Gallery P26, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City
The scene Couture depicts in The Illness of Pierrot at first appears to examine alcoholism, a common malady among artists both past and present. And there's plenty to unpack and ruminate over when you're looking at alcoholism or addiction as a whole.
But before we start down that road, we should note the artist's painted inscription which tells us that he intended the work to be an admonition against science and medicine. And, wow, there's even more we could speak to there. How unfortunate that people in modern society often have a similar lack of faith in the sciences as this artist (and many others) did in 19th Century France.
And, no, the irony is not lost on me that I mentioned having faith in science... Or maybe that's less irony and more paradox? "Faith in science."
But I digress for I don't want to talk about that either. Instead, as I sat in the bustling gallery looking at Couture's work, what I actually saw was the gestalt of the thing. More than a commentary on addiction or science, this painting focuses - perhaps unintentionally - on how powerful denial is and how it permeates our lives with such insistence.
Pierrot, our ailing clown, is in denial about his sickness. The distressed harlequin is turned away, denying him/herself a view of the tragedy unfolding. The doctor isn't even looking at Pierrot, thereby denying himself a view at the large quantity of wine bottles strewn under and about the bed. He's in denial about his patient's true sickness. He would rather rely on his education than his common sense and the evidence that presents itself. And even Couture's own words tell us he's in denial about the value in science (specifically medicine).
Perhaps the only one who is not in active denial is our maidservant, who stands at the edge of the room. Her stance conveys urgency and desperate pleading. Pierrot and the harlequin do not appear to acknowledge her (more denial), and the doctor's scowl tells us that he rejects (denies) whatever she's offering. More denial. One might even accuse Couture of denying us observers a vision of the servant, a woman of color whom Couture relegated to the sidelines. He's designed a reality where everyone denies power and significance to the lone voice of reason who also happens to be the lone person of color.
I might even claim that the maidservant is in denial about her place in this room, this society. She rejects her station and implores with a doctor and a patient who do not value her perspective enough to hear her.
And there, in the midst of the work, hidden in plain sight is what feels like the most telling detail of all. Do you see it? The most glaring symbol of denial and delusion?
When I work on my blog at the museum, I pull up a stool and sit in front of the work that's inspiring me (unless a larger bench is available in the gallery). Spotify usually feeds me some moody, ambient, alternative music. This time, it had me moving my eyes in rhythm around the delicious textures and patterns on this piece. I scoured every inch of the painting to seek and understand what drew me to it with such force. At one point, it hit me over the head. Pierrot's bed is against a wall, framed by ornate, heavy drapes that have been pulled aside to reveal...nothing.
The curtains were installed to hide not a window but a blank section of wall. Perhaps this was common in mid 19th-Century France; I couldn't say. But if it was, is there a purpose to be found in drawing them to reveal or hide a wall with nothing on it? I stared at the blank wall and everything in my brain screamed "denial!" Curtains hung to deny that no window view could be enjoyed from this compartment. Curtains pulled back to deny (or defy?) that reality.
I can almost hear the doctor in that moment. He enters the dark room that smells of piss, rot, and wine that's soured. "Let's get some fresh air in here." He sweeps his besuited arms into the dense green velvet and pulls the panels back. "Ah! Much better!" he huffs, even though nothing is different or new or changed. The wall remains firm and unbroken coated with a thing veneer of dirt and, in some spots, a little mildew. No window can be opened. No air can be circulated. No sun can be let in. But to those in the room, it is better. It is brighter, less acrid. Fresher somehow. (Denial.)
I wondered in that moment how many times I've figuratively hung bolts of oppressive drapes to convince myself that what isn't there, is. Or vice versa. The answer is incalculable. I have rationalized and reasoned and denied too much to quantify. And it's always been in the spirit of sparing my psyche some blow that I believed was impossible to suffer at the time, no matter how misguided that feeling happened to be.
Denial is just fear, you know. We are afraid of what is, will be, or has been. And rather than face that reality, we find some way to impose upon ourselves a world that doesn't exist. I think back to my introductory post on this blog. Or more specifically to the movie that inspired this blog to begin with. In Call Me By Your Name, the father entreats his son to not allow fear to be a hurdle or roadblock that makes him shirk his true self.
Those words echo through to so many corners of my life, past and present, and they come back again here. They are perhaps softer and more delicate, now. Reverberations that remain fully formed but obscured by the cynicism and pain that life has infused me with that I now work so hard to shed.