We live in a lightning-fast world. If you want a photo, you take out your camera phone and snap one. If you want your friends and family to see it, you put it on social media and within minutes it’s a trending topic. So we will find paintings and painters boring and tedious. In fact, with our selfie sticks, iPhone 6s and Samsung edges we will wonder what kind of people go to galleries. I mean, the Kenya National Archives is right under our nose at Kencom but we don’t have time for it, why should we? When it doesn’t even have social gloating currency? Who even goes to these places when you can go to Koroga Festival or Blankets and Wine. Come on, you can even go to Karura in the pretense of jogging only to get one or two rubdowns from that crush you’ve been eyeing.
No, people who go to art galleries and National Archives must have a stick (not selfie-stick) up their rear because why else would you go to such places when you can just log into your instagram and double tap away. Better still, you can jump into the person’s direct message if their pictures please you: paintings, galleries and archives are too much work for Millennials and Generation Z because who has time for culture and things that are more than 140 characters? Old Mzees maybe. Folk with a catheter stuck somewhere in their body. Folk who have already lived their life and are now in their sunset years. Right?
Mockery aside, I picked up the Goldfinch by Donna Tartt a few months ago. I can get into rigmarole about how good the prose is. How it picks you up and transports you into this world full of beautiful imagery. I can get into blurb about how it was on the New York times bestseller list for over seven months. I can go on about how Tartt was named Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people but you wouldn’t get the weight of her master work if I didn’t get into the painting that inspired the book. So put aside your dumbbells and yoga mats and put your history and art and crafts lesson hats on and hold on, not to your selfie stick but to something sturdier because this is a whiplash, an explosion (some of the young folk here might even say the bomb), not my writing but the painting and the book that merges seamlessly with it to create a timeless piece of work.
The Goldfinch is a painting by Carel Fabritius. Rembrandt’s most gifted student (Google him). I love the name Rembrandt, it has a nice ring to it. It speaks tracts about the teacher. It has a Hemingway, protégé appeal. Closer home, Rembrandt was to Fabritius what Oyunga Pala is to Bikozulu. It has a Chinua Achebe charm. You hear a writer being put in the same sentence with Achebe and you know they are something, because that is a giant’s name, a name whose whisper can bring down a wall (not the one Donald Duck, sorry, Trump is building. Apparently with his tiny hands and non-existent Mexican funds).
At first glance the painting is just a bird sitting on a panel but at a second glance you see the brush strokes, brush strokes that you can almost count with a closer look and when you move further away the bird comes to life, almost ready to get off the panel and soar. With another glance you see that it is chained to the panel, you see how it stands with confidence because true shackles don’t exist on our bodies but in our minds. You see how it stands with dignity and resolve because that chain does not define it. The Goldfinch doesn’t want you to feel sorry for it. It wants you to learn from its valor. Stand, even when everything around you says you should fall and submit.
The painter died in 1654, at thirty two in a gunpowder explosion in his studio. The same year he painted the Goldfinch. Most of his works were destroyed in the blast yet The Goldfinch, even though chained, survived. I imagine that wasn’t by chance or luck. I imagine that was God remaining incognito. They say art is usually a mirror of the artist as much as it is a mirror of society. You look at The Goldfinch and you wonder what Fabritius was going through: he was at the height of his career, the most promising artist of his time, the Justin Bieber of art, yet here he was feeling conflicted. Feeling chained.
Like the painting Donna Tartt’s novel starts with an explosion in an art gallery. Theo Decker, the protagonist, survives the detonation and escapes with The Goldfinch.
The painting is a marvel by itself but Donna gives it cause. The novel is not a mini vacay (Haha. I had too, for the ladies here in their early 20s). You won’t finish it in a day or a week. The Goldfinch is a voyage. It demands your time and effort. It wants to hold your hand and take you on a journey. (I wanted to say a journey you will never forget then I remembered I am not in class five and 20mks are not up for grabs). It will take you through road, street, gravel and desert. It will have you drink tea, coffee and take vodka from a bottle. You will feel the windows blow off and the glass shutter during the pilgrimage. You will get exhausted, you will want to say enough, but at the end of the tunnel will be Canaan and nobody gets to Canaan without being beaten and battered. Nobody gets to Canaan when they haven’t learnt lessons. Canaan doesn’t make men, the journey to Canaan does.
I love this extract from the novel. When Theo’s dad is trying to swindle the tuition money his late wife left their son to feed his gambling addiction:
“So-whew.” My dad ran both hands through his hair; he looked boyish, dazed, incredulous.
“Here’s the thing. I’m really wanting to make some big changes right now. Because I have the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of this great business. Buddy of mine has a restaurant.”
My dad? A restaurant?
“Wow – thats great,” I said. “Wow”
“Yeah.” My dad nodded. “It’s really great. The thing is, though, for my buddy to get the place open and pay his taxes—”
“Well.” I could see where he was going with this. “If you need the money in my savings account, that’s fine.”
So go on, look up the painting, it sits in fine feather at the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague (which is now in my tin-can of places to visit). Pick up Tartt’s book while at it, it won a Pulitzer for God’s sake. And its author has refused to age. At 53 she looks like something out of a James Bond movie—in her pressed suits and pinstriped cufflink shirts, even though she lives in a farm. Go read it. If not to get a better grasp of what art is, do it for Tartt’s spunky fashion style.
Guys, what are you reading? I started reading the Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald last night and I’m halfway through A Clash of Kings by RR Martins and A Man of the People by Chinua Achebe. Also, chaps, can you hear that whirring, that whirring sound that is almost building into a hurricane? Yap, that’s Valentine’s and the expectations that comes with it. Let’s meet back here next Wednesday. Of course, I’m talking to The Goldfinches, the survivors of the hurricane.
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