Still Life with Self-por­trait The hand has dropped the fruit and it’s painted where it falls

The Iowa Review - - THE IOWA REVIEW - Diane Seuss

I look at Cor­nelius Nor­ber­tus Gi­js­brechts’s Still Life with Self-por­trait and I want to touch him. I sup­pose he was a bad man. Weren’t all men bad back then? Weren’t women bad as well? Or did they only ex­ist within the con­fines of the bad­ness of men and thus come to be known as good? I have ex­isted within the con­fines of the bad­ness of men. Men have ex­isted within the con­fines of my own bad­ness. I’m bad enough to ad­mit I liked it when men ex­isted within my bad­ness rather than the other way around.

Cor­nelius Nor­ber­tus Gi­js­brechts ap­pears to be the kind of bad man who likes to trick the eye. He fa­vored trompe l’oeil, op­ti­cal il­lu­sion. In The Re­verse of a Framed Paint­ing he paints the front of the paint­ing as if it were the back, com­plete with wood grain, fram­ing nails, and a tag—num­ber 36— seem­ingly stuck to the paint­ing with seal­ing wax. Aside from this, there is no con­tent. He has of­fered you his back­side and called it his frontside, has of­fered you noth­ing and called it some­thing. You’ve known men like Cor­nelius Nor­ber­tus Gi­js­brechts.

In Still Life with Self-por­trait he paints a paint­ing of a paint­ing. It is an un­re­mark­able still life on what seems to be black vel­vet. White grapes with a ten­dril from the vine still at­tached, three peaches, an opened wal­nut, and a cut squash. One cor­ner of the vel­vet can­vas ap­pears to have peeled away from the frame on which it’s mounted, ex­pos­ing the wall, the wooden frame, and the stitched

hem along the re­verse side of the fab­ric. The still life rests on a lit­tle shelf he’s painted to mimic a real shelf. It holds his pipe, his tobacco jar, his brushes, and two pegs on which hang his gummy pal­ette and a rag.

Along­side the paint­ing of the paint­ing is a tiny self-por­trait that seems to be pinned to the wall as one would pin a dead moth to a dis­play board. It is os­ten­si­bly the artist him­self, his thick, black hair brush­ing the top of his shoul­ders, his white col­lar turned down be­neath his paunchy face, his eyes not meet­ing mine but gaz­ing off over my left shoul­der. With an­noy­ance? I think he looks an­noyed. Or he’s cre­at­ing the il­lu­sion of dis­in­ter­est. I’ve known that kind of man. Or he’s think­ing, “This isn’t my real face I’ve painted. She will never really know me.” A man said some­thing like that to me once: “You don’t know any­thing about me,” a man I’d lived with a long time. My whole life I’ve wanted to touch men like Cor­nelius Nor­ber­tus Gi­js­brechts but they will not let them­selves be touched.

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