Monday, January 26, 2009

Jans Davidsz de Heem

Jans Davidsz de Heem. Still Life with Books, 1628

On a Sunday snowed in I find myself pulling drawers and perusing neglected bookshelves. I often do my best to put extra work into the fermenting essay or the nearly-completed set of footnotes. On days of severe weather I am sometimes kept from my ritual diversions from sitting and writing. My woodshed, at the edge of our property, is snowbound as well. While I am trapped in, from my shed I am kept out. Moving from the house and across the field is a large task itself, but digging out the door to the shed usually extolls all the energy I had stored for my lathe and planes. Alas, I turn to fill my time with activities less cumbersome.

Today I took to a tattered copy of Sunday Times crosswords. While racking my memory for the answer to 42 Across (8 letters): Rastafarian incarnate and Ethiopian Emperor (answer: SELASSIE) my mind wandered through the world of recreational linguistics. A list of games formed in my mind: the Surrelaists' Exquisite Corpse, Scrabble, the games Okki-taal and Panovese Kal from my childhood, the word Jumble that my niece uses to practice her English, Hangman, Pig-Latin and, finally, Mad Libs. Of course my mind was immediately evacuated so that it might be occupied with the splendors of Jans Davidsz de Heem's Still Life with Books.

De Heem was trained in Utrecth by Balthasar van der Ast and his earlier work illustrates the influence of his instructor. In this later work de Heem had begun painting in a tradition of his own. Rather than the natural objects regularly found in the works of van der Ast - the seashells, the flowers and inching snails, buzzing insects - de Heem often favored a display of the manmade.

In doing so de Heem doesn't totally abandon the master; his lesson book is not closed. While the objects that occupy van der Ast's paintings are not fabricated by man the arrangements in his scenes are. The swollen fruit, woven baskets and ornate, hand-harvested shells have been arranged with a personal touch. A fly or snail is invited to join the scene not by the artist but by the appetizing natural objects he has selected.

De Heem's still lifes demonstrate their human fabrications as well. Here we see the desk of an enthusiastic student. The scene is cluttered with tattered books and leaves of Mad Libs. All of the puzzles have been completed, it would appear one right after the next. They are strewn about the table with a compassion and appreciation characterized, oddly enough, by their haphazard treatment. As one is completed it is frantically discarded so that the next might be explored in full. In a fervor of inspiration, as a writer reaching for the blank leaf or a painter thoughtlessly refreshing his palette, the Mad Libs have been devoured.

In what some call games or hobbies, explored on weekends or in the backs of newspapers, others find their calling. There is the weekend furniture maker, the after-school painter and the car-ride reader. Here de Heem has offered us a scene of the improviser of verbs, adverbs and plural nouns. In creating this piece he encourages us to reconsider the familiar and to pay a finer attention to what is most often neglected.


Jan Peeters said...

Life, it often seems to me, is a Mad Lib: we live each day with lives wide open, so structured in a way (as we commute to our jobs and schedule our reading times) but riddled with vast open spaces, at any time able to accommodate sadness, adventure, or hilarity.

De Heem's own collection of completed Mad Libs, housed at the University of Utrecht's rare book and manuscript library, reveals much of the mind of a rabidly talented, sensitive man.

Hermann Wundrum said...

I am reminded of de Heem's Mad Lib of 1633, titled Driver's Checklist, in the collection at Utrecht.


Before you follow the open road to a/an (soft / ADJECTIVE) adventure, don't forget to:

1. Have a/an (damp / ADJECTIVE) mechanic give your (bees' wax / NOUN) a/an (brilliant / ADJECTIVE) tune-up.

2. Make sure there is sufficient air in all four (candles / PLURAL NOUN) as well as in your spare (wheel of Leyden cheese / NOUN)

3. Make sure your windshield (grains of rice / PLURAL NOUN) are functioning (languidly / ADVERB)

4. Be sure to have a flash (linen / NOUN), some bottled (melted butter / LIQUID) and an emergency (bookpress / NOUN) kit in your glove (plate of hete bliksem / NOUN)

5. For safety and the safety of other (slices of peperkoek / PLURAL NOUN) don't even think about getting behind the (raspberry pudding / NOUN) of the car without getting a good night's sleep of at least (1633 / NUMBER) hours.