The curious incident of the grey painting

Photo by the author
Photo by the author

I have a truly curious story to tell about this painting.

I was at a house party that was also a vernissage, organised by a student-run Parisian philosophy society. The flat had two big rooms and there were about 40 people. The artworks shown were all very pretty–most of them were little black and white paper drawings, or patterns sewn into paper with fine coloured threads. But this picture somehow stood out. It hung in the small entrance room of the flat above a little cupboard. On the cupboard were a few small African sculptures and three unlit candles. The painting above used neither the colourful threads, nor did it seem like one of the other drawings. There weren’t any other artworks in the room, which made me wonder whether it was a part of the exhibition at all. Perhaps it just belonged to the flat owner?

As I lingered on and thought about the piece, sipping from my glass of red wine, I somehow felt strangely intrigued by the picture. I decided to give it some more time. Remembering Geoff Lehman’s art classes back at Bard College Berlin, I tried to clear my mind and just let the painting speak to me. What did I see? A human figure–probably a man. He seems to be in the background, a silhouette only, whose black blends almost over into the grey that is underlying the scene. In the middle of the painting is a kind of lantern-like object, yet I can’t quite figure what its purpose must be. It has certain heaviness to it and seems to be connected with a wall that should have covered the right half. But the little yellow sun (or was it a star?) in the lower right corner doesn’t quite seem to hang on any wall, but rather looks like it’s floating in the air. And what would such an object be, in such a place, on a wall, around shoulder height? The third object, slightly above the “sun,” I couldn’t make sense of either. It looked like a long, thin piece of metal, a bizarre street sign, perhaps, or an oversized light switch?

The picture, I noticed, merged both abstract and concrete elements, but somehow it still didn’t fit together yet. I felt there was coherence to it that I was missing, but I was closing in on it. As I contemplated the work, the doors to the room would open and close as people came and go, which would cause the room to light up for a few seconds, only to fall into its more somber atmosphere again. After a while someone came in and lit the three candles on the cupboard beneath the painting. Was this intentional? The light must be key, I determined. The painting was covered by a layer of semi-translucent foil that seemed to change with the different lighting. The little sun, the lantern, the shadow figure–yes, this was a painting about light. Man and technology… the lantern looked like it could have come out of some steampunk scenario. When was it made, I wondered? Probably not long ago. Perhaps the painter meant to express some kind of modern desolation: the monotonous grey of the background, the lantern that wouldn’t shine, the blurring human figure, dissolving into the background as an expression of modern subjectivity. I felt I had gotten somewhere with my interpretation.

Do you like the painting? – asked a young man next to me, who had drawn near and noticed my curious staring. I must have been standing in front of the painting for about 15 minutes now. Yes, very much – I replied, and started, in broken French, to explain him some of my thoughts: the ambiguity between abstract and concrete elements–especially the black silhouette of the man. The subtle, faint colours–accents of blue and yellow against the grey background. Finally, the centrality of light––hinted upon in the sun and lantern––the play with shadow. I talked of the urban scenery that it all alluded to, and how it expressed the destitution of the modern individual in technologised society, and the dissolution of our subjectivity, its fading into indistinguishability.

My neighbour cast a quick glance at the painting and nodded – Yes, I think, I know what it is. I study engineering and we do lots of these sketches. It’s a lantern design. The thing in the lower right corner is the lantern seen from above, without the top part. The ‘metal board’ above the ‘sun’ is the lantern seen from 90° to the left, without the glass part. The human figure is just there to give you a sense of proportion.

Struck by the sublime horror that only true revelation evokes, I can still hear the faint echoes of my resounding laughter.

2 replies on “ The curious incident of the grey painting ”
  1. This post was the first I had read on this site and I still haven’t found a post I enjoy more than this. First “The Curious Case of The Grey Painting” is a title that just hooked me as soon as I read it. It sounds like the title for a murder mystery novel or some sort of adventure in which the main character knows the clue to solving the murder of the dinner party lies somewhere in the Grey Painting, but it’s up to him to find it. Sure, there wasn’t a murder mystery to solve, but there was this sense of mystery I felt when reading this post about “what could this painting possibly be?” The strange images and style of painting mixed together created an image that hooked the viewer in until they finally found out what it is. This is parallel of reading the story of the painting. I was hooked into the story and continued to read until I finally figured out what the painting was. I wasn’t let down either, when I found out that the painting is a sort of schematic for lantern my first thought was “Huh, that’s pretty cool!” It was a rewarding mystery because I never would have guessed a lantern.

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