On Finally Seeing the Polish Rider at the Frick Museum
by Anne Trubek
“The narrowest meanings of the word ekphrasis as a poetic mode, “giving voice to a mute art object,” or offering “a rhetorical description of a work of art,” give way to a more general application that includes any “set description intended to bring person, place, picture, etc. before the mind’s eye.” —W. J. T. Mitchell, “Ekphrasis and The Other”
I was married while a PhD student in English literature. My betrothed was a fellow doctoral candidate. At the wedding, the best man read Frank O’Hara’s, “Having A Coke With You.” I was, there, at the altar, an already ravished bride. I had never heard O’Hara’s poem until that moment when I stood, ringletted, trembling, under the chuppa. The best man read beautifully. The guests laughed at the first line, which, following the title, “is even more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irún, Hendaye, Biarritz, Bayonne.” But the best man and O’Hara took our breath away when, in cadences gently panting with desire, the speaker tells his lover that
at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world
except possibly for the Polish Rider occasionally and anyway it’s in the Frick
which thank heavens you haven’t gone to yet so we can go together the first time.
Which summed up the sweetness of my marriage, which was threaded with mutual art admiration but also admitted that some things outstripped even each other, such as the Polish Rider, who did, in the form of a more beautiful visage for my beloved to look at, come along a few years later. Come to think of it, even though it was a perfect poem and the perfect expression of the love I felt, maybe the desire to show your lover a painting is not, in retrospect, the best reason to spend a lifetime together.
Recently I went to a gallery opening with a man I have a crush on. A trip to a museum is a tricky intimacy. We ambled through galleries, holding our infantilizing plastic cups of cheap white wine. The air was charged with frisson. We stood close, leaning in against each other. I fumbled for the name of the more famous artist whose work I was reminded of, and to make a clever comment about what I thought the blue glob in the right hand corner represented. I hoped that by stretching my arm toward the canvas I might brush his arm. I may have feigned ignorance of some art trend he wanted to inform me of to give him an opportunity to impress me, and I may have said something about having been to Venice recently for much the same reason.
Paintings are static and flat, a fact that can transform museum-going into a painful exhibition of our own embodied roundness. Hence museum fatigue, the sudden exhaustion that hits everyone eighteen minutes after arrival, quickly followed by a question about the museum café. Hence also the unfortunate event of, say, being on a date with a crush and entering a large, long gallery of nudes. Your bodies suddenly become enormous, hazardous. Legs suddenly quicken their paces, one of you mumbling something about needing, desperately in fact, to get to the bathroom around the corner. Or else you stand there, absurdly clothed and lumpy, looking at the oiled bodies in front of you, trying out a clever quip about the line of the young god’s thigh while hoping he does not do the same about the heft of angel’s breasts. Though it must be said that, as I imagine it, one wondrously lucky woman got this after returning home from the Met, from William Carlos Williams:
Your thighs are appletrees
whose blossoms touch the sky.
Which sky? The sky
where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper.
Your knees are a southern breeze—or
a gust of snow. Agh! what
sort of a man was Fragonard?
—as if that answered
Critics are wrong, of course, when they say that paintings are static and flat, about space rather than time, the province of verbal representations. But the binary serves a purpose. My predilection, always, in art and conversation and reading, is for narrative, which is why I love Thomas Eakins above all, the men rowing their boats or swimming or sculpting or dissecting. Action, movement, things happening. I rarely linger in front of a portrait (Ashbery writes: “It must move / As little as possible. / That is what the portrait says.”). I love early American paintings and medieval art, which try to get time into a panel by putting the first things in the upper left hand corner and the later things in the bottom right.
If going to a museum with an object of your affection is loaded, going to one alone offers a similar set of nervous-making choices. Who shall I be to myself today? Critical intellectual? Introspective? Bored? I can ignore any image that does not capture my fancy, walk through hundreds of years of longing and patronage thinking only about lunch, or the absent presence of the current object of my affection, or O’Hara’s lines:
and what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully as the horse.
I can see it now, in my mind’s eye. It is New Year’s Eve, kingfisher days, 6:30, but it was 60 degrees before the sun went down. I am standing on the landing of a stairwell. We are in a rented out robber-baron mansion on Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia. My back is to the guests, who are standing on the lower stairs or milling about below. They look up to gaze at us. I stand next to and in front of two very high men. I flank my betrothed, 77 inches tall yet a mere slip of a boy. We stand slightly leaned in together, heads turned away from each other, towards the rabbi. The rabbi is huge. As tall as my betrothed but stolid, staunch, ramrod straight. He stands in front of us, still and momentous. His body is draped in white silk, the robe doubled over with the tallis. Wisps of blue stitching on the edges of the tallis and black yarmulke only reinforce the blinding, huge whiteness that is the figure in front of us.
I wear white too, of course, crushed velvet, off-the-rack, V-neck. I carry red tulips, draped across my forearm. The best man on the other side of my betrothed is holding the folded Xeroxed poem. His hands shake but he keeps his eye on the meter and reads dramatically, no fidgeting or shifting from foot to foot. My back is still to the guests but I imagine they have fixed their eyes upon the best man, enraptured by his quiet, assured rendition of O’Hara and the seductive lyricism of the poetry and the stilled experience of standing looking at the tableaux on the landing. I imagine some of the guests drew closer to their dates when they heard the lines, “partly because in your orange shirt you look like a better, happier St. Sebastian / partly because of my love for you, partly because of your love for yoghurt,” elbowing each other gently at the joke.
The glass below our feet is wrapped in white cotton and does not break the first time, but does the second, and the guests surprise me with their lusty Lechaim chorus. Movement breaks out everywhere. My beloved and I turn our faces away from the rabbi. We turn toward each other to kiss. Quickly, we close our eyes.
In “Having A Coke With You” O’Hara does not offer us ekphrastic hope, the “shaping of language into formal patterns that ‘still’ the movement of linguistic temporality into a spatial, formal array.” O’Hara doesn’t even try to describe an art object. He uses art to try to tell the object of affection how he feels, but art is not up to the task: “and the fact you move so beautifully more or less takes care of Futurism.” The poem, breathless, begins with a gerund, and when we read it we see not paintings or statues but movement, two bodies barely brushing each other turned towards a common object:
It is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles.
These two bodies are unstable, moving. Bodies are never as definitive as statuary; they drift back and forth; they shift their weight first upon one foot and then the other. Things happen: you stumble, you question, you vow.
Cruelly, ekphrasis needs only one object but two people: speaker and addressee. Williams needs a woman to compare Fragonard and thighs to; O’Hara needs someone to take to see the Polish Rider. Sure paintings remain permanently beautiful, but we all know what happens when you get two people involved. Anything. “The ambivalence about ekphrasis is grounded in our ambivalence about other people,” Mitchell tells us.
I went to the Frick the other day. Alone, I stood still, in front of the middle of the painting. My eyes were on the canvas, but my mind’s eye was busy with other imaginings.
Here is what I see: A painting. In the center are two figures, a man and woman, viewed from behind. The couple is standing in front of The Polish Rider at the Frick. In the foreground you see their two backs, two butts, two heads tilted together. The man is gesturing, explaining something to the woman. She looks up at him, expectant. You cannot see The Polish Rider, as their bodies obscure the canvas, except for a bit of painted sky here, a horse’s tail there. Off towards the edges you can see a bench for sitting, the label next to the painting.
It is not clear whether or not the man and woman are happy, fighting, debating the choice of the rider for the horse. I wonder what he is saying to her. I have a few ideas. I wish there were someone next to me, so I could ask.
Anne Trubek is associate professor of rhetoric & composition and English at Oberlin College. Her essays, articles, and criticism have appeared in The Believer, Tikkun, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post, Open City, Paste, Good, and elsewhere. She is working on two longer projects, one on visiting writers’-house museums and the other on radical athleticism. (11/2007)