The Mystery of Thing Three


Arch of Gallienus – Piranesi, 1756

My friend, eleven year old son, and I went to the Springfield Museum this weekend, ostensibly to see the current show on art forgeries. And see it we did. But the funny thing about going to a museum and seeing collections in person is that you never know…you can’t know what will grasp your imagination. We are all so used to choosing what we look at in this internet “bubble of one” (as Eli Pariser put it) that we lose sight of life’s best aspect- surprise.

Very briefly- the surprise was not the show concerning forgeries, rather we were all transfixed by a strange looming painting by Erastus Salisbury Field (what a name!). My friend, Tasha Depp, has written about it eloquently on her blog from an artist’s viewpoint.

At this point, you may have noticed that the picture with which I lead this post is not Erastus, but rather Giovanni Battista Piranesi. This etching was made some one hundred years before the epic work of Erastus, (pardon me for the informality, but I simply love the name) but I could not put the work of Piranesi out of my mind while viewing Erastus’ unusual and thematically similar work.


Historical Monument of the American Republic- Field, 1867-88


In concert, they strike me as one thing viewed from opposing directions. Piranesi’s work was all about the decrepitude, majesty and horror of the past: the “towering achievements” of mankind and nature’s momentary recapturing of ground. The glance is backwards, at once in awe of man’s splendour, as well as nature’s rebuke.

This tiny image on your screen of Erastus’s work was in fact something like nine feet by five (not sure why the brochure does not specify the size). The experience of standing close enough to read the text was completely different to standing back several feet and taking the whole world in at one time.

Like Piranesi (perhaps even artistically quoting him), Erastus makes use of art as an historical/political guide (including text, as well as a key to map out the historical events to which he represents -his painting focuses on the “conflict between the northern and southern states that culminated in the Civil War” [the hall where his work is hung has a handy brochure explaining his bio and specific detail of this work]), the towers of shame or enlightened achievement side by side leading to a fascinatingly weird railroad in the sky.

Perhaps it was the unexpectedness of seeing this odd work – it was the very first painting we came to after, as Tasha notes on her blog, spending some time in the Dr. Suess garden. In fact the order may have been key- we were mesmerized by a huge structure made of dried vines that had the look of Russian onion domes, then we loitered around bronze sculptures of  Thing One and Thing Two, and then- Erastus.

Our minds were prepped in a certain way….so that the combination of the hilariously neatly curbed foreground and the utopian skyway made me think this painting, a paeon to industry,  is one that is anticipating a glorious future made from the ground up by man’s reason. It has a “we can do it!” declaration that seems painfully earnest in hindsight. Perhaps if Erastus had taken Piranesi’s message a little more to heart he might have tempered his hopeful tone.

But…maybe the truth, or the beauty,  is- we don’t know. Call it foolish earnest hope, or the glory of mystery….At any moment we can walk into a room, turn a corner and be struck dumb with wonder.




8 responses to “The Mystery of Thing Three

  1. Our twin takes are very interesting and of course related. Your reference to the lack of size info in the brochure reminded me that the brochure was a bit “thin” literarily, wasn’t it? I found the final paragraph reminiscent of a high school book report…a repetitive summing up of what had already been stated. i did read the brochure cover to cover as I was eager to find out more about why Erastus had made the Monument painting. It is on my agenda to figure out what the tradition of “history painting” in NYC would have been at that time…..Were other artists making things like this? Are there more of these somewhere?..

    I do so love that experience of “being struck dumb with wonder”. When you feel like jumping for joy in an art museum, you know they did something right!

    • Yes it is not the most compelling reading…however I sure was thrilled when that nice guard pointed us to them after listening to us from the balcony above! Lovely man!

  2. The links are both on the decay of the Roman empire; the timing of Erastus’s work, the civil war, was probably making a lot of people wonder about the folly of empire and the wars they involve. Rome is always evoked when empires are being founded, gothic, with its ruins comes in when they have past their peak, hence the fusion in Piranesi which coincided with the decline of classical architecture and the rise of Gothic in Britain.

    Date: Tue, 11 Mar 2014 21:26:01 +0000 To:

    • Yes, but rather than take a- “see the folly” view, I feel Erastus takes a “now we know better” view- the Glory of Progress! that is why it seems, to me, the same thing but looking in opposing directions….

  3. Erastus Salisbury Field’s painting reminded me immediately of the cities Kafka imagined in his novel Amerika. Big, boisterous places filled with industry and exuberance. Kafka was certainly thinking of the great cities of ancient European empires. He’d have loved the elevated railway.

  4. Speaking of art fergers and forgeries; did you see the 60 Minutes piece on Wolfgang Beltracchi a couple weeks ago?

    I mean, WOW!

    • No I didn’t. It is quite amazing the energy and talent that goes into it…the museum show featured several forgers and most of them seemed to start out from a place of angry frustrated unappreciated artists out to stick it to the collectors..some were/are crazy. Not all of the forgeries were necessarily good, I thought, so the psychology involved of rather easily getting people to believe…is fascinating as well.

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