We’ve had them for years. I see them everyday, but never grow weary of them. They are especially helpful in January when weather for such excursions seems as if it will never roll round again.
They are entirely fanciful, full of play. I am almost certain that the artist never witnessed what he’s depicted, not in his real breathing life. Still, there is something true about them. Or it might be more accurate to say that they express something true, a sense of what it is like to wander near the sea in open spaces, the air clean and salty, some mix of remembered experience and imagination that brings us pleasure.
The famous Wordsworth dictum that poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility” comes to mind. Attractive as I find those Vettriano prints, I think that if I were ever to find myself magically transported to either scene, I wouldn’t like it much. Too much wind and rain in the first. You can tell by the way the maid is trying to keep her cap in place. And in the second, if it is the next day, the likelihood is that we’re up early because we couldn’t sleep in. Too much champagne? We’ve made romantic errors? We’re worried about the family at home? So the prints, like a Wordsworth poem, are not intended to reproduce experience, but to fancifully, playfully, represent something essential about it, and at a distance.
The prints mean that I don’t have to join those dancing, umbrella-carrying figures, not in my own breathing life. And in my own fanciful view of them, I can siphon off all that I know might be unpleasant about that beach. I can squeeze from memory and imagination, from perhaps emotion recollected in tranquility, the pleasure I desire and the pleasure alone, distilled, free of real life complications. Which might be to say that I can enjoy the atmosphere of the scenes in itself. Vettriano has done that for me.
Epicurus teaches that the purpose of life is the pursuit of pleasure and beauty. Henry David Thoreau, in a noteworthy and, I believe underappreciated passage in Walden, claims that “children, who play life, discern its true law and relations more clearly than men, who fail to live it worthily, but who think that they are wiser by experience, that is, by failure.” Sometimes Thoreau can be a curmudgeon as he demonstrates in the second portion of that sentence. The first part, to my mind, is remarkable for it suggests, with Epicurus, that play is our raison d’etre.
At the insistence of my intelligent and interesting son, I am currently reading J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’m a little old for such an adventure, I think, but despite my own tendencies toward the curmudgeonly, I am enjoying my treasure quest with Bilbo Baggins and that troop of dwarves. But, as with the prints on my wall, the journey through the pitchy Mirkwood is not one I want to take in my literal breathing life. Like most, I think, I have an aversion to goblins and giant spiders and that is to say that I, like Bilbo, prefer my Hobbit hole: my warm bed, and my full larder to physical hardship, however adventuresome and romantic.
I will finish the book partly because reading about those fierce creatures is, of course, quite different from having to face them myself. This is an instance of having my cake and eating it, too, I believe. I can sit secure in my Hobbit hole in my breathing life, while another part of me can strike out into a wintry unknown rife with terrifying danger. I have the luxury of having to deal with neither the wind and rain on the dance beach nor the dragons and trolls.
As children, we entangle ourselves in games: sandlot baseball, checkers, hide and seek, and countless others of our own private devising, nameless engagements indulged in with others and on our own. Adults call this play and, taking our cue from them, we do too and later we come to devalue those experiences in favor of something called work. But it is to play we are drawn all our lives, however guiltily, and that play has such magnetism for us ought to be taken as a sign that our grown up assessment might be mistaken. We might look at it this way: play is deeply serious without being consequential while work, full of consequence, is so often trivial.
To look at pictures, read poems and stories, to listen to music and dance, to visit with family and friends, to swing our golf clubs, raise flowers, go fishing or ice skating, what is all that but play? It is all vastly pleasurable, intensely serious, and gloriously without purpose, a delightful waste of time.
The figures in the picture dance as did Vettriano when he painted them, as does Tolkien when he makes a Hobbit, as do we all when we have the great good fortune to set aside for a moment our getting and spending, and attend to, as Epicurus says, the pursuit of beauty and pleasure.
My own dancing can be found at