Mercury, Argus, and Io by Salvator Rosa
Gallery P16, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
In this painting, Rosa showcases dichotomies. He gives us the literal takeaway in the painting's title: the story of Mercury, Argus, and Io. The giant Argus reclines against a rock, his face looking soft and open while the god Mercury regales him with a pleasant lullaby. This gracious gesture hides sinister motives, though, and this moment of blissful peace is a startling contrast to what comes next. After Argus finally slumbers, the seemingly-kindhearted god takes the moment of vulnerability to behead the him.
Even the scenery plays with this sudden and violent shift. Depending on where the viewer's eyes stop, the painting is soft & bright or angular & dark. Organized & clear or chaotic & muddy. Is a storm brewing, or is the day calm but cloudy? Is it dawn or dusk? Is it a new day rife with possibilities and hope, or is the day expiring, its successes and failures set in stone for better or worse?
And in some ways, this painting's uncertain mood and contrasting tones are a perfect reflection of the way so many of our relationships go. Trust is freely given until it's yanked out from under us in a grand show of betrayal. How kind and caring someone can be even while they hold behind their backs an instrument that will be our undoing! How compassionate a friend can seem even while they plot and scheme to rend us!
When you've been the victim of someone's duplicitousness, every day is a leap of faith. Every relationship you have becomes a struggle as you suppress your cynicism and work harder than ever to embrace your trusting nature. Anyone who has ever been blindsided knows just how true that is. We put ourselves in the hands of those we love, and when a "friend's" treachery throws our hearts into chaos, the easiest response is to shut down. Running away, bailing out, ditching, hiding...it's all easier than facing the cold and uncertain minefield that is interpersonal connection.
But we must persist!
"Live and learn," they say. But how do we "learn" to foresee heartbreak without suspecting everyone? Certainly some traitors are easier to spot before any real harm befalls us (thanks, narcissists). But others - like Mercury here - will still catch us off guard.
We may never be able to fully predict and protect ourselves from perfidy, but we can find a way to cling to the trust and love we have for those who trust and love us in return. And that's the most important lesson of surviving a broken heart: it behooves us to continue to extend ourselves and give ourselves permission to be vulnerable (within reasonable boundaries), especially when it's hardest to do so. Of course, this all excludes any attempted beheadings.
I sailed a river once.
The water rich and smooth, the turns like curls on the head of a river god who gently guided me along.
The rocks laughed at its gentle yet assertive progress.
The mossy arms of the shoreline always reached, never held; their longing was palpable.
I felt my heart's thirst reaching as wildly, failing as completely.
And then came that curve...
Sharp and violent.
It held me back while the rush of hope tried so hard to carry me forward.
So torn were the forces that it capsized me.
It capsizes me every time...
I rebel against the onslaught of water so sweet that even as I begin to drown, I can't help but think for a moment that death is delicious.
You are safe.