Age: 18, Grade: 12
School Name: Hewitt School, New York, NY
Educator: Aaron Shapiro
Category: Short Story
Claire enjoyed the slow pace of museums. It differed drastically from the fast pace of technological information that she was so used to receiving. Being surrounded by fine art had an air of calm intellectuality that brought even the most rambunctious rows of small children to a lull. Claire frequently felt she never had the time or an excuse to visit exhibitions, so she was thrilled that Madeline had invited her to come along to the evening gala at the Musée de l’Orangerie as her plus-one.
Claire followed behind Madeline, carefully weaving between men sporting dapper suits and ladies decked in lavish and colorful outfits. Claire couldn’t help but feel a tad underdressed and out of place. Her long black evening gown with a flowing train, normally typical for Paris, simultaneously stuck out like a sore thumb and left her invisible in the diversity of elaborate dresses. Spotting a familiar black cow swallowed and illuminated by bright colors, Claire requested that she and Madeline stay a while to admire the painting. Her companion stumbled as they came to a stop. Claire gazed affectionately at the cow; the kind animal’s presence brought her a moment of comfort in a sea of unfamiliarity. She was appalled to hear her companion’s abrasive voice quietly pierce the tranquility,
Claire began ruminating as soon as those words left Madeline’s mouth. It wasn’t that she didn’t like the painting or Madeline for that matter. Franz Marc’s Paysage avec maison et deux vaches was one of her favorites, and—although they weren’t the closest of friends—Claire liked Madeline perfectly well. There was just something overconfident about Madeline’s soft tone that irked Claire. It was something she couldn’t quite place, and it distracted her. As Claire tried to turn her attention back to the canvas, with the bright greens of the lush fields and the dusty oranges of the sturdy buildings, Madeline repeated,
Somehow, the second time Madeline said it, she managed to drag out the length of the two words even further, as if they had importance, and it occurred to Claire that maybe Madeline was expecting something from her. The vivacious colors of the landscape began to slip away from Claire’s focus, and, although she held her head firmly fixed forward at the Franz Marc, she found her eyes lowering to the corner of her vision so that the only things she could see were Madeline’s brown suede sandals and cream colored tights, positioned in a perfect fourth. Claire couldn’t help but think of Degas’s statues, so many of which were forever fixed in a perfect fourth.
Madeline must be being intentionally ironic or sarcastic. Claire spiraled. Madeline is muttering the phrase ironically or sarcastically. She repeated it again because she thought I didn’t hear it, and she thought I didn’t hear it because I didn’t laugh the first time she said it. I’ll laugh and she’ll be quiet. Without opening her mouth, Claire sent a sharp exhale through her nose and a small side grin to the brown suede sandals and cream colored tights. She listened for Madeline again, and was relieved when she heard nothing. As the tranquil energy of the gallery resumed, Claire realigned her gaze with the direction of her head. The primaries flooded her senses once more as the pronounced shapes of the house and the hills tenderly but firmly caressed her sight. She really did love the painting.
Instantly, Claire found her focus drawn to the brown-spotted cow grazing on the small green pasture. She had always been of the opinion that the black cow on the right hand side of the canvas was wise and accepting of the imagery, while the brown-spotted cow in the center was arrogant and controlling of the painting. And in this way, she found herself irritated by both the brown-spotted cow and the fact that it was holding her attention for so long. Claire wished she could just forget about the cow, but she couldn’t help wanting it to bring its head up from its little patch of grass and see that the world of the canvas was significantly bigger and more expansive and vibrant than what it stubbornly believed. She wanted to show it the hills that sank into the sky and blended into the house, and the striking edges that gave the landscape life and structure. She wanted to show it the richness of the color palette, and the contrast between the green and the red and the blue and the yellow that defined the contrast between the earth and the man-made.
Claire’s eyes welcomed in the painting. The edges of the artwork dragged her out of the gallery and onto the rolling hills. The geometrical shapes rearranged themselves in her mind to form meaning. The paint strokes of the canvas smoothed flat until she could see nothing but the darkening blue sky and the bricks of the house and the lives of the two cows. Claire scanned the horizon where the acid yellow melted into the earthy green, and felt understood by Franz Marc in her understanding of the painting.
Then a white and brown blur whirled around violently and interrupted her train of thought. The brown-spotted cow aggressively crossed Claire’s vision again, and—much to her astonishment—Claire thought she could hear the vain, attention-seeking creature mooing. Claire found herself overtaken by an impotent fascination; she reasoned she was either going crazy or on the verge of a breakthrough about the deeper intentions of the painting. Claire listened for the brown-spotted cow again, and, all at once, she felt herself being pulled away from the landscape with the house and the cows and back to the halls of the museum with the white walls and Madeline standing beside her. Claire tried to bring her concentration back to the world of the painting, but her ruminating returned instead as Madeline’s side-commentary preoccupied her thoughts once more.
The low pitched sound shared a grain of similarity with the phrase from before, and Claire was finally able to identify why Madeline’s insistent interruptions felt gross: Madeline was asserting her intellectual superiority by demonstrating vocally that she understood the painting. Claire readjusted her black gown around her waist as if she were pulling up her sleeves for a fight. She didn’t blink, didn’t shift her head, and didn’t miss a beat as she muttered a response in a mimicking lilt:
“What?” Madeline was obtrusive, obnoxious, and utterly oblivious. “You understand the painting?” Even though Claire felt she knew what Franz Marc was trying to convey to his audience, she adjusted the pitch of her voice to imply that she had no idea what was going on with the image. She pulled the train of her black gown close to her feet.
“Well….” Madeline rubbed the heel of her right shoe against her left shin, leaving a brown suede stain across her cream colored tights. “I believe it is hard to understand any piece of art, as all art is subjective and reliant on the eyes of the viewer, but I do think I comprehend what Franz Marc is trying to say with his imagery. The shapes in the painting convey the movement of life while at the same time expressing the idea of normality. The bright corners, rounded and sharp, all at the same time, demonstrate a light shining onto the world.”
Claire balled up the sides of her black dress in her fists. She turned to search Madeline’s eyes for information, but she only found placid pools regurgitating the painting back as meaningless images.
“But Madeline, if I were going to ask you what this is a painting of, what would you say?”
“I already told you.” Madeline’s eyes shifted away from the painting to gaze at Claire sardonically. “Do you need me to repeat what I said?”
“You gave me your interpretation of the painting, which is fine, but subjective. I want to know what things are present in the painting. What is this literally a painting of? And from there, what do you think the artist is trying to tell you?”
“It should be obvious to anybody who knows anything about the world of artwork what the artist intended, and even though I recognize what the artist was trying to communicate with this piece, I’m not going to waste my time trying to explain it to you.” Claire made a mental note that Madeline omitted evidence proving her statement of understanding.
Madeline continued. “But because you’re my friend, I’ll give you a little push: it’s a painting of a dog in a field of flowers.” And with that, Madeline turned up her nose triumphantly.
Claire burst out laughing. “That’s not what it’s a painting of! You don’t even know what it’s a painting of, so it’s clear that there’s no way you understand what the painting is about!”
“Wha-at?” Bewildered, Madeline stared at Claire with her jaw slack. She tripped over her brown suede sandals as she shuffled closer to the painting, and Claire suddenly noticed that Madeline’s shoes were one size too big. Madeline’s head looked like it was shaking ‘no’ as it rapidly snapped back and forth between Claire and the painting, “It’s abstract! It’s subjective! It’s up to interpretation! You can’t say what it’s about! You couldn’t tell me what it’s supposed to be a picture of if you tried!”
Claire’s words came out clear and level, “The title of the piece translates to ‘Landscape with a house and two cows,’ which is in no way arbitrary. Whatever the painting’s about and whatever the artist intended for you to understand must in some way align with the title, no?”
Claire scooped up her black gown, curtsied, dropped the silky fabric like a mic, and began to walk away. She relished her superiority. She relished her success of proving that the apple of wisdom Madeline claimed to be chewing was nothing but a handful of grass. Claire spun around to check that Madeline was trailing at her feet, and was surprised to find her dazed companion still standing in front of the Franz Marc. The train of Claire’s black gown folded over itself as she backtracked to examine her friend in the brown suede sandals and cream colored tights.
“I don’t see it,” Madeline muttered to no one but herself. She stared intensely at the canvas. “I don’t see what Marc intended. I don’t see what he’s trying to tell me.”
“You won’t see anything if you try to conjure meaning that’s not there,” Claire murmured as she meandered back to the painting and stood next to Madeline, “You’ll only see if you look. ”
“I can’t see, Claire!”
“I’ll help. See the second cow? It’s hiding peacefully on the right side of the canvas. It’s watching over the landscape gently. Do you see it?”
Madeline looked up. “I see it! I see the cows! I see the house! I see all of it, Claire!” Madeline removed her brown suede sandals from her feet and held them in one hand, leaving herself standing in her cream colored tights, “But what am I supposed to make of it?”
“I don’t know, Madeline.” Claire watched as the reflection in Madeline’s eyes shifted to the same vibrant world that she loved, the world of the rolling hills and the peaceful house, the world the two cows were fortunate enough to be a part of. She followed her friend’s gaze back to the landscape and fixed her own head forward to view the painting once more. “But I can tell you it won’t come immediately. You’ll have to spend some time thinking about it.” The landscape warmly enticed both girls to continue pondering, and, for the first time, the candescent oils on the canvas seemed to sparkle brilliantly in the light.