ESSAYS, INTERVIEWS & REVIEWS
Maureen Gallace - 2000 - Houses Made of Butter [EN, essay],
Montagne de Miel, Monday 6 March 2000
To Maureen Gallace
Last night, after our phone call, I tumbled into a chaotic, painful sleep during which I had been buried for thousands of years in the dark bowels of an Egyptian pyramid, knowing that the crocodiles outside were still alive and waiting for me to come out of the sarcophagus. Anyway, suddenly I was running away from them, trying to speed up by pulling myself forward with my hands, my fingers between the paving stones. I hid in a big tree. The cops didn’t notice me and left the park. Suddenly I realized my mouth was filled with needles and very carefully, trying to avoid swallowing one of them, I started pushing them out with my tongue. In the meantime I kept on worrying about the fact that I was trying to finish my last year of secondary school (as an adult) but without really attending classes. I was afraid to flunk. I remembered having finished university successfully, but would these diplomas still count if I flunked this year?
Suddenly I hit upon a splendid idea: why not see the principal and ask for his advice? I was really relieved by this possiblility. This was maybe the millionth time I had this dream, but it was the first time I had the idea to ask for help.
In the next sequence of my dream I’m sitting in front of the principal, who looks like John Cassavetes. I look behind me to watch his secretary leave the office and when she is about to disappear from my sight she turns around and I recognize Gena Rowlands.
‘How lucky you didn’t marry Mia Farrow,’ I said. And when I turned around I noticed Cassavetes was studying a small painting which he held in his left hand.
‘Isn’t it amazing,’ he said, ‘that the three great pictorial nations are also the nations that simultanuously invented the sandwich?’
I got up from my chair and stood behind him. He smelled of vanilla and I wanted to touch his fingers.
‘The United States of America, Italy and Belgium,’ he went on, ‘the three countries where the greatest paintings were made: Coppola, Giotto, Bellini, Rogier Van der Weyden, Van Eyck, Vermeer, Morandi…’
At this point he stopped talking and looked at me over his shoulder. I felt I still had some needles in my mouth and tried to keep them away from my throat without drawing attention to the process.
‘How do you explain the fact that the best sandwiches in the world are made in the same three countries?’ he asked.
I tried to remember the right answer.
‘Painting is a matter of butter,’ he said, ‘it is a matter of milk, but it is also a matter of butter. Without butter there is no painting… As you know, painting was invented in China by a Buddhist monk who noticed how a cold breeze coming from the mountains drew the wrinkled forehead of his mother in the skin on a bowl of lukewarm, cooked milk.’
As he was speaking, the fingertips of his right hand hovered over the small painting. It was a painting of a house that was set in an environment of white dunes.
‘You know the importance of my house in nearly all my movies?’ Cassavetes asked.
‘Did you notice I almost never filmed it from outside?’
I didn’t know what to reply.
‘A bowl of milk with a pinch of ochre cinnamon,’ he said. ‘Look at this house. At first, one thinks the painting shows a kind of landscape. But the real landscape is hidden. We haven’t seen it yet. It is an unseen landscape. We think we see it, but we can only see it from outside. Slowly we discover a second landscape. It’s the landscape of the butter. We try to feel the butter and we feel the butter was still alive when it was laid down on the canvas. We feel it’s flow. We feel its flow be stopped, here, and here, and we feel it be clogged, smeared, spread, licked or read. It reads like a novel of flesh, it speaks of slow caresses, of liquid being laid down on liquid, of liquid bordering liquid, of liquid.’
I smelled the vanilla and I wanted to touch his fingers.
‘The house isn’t a house,’ he continued, ‘it is a geometrical form that disappears in the light. It disappears in the butter. It’s made of butter. IT IS THE BUTTER. And at the same time it is really a house. It used to be a merry house, surrounded by a green garden, but now it’s a painful house, surrounded by snow. For when snow is gathering around the house, the men don’t work the land. The tittering and the endless stories of the women stop. We hear only one voice. And we hear the fire. The fire is white. It eats the house. The house melts. It disappears. It hides in the snow. It’s white. It’s gone.’
I wanted to touch his fingers.
‘And then we realize that the butter hides a third landscape. The house hides the final landscape. The house hides the pain. The final landscape is the pain. The house is the pain.’
I didn’t know what to say.
‘Look how all the bravery of painting is captured in this miniature battlefield,’ he said.
He opened the top drawer of his desk and took out a magnifying glass.
‘It takes years to forget how to paint,’ he said, ‘it takes years before one knows how to lay down such a painting, painted in one flow, like the pastoral poems of Alberto Caeiro or the maddening, hilarious dreams of Kafka, still wet when read. Nobody knows how difficult it is to paint,’ he continued, ‘not even the paint itself. It has to let go, but it also has to resist. It has to be taken the hard way, but it doesn’t like to be forced. One is never stupid enough to paint. One has to become matter. One has to become a man of mud, a woman of mud. One has to be the soul of a pile of mud. One has to be more stupid than mud. One has to be butter. And still, one must also be light, one must be form, one must be pain and relief, one must be sleep.’
And after these words I woke up. The sun had just broken through the red clouds and two birds drew a secret sign in the turquoise sky.