Saturday, August 25, 2007

Asparagus and Broad Foreheads: Lost Codes, Sensuality, and "Art"

Adriaen Coorte (c. 1663-after 1707), Still Life (Asparagus) (1697), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Well. A couple of weeks has turned into almost a month, as Robert was kind enough to remind me in comments on the last post--and I am flattered that even one person has missed my posting here. I am not sure that this post will make up for my hiatus from here, but at times one has to work with what one has at hand.

The image you see above appeared a couple of days ago on my computer monitor via the Rijksmuseum's desktop widget, which I've mentioned here before and which rarely disappoints. Coorte is a lesser-known painter, but there is something about this painting that made me want to remember to post it here just for what I found to be its attractiveness--not to mention learning from the museum's website that asparagus were (and still is, apparently) thought to be an aphrodisiac.

But it was Robert's comment at my post on grail geometry that prompts something more from me than a bit of bemusement (and I also have in mind some general observations on deliberately-created mysteries that Conrad makes in his most recent post over at Varieties of Unreligious Experience). The questions I have are these: once we've lost the ability to read an artwork as it was apparently intended to be read, are we still able to read it--but just according to a different sort of code? And the corollary: does this new code have its own value? That is, down the road here I'll be saying that what holds my attention as I look at Coorte's painting is its sensual appeal. It is "pretty." But is its prettiness enough to make it "art"?

My first thought when I saw this image that day was, "Hmm--what an odd choice for a still-life subject." But I was drawn to its rich depiction of the spears' surfaces, and that, combined with my not having heard Coorte's name before, caused me to click on the "More" link. It was thus through the Rijksmuseum's discussion of the painting that I learned of asparagus's presumed aphrodisiac qualities. But more surprising to me was that it took that discussion to make me notice that, yes, asparagus are also phallic in their shape. Lots of things in the world resemble penises and vaginas, I recognize, and I note those resemblances on what I would regard as a sexually-"healthy" frequency, not a sexually-stunted or -obsessed one (your mileage may vary, of course). Even so, I felt a bit dense when I read that particular bit in the description, and it was then that I noted the angle of the asparagus as well: a simple horizontal or vertical positioning of the spears would have, to my eye, de-emphasized their phallic-ness.

Enough of that. I'll take myself off the couch now.

Now I know/have been made aware of all this; I now know a Why for Coorte's choice of subject. But does it "do" only what its description says it does? Does it still have something to say to us other than or besides that description? I'll go out on a limb and say that most of today's visitors to the Rijksmuseum who stand in front of this painting aren't suddenly, or even gradually, filled with the desire to Do the Dirty as they gaze upon it. So/But, what do they see or read there, if anything? Another way to put it: in the comment I linked to above, Robert asks, "If you wanted to put some sort of secret code in a painting, what would you do to insure the right person found it and wrong person didn’t?" Yes. And a corollary to that, it would seem, is: what would/could an artist do to ensure that his/her work were still "readable" ages and ages hence--assuming, of course, that sort of thing interested him/her?

Chaucer's Wife of Bath has a broad forehead. It took my going to graduate school to learn that in Chaucer's time a woman's broad forehead was a symbol indicating a rather broad knowledge, shall we say, of sexual matters. Other things in Chaucer's description of her and in her own Prologue confirm that pretty explicitly, so in some sense we today don't need to know what a broad forehead signified for his contemporaries. She remains "readable" for us, at least as regards that aspect of her character. As for Coorte's asparagus, even knowing what I know now about them, I'm still drawn to its skilfully-lit and -rendered surfaces. A different sort of stirring fills me as I look at them: I happen to love asparagus, and so as I look I wonder why my store's asparagus never look anywhere close to this good. But that has to do with sensuality and not with sexuality. The former is ideally a large part of what makes so pleasurable the indulging-in of the latter, of course, but they obviously aren't equivalents.

If, though, we make the case that Coorte's painting also participates in what we might consider the Caravaggesque version of the Baroque--its attention to the world's surface appearances (poorly-put, I know)--then on those grounds we don't need to know about asparagus' sexual attributes or resemblances to enjoy this painting. Above and beyond those matters, it still communicates an aesthetic approach to thinking about and depicting the things of this world, one that we can still read and that, moreover, still holds a broad appeal. Even humble asparagus spears merit the same rigorous attention of the artist as the human form or, for that matter, a "sexy" painting's thematic opposite, a memento mori.