I love idealists. Their very existence in today’s consumerist world is a wonder (and a godsend for contemporary romance writers and Amazon).
Grown-up idealists are especially rare, because idealism is similar to a space rocket. As an idealist matures, their idealism drops off as burnt-out ballistic stages, until the tiny manned tip comes into orbit in the cold void of adulthood.
Psychiatrists believe it is suspicious if someone stays an idealist past their teenage prime. No one over 15 can be THAT blissfully ignorant of the sad facts of life, they say. Yet, most agree that a certain (and generally acceptable) lack of education can insulate a mildly disillusioned Twilight fan from progressing to the consummate cynicism of American Psycho.
What is it a mildly disillusioned idealist should not know to keep the last threads of idealism?
They should never learn that their belief about “things being better before” is a lie. Why? Because this belief supports the hope all is not lost and things may get better after. Men were gentlemen, girls were ladies, kings meant more than “kingsize” in tobacco, and princes rode a single, but very real horsepower. If things could be that way before, they could become this way once again, couldn’t they?
If you know art history, you know the answer is no.
Hereditary noble classes have never been nobler than modern rags-to-riches bankers. Sex, power, and money used to be just as big, if not bigger than today, because gentlemen and ladies of the past didn’t have rock-n-roll for balance.
In fact, you don’t even need to know a whole lot of art history to see through the “better-before” lies. If you are English, you just need to be aware of William Hogarth. If you are French, Honore Daumier will be your guide to cynicism. If you are Russian, Pavel Fedotov will prove to you that people don’t change, not really. If you are American, try Grant Wood, and, if accidentally exposed to Norman Rockwell, rinse the exposed parts with Dr.House at once.
Pavel Fedotov is the artist from my last art quiz, here. I promised you to show more of Fedotov’s pictures, so now I am making good on my word.
This is one of his sarcastic drawings, the Fashionable Store (1844), a terrarium cage of the society’s best driven by utmost self-interest towards moral degradation.
Pavel Fedotov, The Fashionable Store. 1844
We find ourselves in the midst of an abridged drama of Anna Karenina in the centre of the picture. An old husband reaches into his deep pocket to pay for the load of goods his beautiful young wife has selected. She is buying “half the store”: their liveried footman is loaded down with her purchases. Her son reaches out to his mum: he probably saw something he wants in the cabinet behind the counter, but his mother cares more about getting a secret love note from the handsome officer to her left than about her importunate child. Her dog is making advances to another visitor’s puppy as a symbol of infidelity that runs in the family.
The bored and somewhat irritated face of the husband who “knows it all” (but in fact knows nothing) runs in stark contrast to the careless expression of the young lover, who pretends to be busy with a jar of perfume while anticipating the smell of passion only a hungry wife of a senile husband can offer to a capable man. Maybe tonight!
In the left corner, we see a couple that seems to be in disagreement about their budget. The lady has picked up some lace that her husband can’t afford: he shows her his pocket-book of expenses, and, quite possibly, gaming debts, This brings his wife to hysterics: in tears, she throws a length of lace she selected to the floor in indignation.
Their faces say it all.
Note the way the neck of the husband is drawn in the hunch of outraged innocence. But it won’t fool his wife. All the sorrow of a faithful keeper of the family hearth denied her rightful piece of lace is right there, in the silent twisted line of her mouth.
Behind the broke husband we can see a customer who asked the salesman to pick up something from the farthest shelf only to distract him enough to steal a scarf.
Further inside the store, in the backroom, we can see a visitor, who must be someone important as a bottle of champagne is not provided to any customer who gets lost looking for a toilet.
The visitor wears the uniform of a civil servant. A tax inspector, perhaps. He shows the store manager a document and frowns. He doesn’t have to ask for a bribe: the manager will give him money and will be eternally grateful the money’s taken, at that.
Let’s get on the right side now, to the young officer holding white stockings as a battle trophy.
Today, he is interpreted differently than a hundred years ago. A modern observer says it is a young man chosing stockings for his paramour. Fedotov’s contemporaries would say – looking at his insignia – that he was a general’s aide sent either by the general himself or by the general’s wife to buy stockings either for the general’s lover or for the said wife. Look at the left hand of the young man. If he is ashamed of his role as a messenger boy, he doesn’t want it to be seen and adopts the pose that tells everyone around him he’s on top of this particular situation and the whole world, in general. He assumes all eyes are on him, but we know no one cares a bit about him, his looks, or his “situation”.
Behind his back, there’s a lady, somewhat past her prime, desperate to “steal some beauty” but unwilling to openly admit it. She’s using the sign language to tell the salesman she wants some rouge, while clutching a bottle of expensive perfume, a symbol of her female charm that is about to leave her.
There is one guy I can’t explain though. The man behind the rouge lady who appears to be opening a bottle of perfume. Who is he? He’s got artistic hair and tie, there are papers under his arm (drawings?). Fedotov loved infiltrating himself into his drawings, but never had hair this long… A small mystery.
And the last detail is meant for those idealists who believe a salesman is your best friend whose utmost desire is to help you make the right choice.
I am sorry but while he looks into your eye with the dedication of a German shepherd dog, he can’t wait for you to get lost, so that he can continue reading his book while chewing on his sandwich.
Don’t forget to tell me if you want more of Fedotov’s satire. Or, alternatively, cry out, “show us something inspiringly optimistic!” I need to know, even if I don’t comply with the latter.