Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The goldfinch

I've been reading Donna Tartt's new novel The Goldfinch, in which the painting reproduced above (click to enlarge) figures prominently: "The Goldfinch" by the 17th-century Dutch master Carel Fabritius, a pupil of Rembrandt and likely influence on Vermeer. It's a small painting, a life-size household pet bird chained to its perch.

When I was growing up, there were four framed Audubon bird prints on the wall above the living room couch. As far as I can remember (help me, Anne), these were the only artworks in the house. The only other "art" I was exposed to, at school or church, were religiously-themed, mostly schmaltzy, some reproductions of famous paintings from the Middle Ages and Renaissance, art meant to take our attention away from this world and focus it on the next.

Meanwhile, there sat Fabritius' goldfinch, in a Dutch museum, smartly perched on his feed box, rebuking our otherworldliness.

A revolutionary painting in its own way. The bird roughly rendered with bold brushstrokes, hardly more detailed than its shadow. The two bent-wood perching bars glistening with light from the window (anticipating Vermeer). The tethering chain and slip-ring as delicate as fine jewelry. Against a whitewashed wall with its imperfections and blemishes.

This-worldly. Utterly commonplace. The sort of thing one might find in any Dutch household. The painting draws attention to nothing but itself.

No accident that Fabritius's bird is a contemporary of Huygens and Leeuwenhoek, those two great Dutch founders of the Scientific Revolution. The simple goldfinch, chained to his perch, could be the cusp on which the world turned between supernaturalism and naturalism, theocracy and secularism, transcendence and immanence.

And are we now -- the spiritual heirs of Fabritius and Vermeer, Huygens and Leewenhoek -- chained to the perch of materialism? In a way, I suppose the answer is yes. But unlike the goldfinch, the chains -- of reason and doubt -- are of our own making.

We are not angels who will soar into infinity. We have surrendered an imaginary otherworld for the security of a well-kept Dutch household and a box full of grain. We are birds of a feather, ordinary and commonplace, who live in quiet celebration of the here and now

As for the novel –- something on that tomorrow.