May I tell you what I did today that brought me peace and pleasure for some long little while?
This was out in my bit of an urban backyard, a six by fifty roofless shoebox of a space, concrete underfoot and hemmed in on all sides by taller buildings all the many windows of which must give skybox-like views (if anyone was watching) of the strange endeavor in which I was involved.
There I was in the sun, on a folding chair of bright blue canvas, with a red towel in my lap (sorry, the colors seem important somehow) and a beautiful brown loaf of fresh sourdough bread on the towel. I was not eating, though.
What I was doing was gouging out great balls of the loaf’s soft insides and with them rubbing away at an old oil painting I have of a couple of stalwart horses hitched to a cart. Several authoritative-seeming websites spoke up for this cleaning technique — gentle scrubbing with bread — so I had no trepidation about trying it.
There was no miracle involved. The flyblown greasy surface of the painting (oil on board) did not suddenly shine after a pass or two of the bread. It took time. And the balls of bread-flesh broke down very quickly into shapeless shreds and bits and pieces small enough to be blown off my lap, and off the painting, by the breeze.
But it was wonderful work. Little by little by little, the dark tobacco-juice-colored film on the painting began to come off. At my feet, there grew a mound of beige puffs, as if I had been shearing a sheep. And I kept on, wiping the flesh of the bread back and forth across the painting, rubbing it in circles, moving it up and down the horses’ stoic heads, as if stroking the animals themselves.
The change was imperceptible at first. In fact, I thought it wasn’t working, thought I’d been taken in by those websites recommending the trick of cleaning with bread.
But the thing needed patience. It needed to be done entirely by my hand, without my mind getting in the way. So I let my hand work on its own, all but falling asleep above the painting while still gently rubbing at it. Time passed at a wonderful deep-breathing pace, just at it seemed to be passing for the horses in the painting I was cleaning.
I went through two sizable loaves doing this work, a half-loaf at a time, so that I could better get at the loaves’ insides.
Had no idea, you understand, how much bread I might need. This is a small picture, eight inches by twelve, its paint thickly laid on (impasto, I think the technique is called), all lovely dark slashes of brown and green and blue, one of those compositions that seem not to make any sense at all when looked at too closely, that seem almost to be an abstraction, but that, stepped away from, show how clever the artist has been with those thick applications of pigment. There they are, two horses, muscular, tired, long-suffering, having a bit of rest toward the end of the day on a country road somewhere. The drayman is elsewhere, outside the frame, off paying a visit or collecting something for delivery or napping, it may be, up against a tree by the side of the road.
And the horses are not tied to anything. They simply stand, waiting, as good horses will.
One of them’s a chestnut, with a white star on its forehead. The other is black and has a blaze, meaning that the whole length of its face is white. These two patches of cream, stabbed on by the artist’s brush, are the brightest spots in the picture. For the rest, as I say, it is a sundown scene, muted — and was much more muted before my afternoon of rubbing away at the gummy film that covered it with wadded balls of bread.
You should know that I grew up with this painting. It hung on one or another wall of every home my parents ever made for us. Came with them, I think, from Hungary, though I can’t imagine how they managed to bring anything so delicate — the painting is small, yes, but its ornate gilded frame makes it much bigger, and much harder to transport — with them in the grief and chaos of their escape from Europe after the war.
The work was done by a Hungarian artist named Janos Viski, who was born in 1891 and seems to have had his first exhibition in 1913. I’m guessing that this particular painting was done in the Nineteen Twenties or Thirties.
And what has any of this to do with Cancerland?
Only that any time spent successfully bringing something back to life is even more of a comfort here than it might be elsewhere.
I think tomorrow I will go back to the bakery for two more brown hummocks of sourdough bread with which to continue the work of resurrection.