By Clive James
By Clive James
Sometimes the merely gifted give us proof
Born artists have a democratic eye
That genius supersedes to stand aloof,
Scorning to seize on all that happens by
And give it the full treatment. Look at her,
Mancini’s woman, as she rests her head
In white impasto linen. Cats would purr
To think of lying curled up on that bed
Warmed by her Monica Bellucci skin.
Her mouth, like Vitti’s in La Notte, breathes
A sulky need for more of the same sin
That knocked her sideways. Silently, she seethes.
She’s perfect, and he’s well up to the task
Of illustrating her full bloom of youth.
Why isn’t she immortal then? you ask.
Look at her bedside table for the truth.
Carafe, decanter, bottle, beaker, all
Are brushed in with the same besotted touch:
Not just as clutter which, were it to fall
Would break and be swept up. He cares too much
About the world around her. While she dreams,
The room dreams too, as if it too were spent
From pleasure. In the end, nothing redeems
This failure to make her the main event.
Manet’s Olympia is no great shakes
For beauty beside this one, but transcends
Her setting with exactly what it takes:
The fire that starts where general interest ends.
Out for the count, Miss Italy sleeps on,
So lovely that we check the artist’s name,
Vow to remember it, and then are gone,
Forgetting one who never found his fame
Because his unrestricted sympathy
Homogenised existence. Art must choose
What truly merits perpetuity
From everything that we are bound to lose.
Even a master’s landscape, though devoid
Of people, has a human soul in view:
His own. A focussed vision is employed
To say behold what I alone can do.
Picking the mortal to immortalise,
The great paint objects only to abet
Their concentration on what lives and dies.
Faced with a woman that they can’t forget
They make sure we can’t either. Should she rest,
Her daylight hours still dominate the room.
We see her waking up and getting dressed.
Her silence hits us like the crack of doom.
But this girl, drowned in décor, disappears
From memory, which doesn’t care to keep
A pretty picture long, so save your tears.
I shouldn’t try to wake her. Let her sleep,
And let Mancini, suave but second rate,
Sleep with her, as in fact he might have done —
Some recompense for his eventual fate
Of scarcely mattering to anyone.
Well, let me add that I tend to disagree with Clive James about his assessment of Mancini and this beautiful painting (which I fell in love with yesterday at the Art Institutie of Chicago) --- but then I have always had a taste for the minor in both poetry and painting.... I love her, of course, but I am also fascinated by the lingering and lucid touch of M's gaze on "everything we are bound to lose."