Words on a winter wing

July 20, 2019 at 10:05 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

I asked Emily which was her favourite in the museum. She led me back to a Monet water lily, the first she’d ever seen, from 1919.

This is when I let her in on a secret: it can be yours. No different from falling in love with a song, one may fall in love with a work of art and claim it as one’s own.

‘Insomniac City: New York, Oliver and Me’ by Bill Hayes.

This gorgeous passage in Bill Hayes’ memoir brought my favourite artwork instantly to mind: the Betrothal of the Arnolfini by Jan van Eyck. At the age of seventeen I flew from Australia to Brussels for a year-long student exchange, and began a lifelong love affair with everything Flemish; the painting, the language, the architecture, and the divine black cherry beer. The first time I stood in front of van Eyck’s masterpiece in The National Gallery in London, my septum threaded with silver, my ripped stockings and army boots below a tattered punk t-shirt, I was instantly catapulted back into the Middle Ages. Its power was startling to me; still is, in fact.

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‘Betrothal of the Arnolfini’ by Jan van Eyck

Ownership of your artwork does not come free. One must spend time with it; visit at different times of the day or evening, and bring to it one’s full attention.

Van Eyck led me to delve into the witches of Goya, the intricate rabbit sketches of Dürer, the apocalyptic torment of Hieronymus Bosch, and the wry humour in Brueghel. As Hayes explains, it’s not just paintings that can provide these stories and their inspiration, but also books, songs, photographs, architecture…it can be anywhere, if you know where to look.

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Hieronymus Bosch

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Albrecht Dürer

Perhaps the best part about possessing art in this way is that what’s mine can be yours, and vice versa. In fact, I would not be surprised if half of New York City has also put dibs on the Monet that Emily chose. This made it no less hers.

There are streets in Brussels that belong to me. Rue Chair et Pain (Street of Flesh and Bread) is where I bought my coconut incense in 1989, my backpack full of French homework I didn’t quite understand. Rue des Renards (Street of the Foxes) spills its cobblestones into the site of an old leper colony, then a flea market, where I haggled for a tartan ‘mini jupe’ skirt in 2002 that made a workman lay his pipes on the road to slowly applaud me as I walked past. In 2006 I often walked through the Place de la Vieille Halle aux Blés for a gingerbread salad and sweet rosé at Café Coco opposite the Jacques Brel museum, writing postcards home to Melbourne. And in 2011 I stood outside a red-walled house on Kandelaarstraat (Street of the Candlesticks) and beamed up at the window of the bedroom I dream I’m still living in.

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Brussels windowsill (photo by Lisa Jewell)

Which brings me to music. I don’t know if you can share ownership of a song, but if so, I’m going to claim Big Mama Thornton. I love her blues so much I wanted it played at my wedding a few weeks ago. Chris listened to the sultry sighs and moans in the song I’d chosen. ‘Is that really a wedding song, babe?’he laughed. ‘Your dad is going to be there.’ I hadn’t thought of that.

In the end we went with David Bowie’s ‘Word on a Wing’ as I walked down the aisle in my red velvet dress. I barely heard the songs we chose, I was so spellbound by Chris’ beautiful face waiting for me at the altar. We wrapped a red silk ribbon around our wrists in a witchcraft hand-fasting, and these two writers promised each other a life of words and their wonder. Etta James’ ‘Loving You More Every Day’ played as we signed our marriage certificate; Nick Cave’s ‘Breathless’ saw us back down the aisle and out of the chapel.

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Wedding photos by Rebecca Murray

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Our honeymoon is in Brussels in four weeks. We’re going to visit Brueghel’s house and play Jacques Brel songs. I’ll take him to the flea market, sit him down with a black cherry beer, and see if I can still haggle in Flemish and French.

I cannot wait.

But don’t be hasty. You must be sure you are besotted. When it happens, you will know. 

I brought Emily in closer to her new acquaintance: ‘Emily, meet your Monet. Monet, Emily.’ 

Words did not fail her. ‘Hello, beautiful,’ she whispered.

The morning of our wedding was damn cold in the mountains outside Melbourne. The witch in me had chosen the Winter Solstice, after all. I woke early, before him. We’d stayed up with whiskey and tunes the night before; our rings were ready on the bedside table, my dress hanging on the bathroom rail. I watched him sleep. His head was turned away from me on the pillow, his arms wrapped around himself.

I leaned down and gently kissed his sleeping shoulder.

‘Hello, beautiful,’ I whispered.

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