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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Flat








World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various. (from Snow, by Louis MacNiece)

Hitching out of Scotland into England, I got a lift in a green Rover to the city of Carlisle. A van with dogs––you took it. A car was better. A nice car was a bonus. The couple, maybe angels, invited me to stay in their home for the weekend. They showed me some castles, we hiked on a Roman wall, motored through the unutterably lovely pastoral world stretching beyond the city. One evening after supper they took out their wallpaper books. Both designed wallpaper. Both were renowned. Picassos of a sort. Both had a Rover.

Wallpaper. Who would have thought? Not me. My mother loved wallpaper. Yet up close, thoughtfully explained, it was wonderful. And tricky. A pattern, see, had to repeat. Interlock. All without appearing to do so. You could paper a dog house, you could paper a palace. Amplified to different scales, the module I saw on the page had to multiply into a living, quintessential atmosphere. In short, one pattern repeated over and over again might well ordain your mood in any room in your house for twenty years. Only Brian Eno or Wellbutrin would come to have that kind of aesthetic potency.

Going flat would be the greatest controversy over a century of making art––the slow renunciation of illusion. Lynne reminds me that for most folks, all painting, all photography, all prints are flat. But an Ansel Adams photograph, flat as it is, may embrace a vast sweep of desert and sky. The picture of Jesus in my Sunday School class was an image of a man with a lamb in his arms standing in front of a door that opened to another room behind him. The message was clear––come in. The illusion was acutely real. Kids went in.

The million dollar question––why renounce illusion? Why, as the Impressionists did, begin to compress space from back to front as if it were wet pulp in a cider press from which you were squeezing centuries of metaphysical hypocrisy. By the time you get to Juan Gris and, even more drastically, Piet Mondrian, the illusion of space has gone completely. Only surface remains.

Just at the point when Manet was so daringly flattening-out, the Japanese woodblock print arrived in Paris. Like Manet, it was still recognizably pictorial, but flat. By the time those gutsy kids came along, Renoir, Monet, Manet, Sisley, illusionism, in the form of huge, saccharine Biblical paintings meant to boost the authoritarianism of the state, had run its course. Another world had come, a present, egalitarian world, one weary of the coercions of old myths. The print was perfect, depicting as it did everyday life in Japan. It was cheap, quickly made, available to anyone. Modest. Papery. Flat. Unroyal.

They never fail to refresh me. These delicate almost-wallpaper pictures of simple, pre-industrial Japanese life. Flowers, boats, bridges, lanterns, rainfall. I’m a boy again, lying in bed. Staring at the wall. A boy is fishing, a bear is dancing, a lamp is burning––all consoling, repeated again and again.

Note: the link between the poem and the text was originally clearer. A residue of that link may be discerned but the poem is so lovely I’ve chosen to leave it, knowing it would never get past a workshop in Bennington.


Hiroshige: Night Snow

Manet: Boy Blowing Bubbles

Mondrian: Composition II in Red, Blue and Yellow