by Susan Ramsey
Knowing everything fades—youth, love—doesn’t excuse
using red lake in a painting you plan to sell.
Red lake is the bad boyfriend of pigments;
red lake invented ghosting. That bastard Whistler
would use it, take the money, then ignore
the outraged complaints that rained down later
when the red faded away without a trace.
Colors that don’t last are called fugitive.
So many ways to make pigment—dirt, rocks, bugs
plucked from cactus and crushed. If pigment, then art.
We so want to believe that art preserves.
Oh, over the centuries art may lose a nose,
an arm or two. “Very fragile, penises,”
Alice Neil said, sitting below the statue,
but the medium itself, the stone, the paint,
shouldn’t be the agent that betrays.
Some betrayals are worse than others. Poor Seurat,
with his complicated theory of optics,
where the brain blends tiny dots of color.
Its demonstration, his La Grande Jatte masterpiece,
used, for its intensity, zinc yellow.
Within a few years it faded to dull ochre,
passion to affection to indifference.
By that time, mercifully, Seurat was dead.
Pigments that last may come from minerals
ground to powder. Lapis lazuli,
only found in the mountains of Afghanistan,
is expensive, cinnabar can poison you
with mercury. Other pigments, red lake, for one,
are organic and we know the problem there
all too well, don’t we, being organic ourselves.
Seurat didn’t know, and Whistler didn’t care.
But Van Gogh? Paintings of iris and of roses,
three of each, those six paintings the whole exhibit.
White roses on a blue tablecloth, blue iris
against a white wall. Yet that tablecloth,
that wall, were pink, the roses shot with red,
the iris were purple. The red lake is gone.
Surely he didn’t know? But there’s a letter:
“Paintings fade like flowers,” he wrote to Theo.
“All the more reason to boldly use them too raw,
time will only soften them too much.”
Where is your first love today? Your second?
Among other places, Susan Blackwell Ramsey’s work has appeared in The Southern Review, 32 Poems, Waxwing and Best American Poetry 2009. Her book, A Mind Like This, won the Prairie Schooner Poetry Book Prize. She lives in Kalamazoo and best evidence indicates she’s incapable of learning not to double-space after a period.
Illustration by Courtney Bennett