Three pieces from Skeleton Keys
Problematic but not Pernicious
Distressed language, distressed brick. Do you intend to cleanse the syntax, strip it down to the brick, or leave the coating intact? Is it a matter of choice, a matter of necessity, or is it simply a matter of fashion? Fragments are one way, endless sentences another.
To slice, to cut to the edge, to make fine. A way to employ language. The sentence etched into your brain. Does anyone ever write that way, as specifically as that?
The converse is to stretch the sentence, to elaborate ambiguity at every turn, to run sentences on, until the next day, stringing words, phrases, clauses together as if the world were a matter of concatenation, dependent on all this expression, explication, hallucination.
Have we perhaps heard this before? Which part, precisely? Or is the lack of precision the point?
The issue is problematic, exquisite but not pernicious.
Everything is significant, that’s the problem. Perhaps some things are more significant than others, a matter of point of view. Each of us has a perspective—and we equate that perspective with an objective view of the world. This is clearly a mistake, as each view is from a specific angle in a spinning world. Simplistic, perhaps a truism, but it opens into an infinite crevasse of phenomena.
Let’s see—can you remember what you were doing five minutes ago? No, I mean exactly five minutes ago, not a second more or a second less. Sitting in a chair—fine. Which way were your legs angled, which way your head tilted? And perhaps you think you have a good memory.
Everyday existence is a puzzle, not one that ever resolves, not one that is ever completed.
The women live, he brought them to life with his extravagant brushes, in a darkened painting room. First at Bath, then in London. The women and the men, but mainly the women. A few of them—Grace Dalrymple Elliott, she of easy virtue and charming mien. She survived the French Revolution, as well as affairs with a series of powerful men. In the Frick portrait, her eyes beckon. Lady Ligonier, her expression cunning or mischievous, caught in a scandal involving her groom and an Italian count. Her husband is painted separately, standing alongside his horse.
The Linley Sisters, “The It Girls of 1772,” as a museum catalog once described them. Elizabeth, the elder, eloped with the penniless Richard Sheridan, who got a play out of it, The Rivals. We see her scarcely a dozen years later, more beautiful than ever but ravaged, deserted by her husband, a portrayal of desolation. In a different mood, the Honourable Frances Duncombe, not yet married. There is something about her, a distracted air, and yet, when one examines her eyes, what does one see?
Great beauties, yes, but something more. The artist brought them out, their personality, their wit, each woman’s individual presence, perhaps her essence. Gainsborough became known as a painter of women, “well practiced in skirts.” Is it the male gaze that privileges these women, or do they, present tense, possess an intrinsic power?
Then there were the male peacocks, the dashing master of ceremonies at Bath, William Wade, a former military man whom women swooned over. Johan Christian Fisher, the oboist who caught the eyes of Gainsborough’s daughters, disastrously. Not a peacock, but a friend was Henry Bate, “The Battling Parson,” who defended the artist’s work in The Morning Post against the attacks of Reynolds’ followers. And we have Richard Paul Jodrell, “a clever man,” classicist and sometime member of parliament. Gainsborough painted him with a book between his fingers.
* * *
He painted his own image a number of times—there is a late self-portrait, as analytical as any of Rembrandt’s. And then there is his nephew, the enigmatic Dupont, painted as a very young van Dyke fop, then as an elegant young rake, merciless in a way. As the artist’s only assistant, he knew his uncle’s secrets but couldn’t apply them consistently.
When Gainsborough painted Diana and Acteon, he dared not introduce nude female models to his studio. Mrs. Gainsborough would not have approved. Nor would his daughters. Instead, he studied old engravings and prints. The work remains unfinished, wild, ravaging, his only mythological subject.
Craft exists, it is sometimes easily discerned, sometimes hidden. What lies beyond craft is less easy to categorize and place in a box.
Transient beauty is beauty still.
Steven Fraccaro lives in New York. He is author of two novels, Dark Angels and Gainsborough’s Revenge. His most recent work is Skeleton Keys, a collection of flash pieces that inhabit the space between poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction.