|"Skipper and Mate" 1918 Clarence F. Underwood|
I love this 1918 painting by the American painter Clarence F. Underwood who titled it “Skipper & Mate.”
It’s romantic. The lovers are entwined with demeanors as relaxed as if the two were at a garden party watching a game of croquet.
Their little, tiller-steered wooden ship, designed to service just two, heels hard under billowing clouds in a white-capping gale. The boom bends from the force of the winds in the tight-hauled, unreefed main.
And yet, their white shirts remain unruffled. It is just the end of her blue tie that wisps in the wind. Just like the few loose strands of her coiffed crown of blonde-brown hair.
What is depicted is beyond improbable. It’s impossible. And so the painting heels hard against the waterline of kitsch. The glassy-eyed vision of love. The oh-too-easily spurned belief that love can conquer any storm.
As gruff sailors, we are all too ready to dismiss the painting. But rather than use big words like “romantic,” we point to her impossible grip on the tiller which itself is impossibly positioned amidships during what would be powerful weather helm to counteract.
And so there we are. We have dismissed another siren. We have plugged not only our ears, but blinded our souls too. Turned away, muttering the dullest of justifications: A muse of such simplicity is not a true muse. We turn our eyes back in the direction of dirty truths. Ones stained by cynicism. Cracked around the edges by sarcasm. Surely inside one of THOSE truths is a fossil of true romance.
Personally, I prefer the simple truths. The ones that flutter. The ones that blossom. The ones that warm you like the sun.
Aboard my own little ship, when guests ask what my novel is about, I tell them that it’s about a man who sails off on an Odyssean voyage through past and present relationships, exploring what it means to love without expectation.
“Do you really believe that’s possible: To love without expectation?” someone recently asked.
I didn’t get to answer because just as the question was posed, the heavens themselves interrupted, as if we were in a cliché scene ourselves, with a gust of wind and a few drops of rain announcing a spat of bad weather from which we decided to flee back toward the harbor.
Here’s what I wanted to tell you, dear Guest, wherever you may now be: We must believe in Love Without Expectation. It is rare. And when it exists, it is fleeting, like a scent in the breeze. I myself, though I have tried with all my effort, have not been able to sustain such love for more than just the briefest of moments. Then I fall back into hoping my love will be reciprocated with equal or equivalent measure.
Nevertheless, to love truly altruistically, truly selflessly, is an ideal that we must believe in. How else do we know what to strive for?
Kundera dedicates his entire novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being to the exploration of kitsch and, at one point, says this of it: “Kitsch causes two tears to flow in quick succession. The first tear says: How nice to see children running on the grass! The second tear says: How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass! It is the second tear that makes kitsch kitsch.”
I like kitsch in prescribed doses. I like romantic truths. I like being moved, with all mankind, by the possibility of Love Without Expectation. I like being invited into Mr. Underwood’s painting and trying to appreciate the depth of what he might have been wanting to share with us. The lovers’ eyes are relaxed as they focus into the fantastical voyage that will be guided by the hope for an island to call home. They are certain to face more storms; some worse than this.
And yes, we can make something of it that it is HER hand on the tiller, but we know that in the long run they will be sharing watches.
The last and veiled dynamic in the painting is its title. It’s the painting’s “second tear” if you will. It’s not that we don’t know who is skipper and who is mate. But that we can imagine the various ways in which the lovers will explore how they each are both to the other.
To be a romantic, is to believe in the possible in face of the improbable.