Sunday, April 08, 2007

Favorite Women of Art #5: Girl Eating Oysters--Jan Steen (c.1659)

After the maelstrom of emotion that the last painting aroused in me, I am going to try to return to a state of greater equanimity with the technical virtuoso and craftsman of minute detail Jan Steen and his devilish young bourgeoise. It might be objected that this girl is not close to stunning enough a beauty for such a list as this purports to be, but she serves a distinct purpose, representing a type that is a little more mildly haunting than that evoked by Velasquez's Venus, but haunting nontheless. The oyster girl recalls to me all the Michelles and Kims and Melissas and Jennys that crowded the high schools in the days when I was attending them, and manned the kitchens and counters of pizzerias and sub shops, the supermarket cash registers and movie theater ticket booths in their off-hours. This work bit is important, because while actually getting any action at school or school-sponsored functions was so unusual as to be almost bad form, things happened at work, or just after it, with such girls, or least such was the constant report, not merely in the school cafeteria, far from the scenes of the alleged licentiousness, but in the bowels of the restaurants or stockrooms themselves. Every time one went into the broom closet where the assistant manager and the loudmouthed waitress and the wiseacre busboy and the mopey but big-breasted busgirl had casually taken down each other's pants for the sport of it, it was impossible not to wonder, will this be the time I get lucky with perky, apple-cheeked Kristin from the Catholic girls school, whom I seem to encounter there on a more frequent basis than random probability would suggest? And then one day of course you show up in a completely dreamy sort of mood, at relative peace with the ridiculous fate that seems to have been meted out to you, and find out she has either gotten it on with the wiseacre busboy right under your nose, or has quit, to be heard from nevermore. Call it a cliche if you will, but when a certain story is the dominant narrative of life for close to half of a given population, as it is in the modern United States, especially where an extreme deprivation of sensual experience in the lustiest years of ones youth is concerned, and the right of performance/publication is practically unhindered, nothing will be able to stop the tale from being repeated many, many times.

Jan Steen is, as I have hinted at before, known for his technical virtuosity. In the original of this picture the details of the oysters, the bread, the dishes, etc, are widely remarked upon, along with the myriad symbols advertising our girl`s *availability* (the dark object behind her against the wall is apparently a bed, in addition to the other clues). I do not have anything else of pertinence to say about him.

That the oyster girl is well within my range of acceptable attractiveness for an assignation, without so much as a second`s hesitation, I think there can be little doubt. I used to affect to myself that I followed a *Helen Keller rule*, on the rationale that as it can be presumed Helen Keller had little idea how attractive or hideous she was compared to other women, if you were actually uglier than she was, that could not be good, and I should be aiming higher, and every real man has to draw the line somewhere anyway, right? Of course:

Helen managed to look kind of cute in a unconsciously dour, quietly frustrated sort of way. In my most desperate hours to have found the likes of her in my arms would have been practically a cause for ecstasy. I come from a very low and a very foul country of the spirit, which paintings and literature and history and all things high merely reinforce in some manner.

I am up off my sickbed finishing this commentary, having had a nasty stomach virus whose effects have made my body, especially my throat, feel as vile to me as my intellect and character ever do upon critical examination. I may return there for a day or two before proceeding with this assignment.

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