Family Collection

by Camille Guthrie

Camille Guthrie

Art is a naked boy waiting for permission to move
High art is a twenty dollar ticket times four
For me a friend and the kids to have an outing
A painting is a lush woman kneeling naked
Before us ripe breasts pushed forward
Pleased in her to-be-lookatedness
My daughter says Yuck
Everything by Renoir displeases my friend
Who prefers the world of Modernism
I tell my son to count how many naked people he sees
As we wander through the spacious galleries
Flesh captured in hushed brushy hues
Art is a series of paintings of French women reading
Which I like because I, too, like French novels and alone time
Yet I would not like a man peeking at me while I read Proust
Art is a nice lunch of curried carrot soup with pepitas
A large salad of local feta and foraged fiddleheads
That my friend and I together for twenty years share
Six-dollar grilled cheese for the kids with chips
Three-dollar sparkling waters also from France
My old friend smiles at me ironically
About all the bodies on display
Which bore the kids and she frowns
At Slave Market (1866) in which four men
Painted by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Examine a nude young woman in a dingy courtyard
Her lit body faces us she wears a necklace
With one hand the man in the richest robes tilts
Her head towards him and the other
Pokes two long fingers into her mouth
To test her teeth or her docility
The other women sit in a pile on the ground
A child squirms from their arms
A European fantasy of rape that allows
The viewer to frown upon faraway slavery
Outlawed in Europe by then so says
The curator’s note, and the worst detail
For me is that her pussy is bare
A day off takes two visits to the gift shop
To ponder if we need a puzzle of Van Gogh’s face
Or a thirty-dollar rubber necklace in cerulean
An apron of The Scream or a Rembrandt tote
Fine art is a woman draped in a white cloak
Spreading a sail-like mantle over her face
She gazes down upon a silver censer
To capture the Smoke of Ambergris (1880)
Widely thought to be an aphrodisiac
A pale white wax that sperm whales vomit up
A fragrant bile duct secretion used in lotions and food
This I know from reading Moby-Dick
Alone in my bedroom with no man watching me
Or sticking his fingers into my mouth
Unless given explicit permission
Begun in Tangier and finished in Paris
Acquired by the museum in 1914
John Singer Sargent’s model surely was a prostitute
Art historian Steven Kern says and quotes Henry James
“I know not who this stately Mohammedan may be,
Not in what mysterious domestic or religious rite
She may be engaged; but in her plastered arcade,
Which shines in the Eastern light, she is beautiful
And memorable. The picture is exquisite,
A radiant effect of white upon white,
Of similar but discriminating tones.” Kern
Explains that this mix of North African
Costumes and objects is a Western fantasy
He says, “The scene must be viewed
as an imaginary one” What captures me
Is the trajectory of her slender pinkie escaping
From the tip of her weighted hood and her calm arm
Vanishing into the complexity of her sleeve
What worries me is the grave silver necklace
Slung heavily across her breast
Orientalism to delight the family who collected it
And left it to enchant the visitors to their museum
Recently renovated for plenty-million dollars
For a relaxing afternoon, then to sit on the terrace
And take a walk through the sculptured grounds
I go out for a stroll with my kids
So my friend can look carefully at the Van Goghs
A storm over a field has snatched her attention
The birds she later says hurt her feelings
Under the trees on the needled path
My son hurls rocks at the tall trunks
My daughter follows chipmunks
My thoughts fill up with the one Rembrandt
Man Reading (1648) in its own dimly-lit room
What thrills me is his thick index finger roughly
Stuck into the book to keep his place and the metal pin
Struck through his rumpled black jacket
And his riotous whiskers, which prove
That the exquisite always exists in the particulars
Beneath his assertive dark hat
The man’s left brow dips in concentration
His eyes focus on the warmly-colored soft paper
His mouth quiet he is reading he is in another world
Rembrandt van Rijn’s tender disgruntledness
Makes me feel wildly pleased I feel
Delighted to have been in its proximity
A few minutes to stare at a man reading
While my children get antsy and move on
Bored by the dull browns that say nothing to them
To me he says that life is utterly disappointing
Even if you are fucking Rembrandt
So you may as well read a good book
And for crying out loud
Be precise about whatever you do
I find it powerfully comforting
Since I’m middle-aged and utterly disappointed
Divorced with a part-time job no savings
My future family collection made up of
My Little Ponies Warhammer guys Legos
And a Hilma af Klint poster I ordered from the internet
I love its pastel spiritual circles and flower infinitude
Here I am looking at fine art today
With my two beautiful children
Who think I’m a bitch much of the time
I buy them a pricey rainbow of pencils
So I’ve done something right, but I keep thinking
As we drive home about Snake Charmer (c.1879)
by Jean-Léon Gérôme in which stands
A naked boy waiting neatly on a rug
Before a ragtag crowd huddled against
A wall in a blue-tiled room
Inspired by one in a palace in Istanbul
The stone floor like one in a Cairo mosque
With “a mishmash of clothing and weapons”
Says the museum’s description
This boy who looks ten has seized
The attention of the onlookers by sporting
A thick snake wrapped round one shoulder
And his waist with one small hand he holds
Up the creature’s head with the other its tail
Performing to the music of a seated boney flutist
The white-bearded leader glares
As he lounges in his robes for the show
His long sword slung from his crotch
Gérôme certainly the dick of this family collection
Traveled Egypt and “ensured his success”
By centering his main shot
On the soft butt of the boy
My son tosses more rocks against the trees
On the path back to the museum
I’m scared they will ricochet and hit us
In the head we will be concussed
And not be able to look at any more paintings
My friend will have to drive us to the ER
I’m lucky we have family insurance
We won’t be sent away we won’t bleed to death
We won’t be mishandled we won’t be sold
I don’t want my children to stand
Naked before a cruel man to be offered
To travelers for their pleasure
Or to rich people to be their servants
To be used and beaten and destroyed
Like the thousands of Syrian children
Gone missing in Europe
So says The Guardian online
An unbearably cruel fact
“The scene must be viewed
as an imaginary one” does not apply here
I read this news and go about my day
Taking my family on a lovely outing
I cannot even bear for my children to be sad
To be slightly cold or the least bit hungry
Even if I am the worst one in their lives
Doing the most damage as mothers are said to do
I don’t even want them to be bored
Art is looking at these things
For two hours on a Saturday.

Last updated December 21, 2022