Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Fire that Was, but also Wasn’t

Every color in the garden speaks, and if one listens closely enough, one hears dramatic stories.

Some colors, of course, announce themselves with reckless abandon (Rose Mallow tends toward this extreme when in full bloom, though her stylish couture belies the fervency of her speech; but somehow we need and welcome her in the torpid height of summer). 

Others prefer to converse in whisper (lavender, so ethereal, prefers, I think, her understated elegance; she converses not primarily through vocalization but through scent).

Reds tend to be associated with the former category, for obvious reasons. But remarkably red, if used in particular sorts of ways, can actually mollify.

The fire that was, but also wasn't: fortunately I write of a metaphoric fire, to the blazing Burning Bush which, for the first time in residence at 410, has offered the fieriness its name promises. In a mere 4 days, Burning Bush shed its green-burgundy hue and bled a hellacious red.

Burning Bush usually conquers the autumn landscape. When situated in grand spaces, in groups and without attendant competition, Burning Bush makes a majestic statement. Along the Interstate 95 corridor in Delaware, one sees clumps of Burning Bush in the median between northbound and southbound lanes: and the effect is sublimely wondrous (no doubt placement was planned: for as with the the masses of forsythia in the spring, drivers slow down to absorb the display).  
Perhaps surprisingly, then, Burning Bush, when set against a tapestry of greens, purples, violets, and other reds, is subdued. Depending on its hue, and depending on the garden scape within which it is set, Burning Bush’s repertoire changes. 

It may perform the magisterial bass in the autumn garden opera, the weighty authority figure lamenting the declining kingdom or the high priest issuing last rites for those over whom it once presided.

Or it may become the baritonal villain: dominating the somber autumn garden opera since the gardener has, wittingly or unwittingly, not written into script the myriad of others who make the opera the dialogue it is supposed to be.

Or it may perform the tenor, the illustrious romantic lead who sings a dramatic climax in the company of his lover(s), or seeps into emotive, gut-wrenching soliloquy when the love object passes. I use Burning Bush in singular, dramatic dose. He is the tenor in my opera; but I temper his effects by filtering out his color throughout the garden. The Tall Purpletop Verbena exposes his purple undertones, while Euphorbia echoes his blushing burgundy, and the dahlias, my many sopranos, mirror the richness of his love.

This interplay and diffusion of red is best captured, I think, by Henri Matisse: his
The Red Studio (1911), on display at MoMa in New York and The Red Room (1908), on view at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, in particular portray red as the complex character it is. Red becomes but a background, establishes itself as a stage, and fades into itself: at once the necessary focal point, at once subdued, for other colors perform the work we usually attribute to red. But absent red, those other colors would fail to excite, and the paintings would be dull representations of themselves. Matisse intuited this, and gave us placated drama instead. The red in The Red Studio is a burnt, muted color, a one-dimensional caricature that, instead of instigating passion and artistry, simply feeds into itself, permitting the art and the objects within the studio to lift off the page and float in a mysterious space we want to be a room but may simply reflect the cerebral space of Matisse himself.

The Red Room (one of my favorite paintings) offers a study in contrast and complement. The green garden space, framed so beautifully by the window (or, we are compelled to ask, is it a painting of a garden?) soothes the eye, just as the flowers and vines on the walls and table cloth pull out the blue undertones of the red, thus subduing its harsher and titillating effects.  

Such is how I read red in the gardens at 410. Burning Bush commands this last act: he is the tenor belting out his principal aria in the moments before death. Yet Burning Bush also retreats back into itself and into the garden. And in the rear shade garden, the Oak Leaf Hydrangea, now a stunning shade of burgundy, somehow only becomes itself in the company of others. 

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