Golden Sparks

This is a short story I have recently written about the theme of aesthetic experience, Even if I am conscious of the limits in describing the quick spark of an instant by heavy words, I’d like to share the result anyway.


Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – G. Klimt – 1907 – oil on canvas – NY, Neue Galerie


He saw her while standing in a corner of the room. He had just entered, making its way through the dim light on the cold marble floor: the silence and the austere gravity of the building had initially produced a sense of profound reverence, later tarnished by an empty, long and  long hour of relentless wandering. Henry, he thought in the void universe between one room and another, shouldn’t you feel something? That’s what people are supposed to do here, feeling. He was in fact visiting a museum. However, he was not as insensitive as he said: rather than thinking, he was condensing boredom into the form of words and vague discourses in his mind.

These pointless considerations absorbed his attention for an instant so that he did not really notice, as he left the corridor, the new space around him. Instinctively he followed the wall to the right, pretending to be looking at the exhibited objects. Suddenly, a golden spark crossed the left border of his eyes, flashing into his pale sight. Bored, he found himself distracted and at the same time highly receptive to any novelty: he wanted to be excited, so that he immediately turned to the unexpected with renovated concentration.

He moved his head gazing across the room: he was hunting that passing ray, eager by the untold fear it could disappear as rapidly as he entered his sight. He met its source, still on the opposite wall, and stood silent and stunned. When we look at images we engage them in a mutual relation: they act as visual stimuli, which we pair with our expectations. The two sides cooperate in an aesthetic experience, transforming each other so that the plain stimulus and the plain expectation no longer exist: what appears in front of us, indeed, is the result of an immediate mediation. Henry came unprepared, craving for surprises, and the profound beauty of what he saw, strengthened and increased by his desire, dominated the process of perception. He later thought he had become an empty vessel for a miracle to take place.

First, he saw an undefined field of gold, later to acquire the shape of a square, burning and sparkling: different layers of the precious metal could be distinguished and chiselled tiles covered the central section, each trembling lively before his eyes in a luminous dance. A dance, he saw, of fragments with no design: at the beginning he felt helpless and unable to analyse, as images flew freely through his retina, the brain unable to capture any of them; slurs out of a magnificent speech, but certainly pronounced by the sweetest voice. The initial void of his thoughts let him enjoy for a long moment the ineffable pleasure of the instant, a purely sensual feeling of lightness and abandon; he could not list what he saw nor what he did not, this would have required some perception of time, while he nothing but present.

Understanding came later, struggling against such pulsing enjoyment: it was like waking up from a dream, dull by warmth, tranquil by unconsciousness. Yet, the new condition proved to be desirable: his mind started producing hypotheses, matching them with the object and producing connections between its various elements. From disorder, order was born. He now saw new elements, which had always been before his eyes and yet covered by the noise of his thoughts.

The golden fluid was fermenting and coagulating into definite shapes: swirls, spirals and soft circles of pure light which surrounded a delicate, elongated figure. It was bound to the surface by a veil of gems and alabaster, there a diaphanous bust of mother of pearl flourished: she definitely enjoyed the reflection of the gilded surrounding as a flower spreading its petals into the air, but yet it seemed to Henry she herself was the source of such blinding splendour. It took a while to realise that the creature was in fact a woman: he followed the soft curve of her slender arms, paused for a moment on the naked shoulders and then returned climbing until the head. Her face reflected his own feelings: her eyes lost, the smile light and pure by carelessness; nothing was around her, nothing but the purest gold. She must be contemplating something beautiful too, he thought, and yet distant, far in the void of the room; she might be in love, a powerful and sensuous form of attraction designing her traits and bending her fingers into a craving pose.

With no right, he fancied himself as the object of her passionate sight: from lust to pride, he let the senses take over his judgement so as to abandon the austere and cold space for that burning and brilliant field of gold. He would have never understood, in the days to come, the source of that piercing attraction, whether it was her beauty or the hidden promise of eternity and abundance that the surrounding seemed to foster. His dream was indeed a projection, himself made free of the burden of time and body into a dimension of new absoluteness, far from the awkwardness of living.

His emotions rose from an egotistical instinct: those rosy cheeks could not move him, nor her pale breast. Slowly, he realised he was not looking at a person, nor an object, but rather contemplating an ideal of perfection and spiritual peace. She could not be meant for anything but veneration, like a Byzantine icon. At some point he felt ashamed, not being able to detach the profoundness of his thoughts from the desire of his body.

Finally, he saw: he was looking at a painting. The concise rudeness of this truth left him struck and embarrassed; the face burning red, he forced his eyes to the ground. Beauty pierces like an arrow, Achilles Tatius once wrote, and descends to the soul through the eyes. He was experiencing a silent turmoil, given by aesthetic enjoyment and deep involvement. He decided to leave the building: the sense of lightness he had just experienced, now disappeared, left a dusty and unbearable aura. Choking, he sought the entrance.

Outside he was hit by chilly air: orange light was spreading over the Fifth Avenue, vivid and real, and he stood half-blind on the threshold of the gallery; a silent prayer. This was his return to reality, a march accompanied by the joyful buzz of the crowd, so far from the woman’s aloofness: he felt lonely and yet happy. The sun rays stabbed his eyes and he allowed them in, willing to experience again and open to the outward world: re-opening the eyelids the glare exploded into tiny sparks; golden sparks, leading to Adele Bloch-Bauer.



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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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