I’ve been visiting this painting for years and after over a decade of viewing, I am still puzzled.
The work is mammoth in proportions. That corner of a frame shown in the upper right is probably the width of my body. I believe the piece is Chinese in origin, the artist, unknown to me. It hangs as a tremendous presence in the courtyard of a sprawling seaside resort.
I first saw it 16 years ago while waiting for the Volkswagen bus I was living in to be repaired. The auto shop was a relatively short walk away from the hotel and I needed respite from beach park living. I was weary of the county park’s rudimentary public bathrooms that only ran cold water. Tired of the surly characters that gathered for cheap beers at the picnic tables by 10am. I know I wasn’t technically a guest of the hotel, but it seemed pretty harmless to sit among their artwork, wash my hands with warm water and fancy soap.
So while I hoped the mechanics could finally fix that starter issue on the bus, (an ongoing glitch, so this hotel courtyard scenario played out more than once) I spent the afternoon(s) in the shade of carved, marble pillars, playing tourist. I’d sit on the cushioned chair beneath this monumental work of art, wondering.
The Volkswagen is long-gone now. I live in a traditional house with a private bathroom and hot water on demand. I am the mother to a nine and a half-year old son. Over the years, I’ve continued to pass through that hotel courtyard. These days, the marble pillars seem more worn, the lobby, more flush with tourists. There’s an espresso bar now and the bathrooms just don’t seem as fancy as they used to. And though I don’t know who uses them anymore, they still have that privacy nook with three pay phones.
Yesterday, Jeb and I had a break between appointments and it seemed the perfect time to take a courtyard wander. Eventually, we found ourselves standing beneath the immense work of art.
“So, Jeb, I’ve been wondering about this painting for years. I’m curious what you make of it. Look at the tiger. How does it look to you?”
“Yeah, I see that too. It almost looks like he’s afraid of the man that’s kneeling down. What do you think that man has in his hands?”
“Looks like a bowl of rice.”
“That’s what I thought. Okay, so the tiger seems to be looking at the man with the rice, but he looks afraid. That seems unusual to me.”
“Yeah. That does seem weird.”
“So, then I see the face of the man on top of the tiger. What does he look like to you?”
“Exactly. I see that in his eyes, too. So, the man seems really steady and strong and the tiger looks afraid – afraid of food, even. I’ve been wondering about this picture for years and have never really figured it out. I just don’t fully understand what’s going on in this picture.”
Jeb and I come to no conclusions.
I attempt to take a proper photograph of the gigantic work, but sunlight makes reflections and its size won’t even come close to fitting in my frame.
There remains a story here, of which I do not know the details.
There are elements of power, humility, humankind and nature. The tale this painting tells must be of great import. I imagine the artist scaling ladders to bring his vision to life. The great lengths it took to sail this colossal piece to our small island. The significance it held for the designers of the hotel, who decided to boldly feature this epic depiction in the oasis of their courtyard.
This painting is a great gift, granting me shady respite and 16 years of curious wondering.
What does it say to you?