An Autumn Day Through a Painter’s Eyes
In the “Painter of Modern Life,” Baudelaire writes of an artist he calls only M.G.
“When as he wakes up,” Baudelaire writes, “M.G. opens his eyes and sees the beating vibrantly at his window panes, he says to himself with remorse and regret:
‘What an impressive command! What a failure of light! Light everywhere for several hours part! Light I have lost in sleep! And endless numbers of things bathed in light that I could have seen and failed to!’”
Baudelaire envisions M.G. then dashing out of bed and into the street. As he watches the “flow of life move by, majestic and dazzling,” he attends every detail around him, from a stone landscape to a ribbon in a woman’s hair.
He walks and walks for hours, absorbing the din of machines and the shuffling about of humans. He seeks, Baudelaire writes, “that indefinable something we may be allowed to call ‘modernity’ … the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; one half of art, the other being the — eternal and immovable.”
What would an autumn day look like through a painter’s eyes?
Today, the sun wakes late. If I look through the sky not at it, I’ll see an ever so apparent tension. It is the stretching over the horizon, the sun’s meeting of cool air. Tree crowns rise in dusted greens, golds, and ambers. The sun moves through leaves in summer, too, but not like this — what is it about this?
If I watch and listen to the rustle of the leaves, the autumn wind reveals — the trees have pulled water from leaf, to stem, to root. The crisp air, leaves, and grass signal the retreat of water. Even the tree bark stiffens.
If I follow my gaze not at its usual height, nor at the heights of birds and tree crowns, but at the ground, I’ll see the squirrel.
Upon first glance, it seems a fairy tale creature: careless and free. But if I look at it once more, I’ll see a tufted tail bristling with every hair. I’ll see a ragged movement of the muscled shoulder, a scurry of the claws, the eyes acraze. In those eyes, I’ll see an animal in stress, in motion. The squirrel knows what humans yet do not: that the light wanes, and there is little time.
The humans will feel this in-your-bones way kind of knowing in the afternoon. If I watch them on the sidewalks, I’ll see them pause and retreat into their coats as the air shifts from cool to cold.
Every year, it seems, the light’s departure is a shock. And as the sun lifts off and leaves a greyish tint, I’ll see in them the hurrying squirrel — to homes, to stores!
As the humans scurry to their burrows, the light meets them there. In a city empowered to modernity, electric networks pull inside. If I walk through my neighbourhood then, I’ll see squares of light blink back — electricity suspended in that space between the sun and moon.
In the Prefatory Note to The Book of Autumn, Volume 2 of The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, editors V.V.B. and P.G. write that the “Return to Nature” is a “rallying call which each age must answer in its own way.” In publishing this volume, Patrick Geddes and colleagues sought to answer this call through literary and artistic exploration, to think of autumn of their own age.
To recognize nature in an urbanized and globalized world is to answer a different call. Though I may share a rustling of leaves with the contributors to The Book of Autumn (the seemingly eternal in the transitory), 2020 Toronto differs greatly from, say, 1895 Aberdeen that naturalist J. Arthur Thompson walked.
But all places differ. If you were to answer The Evergreen’s call, and to walk out as a painter into your autumn day, what would you see?
Text and headpiece by Alevtina Lapiy