist’s brush and not just of his subject, so it’s more alive, less a quintessence.

The museum’s information card emphasizes the sonic qualities of the piece, the expectation that the scene creates of music in the room (“This is a painting you can hear as well as see”) but it’s precisely the fact that you can’t hear the painting – or that I couldn’t hear it – that made it evocative for me when I saw the poster. I’d had my friend’s breath in my ear in 1999, and whatever music was cool that year; I hadn’t been listening for heel-clicks. It was the mood of the thing that mattered then, not supposed vérité.

The light in the composition comes from the lower right. It would be firelight, and so all of the definition here exists in glints; present is the notion that if the glow extinguished, the dance would go on in darkness. (The poster, on the other hand, from what I observed on going home, is lit flat, all the sooty weight equally clear to the eye. Would detail be otherwise lost?)

Unlike with the 3’x2’, to take in the original object one’s eye is required to roam across it. This may be the biggest difference between the two versions and must likewise be fatal to small-scale reproductions of large-scale art: you can’t take it in with one glance, and so looking takes more time. Details: on the gray wall behind the dancer and her entourage is a smudge from a poster that’s been torn down. There’s also a graffito of the bison from Lascaux. But background detail is not mirrored in the middle ground: the girls’ white faces blur their features: they’re little more than grins and bare arms. Their hands, like the dancer’s, appear to clutch strings, as though the dancer is their puppet master and could, if she wanted, snap them flat as rags. Stand with your legs against the chain and you’re life-size with these creatures. This is strange.

The dancer is beyond dignified, she’s casting a spell – see her as she freezes time, grip dissolving her cotton dress into folds of light. In a moment she’ll crack the dress it back in place, resume the mantle of life. Has she frozen time in order to call these devils into being? The only faces of men that are at all clear seem clearly dead, one agape like a corpse, the other with a face as flat and rigid as a carnival mask; but his body and the outline of his hat are so dark we expect he might simply toss that mask away, dissolve into vapor. I find myself wholly absorbed in these figures, the sneering ghouls.

They are life-size, yes, but none return the viewer’s gaze. The only figure facing forward, on the far left, is more of a cigar store Indian than a compatriot, he looks not at but through the viewer, stoned. This is an eerier painting than I’d supposed, death-darkened. It’s the seeming corpse, the one with his neck bent unnaturally back, who nails my focus down. His hands sit so relaxed they practically melt into his lap. Is he resting? Groaning? Why isn’t he watching? That open mouth, poised to utter, or to breathe in, becomes the most vulnerable feature of the scene. Oddly, the frets of his companion’s guitar seem to smudge his shirt, like he’s only just materialized, or like he’s vanishing now.

It’s Sargent’s bag of tricks; it’s not a place I want to be. Far from feeling caught in a fantasy, I have no desire to stay at that café, or to breathe that dance. It’s the tableau that I liked – the moment frozen, the dolls posed for me. She’s an enchantress but I’m the sultan who commands her – yet I can only command her to do one thing. What use is that?

Now, on looking longer, the dancer seems too perfect – unrealistically poised, unrealistically insouciant. She too is distorted, her cheek sits too high on her face, even accounting for light effects. My friend from a decade back would have been a different woman than I remembered, too; I defined her personality as it brushed against mine, her body as it touched me. Now that man with his head back becomes a perfect skull on a desk. And when I am able to imagine the sound in the art it’s a groaning base, a few claps like knocks. I hear the music and it quiets me.

A reproduction encourages a too-easy proprietorship: I tell the dancer when to dance, the fire when to light, but in so doing I rob the piece of power. Memory, too, I have to concede, can make too-perfect a tableau where all of the time in question was felt as flux. This I can’t hold against reproductions, but what I can hold against them is the way they encourage an owner to leave things until later. We pass the Kandinsky poster in the hall and think: I’ll examine that at my leisure, I have all the time in the world. By the time we want to look, it’s too late: we can’t see it anymore.

This is not to say I won’t buy any more reproductions, but I won’t keep the Sargent. I can’t see the real thing, smudged and dark, in the image of that eye-worn poster anymore. I’ll keep the one as memory, though I’ll distort it in time, and I’ll let the other go, no memory attached. Who remembers the posters they used to have?

I left it on the street. And I didn’t tell my old friend (who lives only a short walk away) that I was leaving town. It wasn’t her I remembered, it was the woman who owned the poster. If she has it still, I don’t want to know.

John Cotter is author of Under the Small Lights, a novel.