ITEMS OF FAITH
He entered the museum. The door-keeper paid him a handsome fee at the turnstile, only thankful that the day was sufficiently rainy to attract in the odd paid customer or two. The museum was now only open at weekends, with the art-going public having become so thin on the ground – or perhaps the items of art themselves had started to deplete, time having taken its toll upon the fragile canvas medium the artists had chosen.
Gregory was sufficiently seasoned to recall those controversial days when public museums had first charged customers entrance fees. That must have been the uproar of dissent he heard through the open window of his city flat on a Sunday morning – or so Gregory thought, perhaps mistaking a football crowd for a mob of banner-waving art-lovers – or even a trade union demonstration – or a mass of yowking money-changers lately made redundant from the crumbling halls of the Stock Exchange. Indeed, the ultramodern buildings of high finance crumbled and became protected ruins like any cathedral, abbey or real-ale pub, since nothing, perhaps, could have a monopoly of everything.
Shrugging off a multi-lingual headset and, also, the real-life talk on the movement “Art Through Man,” Gregory wandered idly between the dim aisles, peering closely at some of the items of faith. Since it grew so dark, the paid customer was no doubt meant to conjure up images for him- or herself from the black shapes hanging on the walls. As a child, he recalled being taken around the National Gallery by his Great Uncle Louis. This particular fine building of high whitened arches and once da Vinci-haunted alcoves had indeed needed to import various versions of modernity that the Tate Gallery could no longer house because of that building’s gradual submersion into the widening marshy edges of the Thames – thus in turn necessitating the removal of Old Masters from the National Gallery upon vertical stretchers, to make room for the Tate’s geometrical blobs of new generations in Dulux and High-Teck. Little Gregory, still holding his Great Uncle’s paw, mooned over an expanse of canvas, empty but for a Maths Teacher’s doodlings – and, in evident preparation for his last visit to a museum as an old man himself, he dreamed his own dreams within their haphazard frames. He then left that world perhaps for others.
Little Gregory had seen a cat, as large as life, staring bowlfully from between the crazy crossword puzzles of a Mondrian masterpiece. The cat was him. He felt how an animal must feel beneath the heel of the tameness of man. His eyes swivelled in the dark, feeling other eyes upon him, but not being able to see them because human eyes are essentially non-sparkling, almost non-viable. His brain was dulled, but still sentient. He crouched, arched, felt, sniffed, saw. At the same time, he had other emotions unknown to man – the feeling of an omnipotent feline creature who was looking through his eyes, the ability to weigh the whole universe with simply his own sensitive paws – knowing that all directions led to this one point in time – understanding all this, but at the same time understanding nothing. With no premeditation (nor even foreknowledge of his prey) he pounced (a shaft of black upon the dying light) and gnawed off the miniature limbs of a mewling man in clothes.
Gregory awoke in the future. Great Uncle Louis skulked back into the past where, because of his vintage, he could only exist. But the future, for Gregory, was now the true present. He was currently as old as his Great Uncle had been in the National Gallery on that far-off day when he, Gregory, as a small child, had imagined himself to be a cat.
So, yes, the museum only opened on weekends. After those early visits to a corrupted National Gallery (where Titian had been replaced by neo-Dada and Zeroism), Gregory had never found the courage to visit it again, despite the generous fees offered to customers. And, now, it turned out to be not at all what he had expected. In fact, it seemed to be a smugglers’ den of those Old Masters once thought to be relegated to destruction by the past..
In the darkness, he could draw shapes and colours from the empty hanging squares: a Mona Lisa here with inscrutable smile intact or even enhanced, and a Virgin On The Rocks there with the colours still matchlessly deep and untouchable. He saw them all. There were the intricate vistas of Canaletto, where miniature people made erotic love behind the architectural facades of a version of Venice, with the thousand-boat cavalcades cruising down the wide palisaded waterways and taking the past into another future through which only visionaries can live.
Then, he gazed at such Suffolk softness of John Constable’s underbelly where the actual surface of the paint was nearer to grass and water than grass and water themselves or, within the special reality of art, what grass and water should be. Constable’s little boy leaned over to sup from Dedham Lock and felt flow into him the congregated tears of millions who had died without ever seeing this painting in the flesh. And flesh it surely was that Gainsborough had used to forge the tones of life into the faces of his portraits. Gainsborough’s subjects would now be green-eyed corpses, with tattered, ill-embalmed skin, if it were not for these paintings that had frozen them (or melted them) within a fuller existence that only fine art can lend. The fact they could not move even a slight muscle upon the canvases was no hardship compared to the perfect, sensual immortality of their poses left for others to see via this living, unphotographic medium – thus giving them life for life.
And other paintings too rich even to begin to describe. But Gregory, who felt himself to be tantamount to a Raphael pontiff, if not to one of Francis Bacon’s three screaming Popes, saw clearly with the flicker of his eyelid. Imagination, if that was what it was, grew stronger than reality, becoming a realler reality he wanted never to shake off.
The museum’s door-keeper (rubbing his back legs together) crept up on Gregory unawares.
“Seen the paintings we’ve kept from the maulers?”
Gregory pivoted in the darkness.
“Yes, this place is a sight for sore eyes. I had no idea…”
“Very few people come through these aisles, Sir, without realizing their dreams.” The door-keeper’s voice ground like a mill-wheel upon granite. “There are paintings, in here, that nobody has yet seen…”
“Not even yourself?” As he spoke, Gregory searched the darkness to explore the door-keeper’s face, at which he had not even bothered to glance when first collecting his entrance fee at the turnstile. Then, using the same vision with which he had seen the Turners, Gainsboroughs, Constables, Canalettos &c., he saw a hellish masterpiece by Hieronymous Bosch or by some other artist with even greater nightmarish skills whose work nobody, but nobody, had yet dared to see or conjure forth. It was delineated from the pure black canvas of the museum’s sudden shutting door. The door-keeper was a crosswork of spider and demon – and there was no frame to keep him inside. Gregory should have realized that, with Old Masters, one could not have the Beautiful without an equal share of the Ugly. And, in true art, both shall always be as powerful as each other. Gregory’s arms seemed like floppy rolls of blood-mapped paper – but he did try to defend himself when the spider-demon pounced from the painting…
The undergrunts of noise as the passing crowds circled Trafalgar Square outside the museum (each group with its own pet cause) continued for several hours into the next century, as the mandibles slowly took the museum guest apart, both to see how his innards ticked and to staunch a hunger that had subsisted since man wildly scratched at cave-walls.
Gregory Pope screamed for ever and ever.