Friday, August 15, 2008

Blue and yellow

I grew these, from bulbs my sisters gave me -- the daffs from C this year as an Easter present instead of chocolate when the family came down here for a hot cross bun arvo tea, the hyacinths from W for my birthday in May. The vase is green alabaster from San Gimignano in Tuscany, a town made famous by E.M. Forster, bought there and brought home in a little backpack, heavily wrapped in soft clothes.

Given that I had a black thumb till I was 45, I think our mother would be proud. Not that I did anything but bung them in pots and forget about them.

For me this picture is both nothing but itself -- flowers, perfect and powerful, with intense and brief and burning lives -- and also immediately about an accreted mass of memory from a life spent mostly reading. Wordsworth. Ovid. Forster. A.S. Byatt. My mother chanting 'daffy-down-dilly'. The perfume I wore circa 1981, whose name I now can't remember, but which smelt of hyacinths, dense and ever so slightly bruised, not exactly sweet.
There were two lemons amongst the plums, to intensify the colour. How would one find the exact word for the colour of the plum-skins? (There was a further question of why one might want to do so ... It was a fact that the lemons and the plums, together, made a pattern that he recognised with pleasure, and the pleasure was so fundamentally human it asked to be noted and understood.)

... Language might relate the plum to the night sky, or to certain ways of seeing a burning coal, or to a soft case enwrapping a hard nugget of treasure. Or it might introduce an abstraction, a reflection, of mind, not mirror. 'Ripeness is all,' language might say, after observing 'We must endure Our going hence even as our coming hither.' Paint too could do these things. ... Van Gogh's painting of the Reaper in his furnace of white light and billowing corn said also 'Ripeness is all.' But the difference, the distance, fascinated Alexander. Paint itself declares itself as a force of analogy and connection, a kind of metaphor-making between the flat surface of purple pigment and yellow pigment and the statement 'This is a plum.' 'This is a lemon.'

... Alexander ... became obsessed with a small painting of a breakfast table, on which Van Gogh painted the household things he had bought for his artist's house ... held together by the contrast and coherence of blue and yellow. Vncent described it to Theo:
A coffee pot in blue enamel, a cup (on the left) royal blue and gold, a milk jug checkered light blue and white, a cup (on the right) white with blue and orange patterns on a plate of earthenware yellow-grey, a pot of barbotine or majolica blue ... finally two oranges and three lemons: the table is covered with a blue cloth, the background yellow-green, thus six different blues and four or five yellows and oranges.

-- A.S. Byatt, Still Life

Any sighted combination of blue and yellow has immediately evoked these pages from Still Life ever since I first read it, and the date I've written on the flyleaf is 1985.


Ann O'Dyne said...

all beautiful, and how wonderful to be given bulbs at Easter for the symbol of new life.

Anonymous said...

My mother out law gave us daffodils for Easter the year before last. Sadly they carked it on the windowsill of the flat (along with many other sad things). Yours are lovely though, and in principle the bulbs for a present is brilliant.

I went to San Gimingiano in 1997, and I'd be grateful if you'd refrain from reminding me that the passport I got for that trip is now expired.

San Gim reminds me of espresso. I remember the towers, and the medieval art that we'd gone there to see, but mostly it reminds me of espresso.

fifi said...

I have been talking of colour this week at work, as I do. And I have also been struggling to write about those moments in the presence of such things as, say, a plum and a lemon, (or a curtain of smoke, or a...)

I spoke in technical terms about colour theory, about yellow and blue, and had to finish with this: that they are what they are because they sing together, as Van Gogh knew intuitively, as he knew that by inverting the natural chromatic order of the two and placing them side by side, there would be a disquiet, a certain disturbance.

And I have read Still Life, and here I am now scrabbling in the study to find it.
I love these moments when something I am thinking about crops up unexpectedly like this, and said so much better than I ever could.

San Gimignano reminded me, from a distance, of a bristly little hedgehog.