“Apocalypse,” says the placard, but in the brown dusk Mei sees Shanghai or New Jersey. The smog is all Trenton, though she barely remembers the week she spent there, sleeping on one side of a plastic-wrapped couch, so many years ago. The ruins, then, must be Shanghai, a city she knows from the pictures in waiting room periodicals, though sometimes she swears a smell, a sound, transports her back to the place of her infancy.
de Nomé was a showoff, it seems, eager to display his understanding of the geometry of perspective. His ruins are built of parallels and perpendiculars, though by his time most other painters had tired of Renaissance mathematics. Mei appreciates it, the underlying order of everything, but she’s bothered by the slight slant of the structure in the foreground: the verticals lean a few degrees left, as though collapsing into the vacuum of the vanishing point. An accident, Mei wonders, or a prelude to some future destruction, a premonition of columns crumbling to dust? What did de Nomé know of disaster? Under the Spanish viceroys, Naples flourished; it was the largest city in the Mediterranean, the second largest in Europe. Mid-century, a Neapolitan fisherman led a violent revolt against the Habsburgs — maybe de Nomé could sense a certain instability in his city. There are always signs, thinks Mei, that something awful is about to happen.
Grisaille, impasto, Corinthian columns in high relief. Mei impresses herself with how much she’s retained, decades later, from her first-year art history class at Princeton. They called her the Girl from Red China back then, in a loving way, and she indulged them by inventing stories about a childhood spent between the Jade Buddha Temple and the Yellow River. Bellaire, Texas, where Mei returned for breaks and long weekends, would have been equally exotic to her classmates, but it was so much better to imagine a home in Shanghai, so much better to be a mythweaver than an autobiographer.
“By building up the sculptural figures with dense layers of white paint, the artist invites the beholder to question what is real (tactile) as opposed to depicted (seen).” To touch is to make real, Mei decides; that’s what the gallery text must mean. Anything else is a fiction of the optic nerve. Mei lays an index finger on a corner of the frame, then traces a path to the center of the painting. The canvas is smooth, brushstrokes expertly hidden, except in a few square inches where de Nomé painted and painted over two white statues. Here, the paint is surprisingly layered for an artifact of the Neapolitan Baroque. Mei runs her fingertips over the figures from chalky head to chalky toe, her touch so gentle that the canvas, were it innervated, would feel nothing at all.
“You know,” a voice chides, “that painting is almost four hundred years old.” Mei turns to see a white-haired woman scowling at her. “You aren’t allowed to touch it. That’s not how things work here.”
“I … very sorry, don’t know. I go now.” Mei shuffles to the next room of paintings and waits for the woman, now muttering under her breath, to enter another gallery. Someday, Mei fears, she’ll put on an accent at the wrong time and be bludgeoned to death. But for now, Mei is glad for an out, glad for another opportunity to pretend.
When the white-haired woman leaves, Mei returns to the de Nomé. There really is something Oriental about the painting. The crenellations along the stone ramparts, maybe, because they look like the Great Wall. Or perhaps it’s the soldiers painted into the triumphal arch: in their strange armor, they look like transplants from the Terracotta Army. No, no, but it really is something. It’s just a matter of finding it, and then it will be stupidly clear.
Mei tries to reconstruct the Shanghai cityscape. She thinks of the baby pictures still hanging in Bellaire: sun-bleached and sepia-toned, they look much older than they are. In elementary school, a neighbor girl asked if they were pictures of Mei’s mother as a baby — no, Mei wished to explain, her mother was still in China, being re-educated in the countryside somewhere, and all the pictures of her had been burned by Red Guards.
It must be the arch, the Roman triumphal arch, that looks Chinese. The front door to the family home was arched — she remembers it now, in the background of her aunt’s favorite photo, four women standing before the stone wall of the family compound. Mei’s mother is not in this picture. She was pregnant at the time, too big and tortured to be photographed. If only the photo could flash through the arched door and into the home. There she would be.
What did de Nomé know of surrender? A tree grows, bare of leaves, from the window of a tower; its thin branches spring out and fall like arterial blood. Behind the tower, two armed men — guards, maybe? — rest against the ramparts. Are these ruins marred by battle or age, violence or neglect? Mei knows the story of Saul. She took a class on the Old Testament the same year she took art history, which was excellent timing, because few people in the world are painted more often than prophets. King Saul was the first king of Israel, and he was blessed by Samuel, and later he killed himself to escape the Philistines.
Remarkable, Mei thinks, how de Nomé captured such a man on canvas, how he made visible Saul’s resignation to death. Mei wishes she could touch the paint again, if only to trace the shape of Saul, kneeling, neck bent, as though waiting to be beheaded.
© Angela Hui
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Original digital photo of the painting found at: https://hvrd.art/o/340104.]