“I guess you liked that old rake del Piombo’s Venetian lass,” said McGore, releasing a rosy puff of smoke into the dark.
“Very much,” replied Simpson, and added, “Of course, I don’t know anything about pictures–”
“All the same, you liked it,” nodded McGore. “Splendid. That’s the first step toward understanding. I, for one, have dedicated my whole life to this.”
“She looks absolutely real,” Simpson said pensively. “It’s enough to make one believe mysterious tales about portraits coming to life. I read somewhere that some king descended from a canvas, and, as soon as–”
McGore dissolved in a subdued, brittle laugh. “That’s nonsense, of course. But another phenomenon does occur–the inverse, so to speak.”
Simpson glanced at him. In the dark of the night his
starched shirt-front bulged like a whitish hump, and the flame
of his cigar, like a ruby pinecone, illumined his small,
wrinkled face from below. He had had a lot of wine and was,
apparently, in the mood to talk.
“Here is what happens,” McGore continued unhurriedly.
“Instead of inviting a painted figure to step out of its frame,
imagine someone managing to step into the picture himself.
Makes you laugh, doesn’t it? And yet I’ve done it many a time.
I have had the good fortune of visiting all the art museums of
Europe, from The Hague to Petersburg and from London to Madrid.
When I found a painting I particularly liked, I would stand
directly in front of it and concentrate all my willpower on one
thought: to enter it. It was an eerie sensation, of course. I
felt like the apostle about to step off his bark onto the
water’s surface. But what bliss ensued! Let us say I was facing
a Flemish canvas, with the Holy Family in the foreground,
against a smooth, limpid, landscape. You know, with a road
zigzagging like a white snake, and green hills. Then, finally,
I would take the plunge. I broke free from real life and
entered the painting. A miraculous sensation! The coolness, the
placid air permeated with wax and incense. I became a living
part of the painting and everything around me came alive. The
pilgrims’ silhouettes on the road began to move. The Virgin
Mary was saying something in a rapid Flemish patter. The wind
rippled through the conventional flowers. The clouds were
gliding. . . . But the delight did not last long. I would get
the feeling that I was softly congealing, cohering with the
canvas, merging into a film of oil colour. Then I would shut my
eyes tight, yank with all my strength, and leap out. There was
a gentle plop, as when you pull your foot out of the mud. I
would open my eyes, and find myself lying on the floor beneath
a splendid but lifeless painting.”
Simpson listened with attention and embarrassment. When
McGore paused, he gave a barely perceptible start and looked
around. Everything was as before. Below, the garden breathed
the darkness, one could see the dimly lit dining room through
the glass door, and, in the distance, through another open
doorway, a bright corner of the parlour with three figures
playing cards. What strange things McGore was saying! .. .
“You understand, don’t you,'” he continued, shaking off
some scaly ash, “that in another instant the painting would
have sucked me in forever. I would have vanished into its
depths and lived on in its landscape, or else, grown weak with
terror, and lacking the strength either to return to the real
world or to penetrate the new dimension, I would have jelled
into a figure painted on the canvas, like the anachronism Frank
was talking about. Yet, despite the danger, I have yielded to
temptation time after time. . . . Oh, my friend, I’ve fallen in
love with Madonnas! I remember my first infatuation–a Madonna
with an azure corona, by the delicate Raffaello. . . . Beyond
her, at a distance, two men stood by a column, calmly chatting.
I eavesdropped on their conversation–they were discussing the
worth of some dagger. . . . But the most enchanting Madonna of
all comes from the brush of Bernardo Luini. All his creations
contain the quiet and the delicacy of the lake on whose shore
he was born, Lago Maggiore. The most delicate of masters. His
name even yielded a new adjective, luinesco. His best
Madonna has long, caressingly lowered eyes, and her apparel has
light-blue, rose-red, misty-orange tints. A gaseous, rippling
haze encircles her brow, and that of her reddish-haired infant.
He raises a pale apple toward her, she looks at it lowering her
gentle, elongated eyes . . . Luinesque eyes . . . God, how I
kissed them. . . .”
McGore fell silent and a dreamy smile tinged his thin
lips, lighted by the cigar’s flame. Simpson held his breath
and, as before, felt he was slowly gliding off into the night.
“Complications did occur,” McGore went on after clearing
his throat. “I got an ache in my kidneys after a goblet of
strong cider that a plump Rubens bacchante once served me, and
I caught such a chill on the foggy, yellow skating rink of one
of the Dutchmen that I went on coughing and bringing up phlegm
for a whole month. That’s the kind of thing that
can happen, Mr. Simpson.”
He was unaware of how he had got up, gone indoors, and
switched on the lights, bathing Luciani’s canvas in a warm
sheen. The Venetian girl stood half-facing him, alive and
three-dimensional. Her dark eyes gazed into his without the
sparkle, the rosy fabric of her blouse set off with an
unhabitual warmth the dark-hued beauty of her neck and the
delicate creases under her ear. A gently mocking smile was
frozen at the right corner of her expectantly joined lips. Her
long fingers, spread in twos, stretched toward her shoulder,
from which the fur and velvet were about to fall.
And Simpson, with a profound sigh, moved toward her and
effortlessly entered the painting. A marvelous freshness
immediately made his head spin. There was a scent of myrtle and
of wax, with a very faint whiff of lemon. He was standing in a
bare black room of some kind, by a window that opened on
evening, and at his very side stood a real, Venetian,
Maureen–tall, gorgeous, all aglow from within. He realized
that the miracle had happened, and slowly moved toward her.
With a sidewise smile la Veneziana gently adjusted her fur and,
lowering her hand into her basket, handed him a small lemon.
Without taking his eyes off her now playfully mobile eyes, he
accepted the yellow fruit from her hand, and, as soon as he
felt its firm, roughish coolness and the dry warmth of her long
fingers, an incredible bliss came to a boil within him and
began deliciously burbling. Then, with a start, he looked
behind him toward the window. There, along a pale path amid
some rocks, walked blue silhouettes with hoods and small
lanterns. Simpson looked about the room in which he was
standing, but without any awareness of a floor beneath his
feet. In the distance, instead of a fourth wall, a far,
familiar hall glimmered like water, with the black island of a
table at its centre It was then that a sudden terror made him
compress the cold little lemon. The enchantment had dissolved.
He tried looking to his left at the girl but was unable to turn
his neck. He was mired like a fly in honey–he gave a jerk and
got stuck, feeling his blood and flesh and clothing turning
into paint, growing into the varnish, drying on the canvas. He
had become part of the painting, depicted in a ridiculous pose
next to the Veneziana, and, directly in front of him, even more
distinct than before, stretched the hall, filled with live,
terrestrial air that, henceforth, he would not breathe.
Vladimir Nabakov, 1899-1977
Venetsianka, or The Fascination of Art, 1924 (La Veneziana)
Image: Sebastiano Luciani, called Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547), Ritratto di giovane romana con cesto di frutta, (La Dorotea), c. 1512. oil on panel. 78 x 61cm, ©Gemäldegalerie Berlin