Anna Karenina, Mariano Fortuny, and the mystery of arrival

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou



Mariano Fortuny, The sons of the painter in the Japanese room, 1874, oil on canvas, 44 x 93 cm., Museo del Prado, Madrid


“And in the midst of the silence, there came an unmistakable reply to the mother’s question, a voice quite unlike the subdued voices speaking in the room. It was the bold, clamorous, self-assertive squall of the new human being who had so incomprehensibly appeared. If Levin had told before that Kitty was dead and that he had died with her, and that their children were angels and that God was standing before him, he would have been surprised at nothing. But now, coming back to the world of reality, he had to make great mental efforts to take in that she was alive and well and that the creature squalling so desperately was his son. Kitty was alive, her agony was over and he was unutterably happy. That he understood. He was completely happy in it. But the baby. Whence? Why? Who was he? He could not get used to the idea. It seemed to him something extraneous, superfluous, to which he could not accustom himself.”

Sometimes, I use audiobooks to help me sleep. I’ve been listening to Anna Karenina (a performance feat by Maggie Gyllenhaal, by the way), so around 4 or 5 in the morning, I got up, couldn’t go back to sleep, I duly noted the chapter I started listening to (because then I have to re-listen to everything, of course, since I doze off pretty quickly), and approximately two hours later and 14 chapters, I wake up, and I hear with a clarity that is almost unimaginable, the passage above. Every  single word enunciated to perfection. I don’t know why around seven in the morning, those words struck me as the truest expression of feeling, regarding the arrival of a newborn child in the world – here, from the aspect of the father, but I wouldn’t say it makes that much difference – that awe, that incapacity to understand, whence, why, who is this person. I remember clearly feeling that my son had fallen from the sky after I gave birth. I couldn’t fathom the math, the 1+1, and then three people returned from the hospital to the house. How? Sometimes, I still ask myself.

So, I am not sure what kind of post this is, if it is a literary one or what, but the photo to accompany it, naturally, was one of my most favorite paintings ever, from Mariano Fortuny, a late nineteenth-century Spanish painter – a painting whose poster I have framed in life-size format and which is hanging in my son’s room (framing posters, I used to look down to the activity as the worst kind of petty bourgeois habit, but there are few things that afford me greater pleasure than sitting across from it and staring at it for long intervals). I know that art historians can be insufferably pretentious, insisting that it’s not the same looking at reproductions, as opposed to the ‘real thing’ at a museum, but there are truly (relatively – OK, probably not true…) few things I would insist upon seeing in a gallery or a museum (one day, I’ll make a list). Fortuny’s paintings are one of those things, his brushwork is so lively, in a way that it deceives you into thinking that it’s actually swaying before your very eyes. And it’s so fortunate (pun intended) that the Prado finally, finally opened a sumptuous new wing dedicated to nineteenth-century Spanish painting, because there’s so much Greco, and Goya, and Zurbarán and Murillo a decent person can put up with, and one cannot imagine the treasures or the versatility of nineteenth-century Spanish painters (digression).

This painting, very much in the thrall of Japanese painting and un-apologetically so (suffice to look at the painted wall behind the low divan, you don’t know if things are painted on it, or just standing in front of it), he has captured his children in what looks like a late, languid Spanish afternoon, perhaps after lunch: it’s just too hot to move or play or do anything, so the children sit and lay around idly, doing pretty much nothing, which looks like bliss. These lovely creatures that have arrived, heaven knows where from and why, these inexplicable creatures, that they’re at the same time their own persons and somehow also part of us. It’s not that Fortuny’s painting captures the mystery of creation the way that Tolstoy manages, but I will always look upon this work as if it captures something of the beauty, the mystery, and – ultimately – the unknowableness of what childhood really must be.