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Head of a Young Man, part 2

March 20, 2010

Yeah, I know – it’s only “tomorrow” on drag queen time.  No excuses; I suck. 

About ten years ago, I read Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels, starting out of sequence with the Niccolo Rising series, then going on to the Lymond Chronicles.  Until then, my experience with “historical novels” had been what most of us know as the bulk of the genre:

1.  An innocent is swept up in Great Events, with Notable Persons coming and going on and off the stage.  At the end, the innocent finds love with another mere player, having survived court intrigue, civil war, and learned that All is Vanity.

2.  There’s a great deal of “Gee Mr. Peabody”ism as huge chunks of the reader’s time are wasted in military planning councils, court scenes, and other group dynamic settings in order to place everyone on the right or wrong side and generate Portents of Doom about the Coming Storm.

3.  The dialogue is either stilted in its attempts at veracity (forsooth! ‘struth!), or absurd in its anachronism (“for sure!”). 

And so on.  But Dunnett’s work was different.  Her characters were from all walks of life – aristos, of course, but also merchants, soldiers, servants.  The books were difficult reads, partly because the historical context (mercifully) wasn’t laid out on a grid, but especially because its educated characters were handy with Latin epigrams, French poetry, and classical references which Dunnett disdained to explain or translate (the reason why there’s a two volume companion to the 14 volumes that make up the two series).  I knew I was missing a lot as I read, not understanding all these (the first companion volume was out then but I didn’t know it, and besides, I was an impatient reader), but I also knew – yes, knew – that what I was reading was a picture of what people were like then.  No, they weren’t “just like us,” but at the same time, they were – there were educated people who disdained the church and the rabble, yet kept this counsel to themselves or a trusted few associates.  They were soldiers who fought out of duty or love as much as they did from religious zeal.  They were noble folk who publicly disdained filthy lucre yet used merchants unafraid of a lesser “station” in life to make it for them.  In short, they led inner lives not unlike our own, modern lives save that in public they had to consent to the forms to save face, if not their lives. 

If I’d read more history back then, as much as I have now, I’d have already known this to be true, but I’d yet to discover that a good history writer could be as fun to read as a good novelist (though right after this time, I read A Distant Mirror, which proved this true).  I think part of the reason Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was so popular is that it brought this same message, albeit watered down and mixed up with conspiracy hoohah – Leonardo wasn’t a cardboard cutout picture of genius, a remote figure with nothing to do with us, but rather he was a Hollywood hero: a rebel against authority, a seeker of truth over dogma, a prankster leaving little visual messages in his work which the Church was too uneducated in matters outside scripture to see or understand.  To “feel with” a person in the past like that gives us a connection not just to the person but to the place and time.

So:  the Head of a Young Man.  When I looked at that picture on the wall at the Met, on a quiet Friday morning, I was struck just as the Times’ Cotter was – the face in the drawing was “someone real, someone I might actually know.”  There were emotions there, an attitude, that we associate with someone alive today because, unlike most Renaissance art, the art of today has brought us so much more intimacy with its subjects.  Bronzino’s drawing has the power of photography, that direct gaze the trademark of the great portraitists like Avedon and Penn.  It reminds me of the surprise I had, years ago, seeing the mosaic portrait of a Roman couple preserved by the ash in Pompeii:


It’s one thing to read a book, of fiction or history, and recognize people and patterns from today and come to understand that “they’re/we’re not all that different.”  It’s another to get that message viscerally, visually, to see them as we would see our friends or ourselves in a photo, or a mirror, to see them thinking and feeling. 

I was really moved by the Bronzino drawing.  Boy, do I usually hate that – feelings are bad, as I’ve stated clearly so many times here.  But not this time.  I can see now how you can go down the aesthetic rabbit hole, “living for beauty” like Henry James, chasing moments like that forever.  It’s still hard for me to say how I felt, other than “moved” – I distrust aesthetics, I distrust the fascist currents so ready to accept that tributary and turn it into something awful and destructive.  I’ve spent my whole life with a “negative self image” because I never measured up to what Gay Inc. decreed I was supposed to look like, spent my life worshipping physical beauty like worshipping Shiva, the glorious radiant thing that you knew would destroy you. 

But that moment, this feeling, it wasn’t like that – it wasn’t worship, or inadequacy, that I felt.  Awe, and peace, would be a good start.  Knowing Bronzino was gay, it’s hard not to read an erotic subtext into the drawing.  It’s as if the subject knows he’s being cruised by the artist, and is at once angry, curious, excited by it.  A Tracy Chevalier could make hay out of this drawing, big time.  There’s a “relationship” developing between the artist and the subject in that drawing, physical or not, nevertheless a relationship that’s clearly grown cold by the time the heat and light of the drawing has been damped and tempered into the proper, mannered, correct painting.  I felt the way you often do after trading glances on a subway train, as if there might have been a chance to know this person, if only.  But unlike on the subway, where you have to look away at proper intervals, in a museum, you can stare and stare and stare.

I’m glad I saw this first thing, on my first day – I don’t know if it could have had such an impact had I already spent the day cramming my head with (need a long German word here ) “Cultural looked-at stuff.”  I took a walk along Central Park, just processing it, just not wanting to run go look at other stuff to file next to it.  I even went back the next day, a monstrously busy Saturday at the Met that was also the first nice weather day in weeks in NYC.  I paid my $20 just so I could go back and see that guy again, just stand there and only move when others made their rounds to arrive at his station.  Normally I’m too self-conscious about standing there too long, but I didn’t care this time.  It was like sitting with someone in a crowded cafe; the world swirls around you but as long as you can hear each other and the conversation is good, you’re the only ones there.

Next time (I won’t say tomorrow):  the vast gulf between the “real image” and its copies.

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