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The Museum of Desire (A Short Story)

July 22, 2001|JOHN BERGER | John Berger is a novelist, storyteller, poet, screenwriter and art critic. He is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including "To the Wedding," the "Into their Labours" trilogy, "About Looking," "Ways of Seeing" and "G.," for which he won the Booker Prize

The house stands on one side of a square in which there are tall poplars. The house, built just before the French Revolution, is older than the trees. It contains a collection of furniture, paintings, porcelain, armor, which, for over a century, has been open to the public as a museum. The entry is free, there are no tickets, anybody can enter.

The rooms on the ground floor and up the grand staircase, on the first floor, are the same as they were when the famous collector first opened his house to the nation. As you walk through them, something of the 18th century settles lightly on your skin like powder. Like 18th-century talc.

Many of the paintings on display feature young women and shot game, both subjects testifying to the passion of pursuit. Every wall is covered with oil paintings hung close together. The outside walls are thick. No sound from the city outside penetrates.

In a small room on the ground floor, which was previously a stable for horses, and is now full of showcases of armor and muskets, I imagined I heard the sound of a horse blowing through its nostrils. Then I tried to imagine choosing and buying a horse. It must be like owning nothing else. Better than owning a painting. I also imagined stealing one. Perhaps it would have been more complicated, if one kept the horse, than adultery? Commonplace questions to which we'll never know the answer. Meanwhile I wandered from gallery to gallery.

A chandelier in painted porcelain, the candles held aloft by an elephant's trunk, the elephant wearing green, the porcelain made and painted in the royal factory in Sevres, first bought by Madame Pompadour. Absolute monarchy meant that every creature in the world was a potential servant, and one of the most persistent services demanded was Decoration.

At the other end of the same gallery was a bedroom commode which belonged to Louis XV. The inlay is in rosewood, the rococo decorations in polished bronze. Unthinkingly I laid my notebook on it. The gallery attendant politely picked it up and handed it back to me, shaking his head.

Most of the visitors, like me, were foreigners, more elderly than young, and all of them slightly on tiptoe, hoping to find something indiscreet. Such museums turn everyone into inquisitive gossips with long noses. If we dared, and could, we'd look into every drawer.

In the Dutch part of the collection, we passed drunken peasants, a. woman reading a letter, a birthday party, a brothel scene, a Rembrandt, and a canvas by one of his pupils. The latter intrigued me immediately. I moved on and then quickly came back to look at it several times.

This pupil of Rembrandt was called Wilhem Drost. He was probably born in Leyden. In the Louvre in Paris there is a Bathsheba painted by him which echoes Rembrandt's painting of the same subject painted in the same year. Little else today is known about him.

The canvas that intrigued me showed a woman, three-quarter face, looking slightly to her right, toward the spectator. She was about 30 years old, she wore a hair clip decorated with tiny pearls in her swept-up hair, and a decollete and dark dress, which her right hand was touching lightly under her right breast.

I decided to do a drawing of her in my notebook. A poor drawing, even if it caught a little of her expression. It allowed me, however, to take something tangible away with me. There were no photographs available, and I did not want her expression, her posture, above all her message, to be lost in some vague generalization. Perhaps she had never been more herself than at the moment when she sat for and inspired this portrait. The poor drawing is here on the table now as I write.

The painted portrait plays a trick, one of the oldest in the world. (Bathsheba was obliged to play it: the trick of appearing to address a stranger, while thinking of somebody else.) For an instant the spectator may suppose that the gestures and smile of the woman in Amsterdam are addressed to him. Yet obviously this is not the case.

She was not looking at any spectator. She was looking hard at a man she desired, imagining him as her lover. And this man could only have been Drost. The only thing we know for certain about Drost is that he was desired precisely by this woman.

I made the drawing, not only because I was thinking of Drost's story, but also because I was reminded of something of which one is not usually reminded in museums. To be so desired--if the desire is also reciprocal--renders the one who is desired fearless. No suit of armor from the galleries downstairs ever offered, when worn, a comparable sense of protection. To be desired is perhaps the closest anybody can reach in this life to feeling immortal.

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