? SLAB | Sound & Literary Art Book

Issue 5

Creative Nonfiction

William Siavelis

The Time That Uncle Tom Died

Squinting into the hazy light, I walked out of the David Hockney portrait exhibition. The sun pitched tentative shadows on the museum plaza. Castaway in the artist’s world, I’d studied the line of his pen drawings, his brushstrokes, and his flat expanses of blues and greens, the backdrop to his figures of his family, friends, and lovers.

Later, at lunch, I watched my father as he, my mother, my husband, and I ate at a coffee shop. His milky brown eyes peered out of small openings; his gray hair stood up in wild waves. As he lifted the overstuffed steak sandwich to his mouth, his hands shook. A piece of onion fell from the roll, smearing the napkin at his collar. “I know, Gayle, I know, give me a minute,” he’d said to my mother when we’d sat down, and she’d reminded him to place the napkin over his chest.

“Mom,” I said when we were alone, “Go easier on him. He’s almost eighty-five, and his tremor’s worse.”

“I know, Hilary,” she said, “but if he doesn’t cover himself, no one will eat with him.”

I said no more.

I knew that she was right. But I couldn’t help remembering him as I saw him as a child: tall, large, his eyes sharp, and his voice commanding. Now, when he’s tired, he slurs his words, a reminder of throat cancer surgery. “I was always afraid of your father,” a friend told me recently.

Even before watching Bruno Wolheim’s documentary, David Hockney: Double Portrait, I’d read Hockney’s subtext in Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy, a painting of a married couple at odds. A full-length shuttered window divides the canvas in half. Ossie, the husband, poses on the right before the open side of the window, his wife, on the left, before the closed side. Through the window, a stone balustrade of a second story balcony and trees in full leaf. Long haired and dressed in shades of green, Ossie sits with parted legs, at an angle to the painter, his cat on his lap. Celia, wearing a dark purple robe, stands. Her loose blond, pre-Raphaelite curls frame her soft face. Her eyes lock with ours.

From beneath his brows, Ossie’s gaze hints at mystery, flirtation perhaps, or even a kind of dare.

Celia’s more frontal, direct gaze suggests resignation, even annoyance. Though her head’s slight tilt
down may indicate demureness, her stance—akimbo—seems to betray irritation or determination.

Does Hockney’s portrait capture the essence of Celia and Ossie’s relationship at a specific moment, or did he sense its nature and pose them to embody his vision of them?

The space between Celia and Ossie interests me. The space between. The space. Between. People. In another work, Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, Hockney seated Henry, the famed curator, in the center of a long pink divan, his head barely extending above its arched middle. Henry’s girth and the pull of his vest across his belly create a strong horizontal element, emphasizing his permanence. In contrast, his partner, Christopher, a slight man, stands like a ghost at one side.

Maybe the physical distance between the lovers signifies the existence of an intimate connection and, at the same time, an emotional gulf. Maybe it symbolizes the intrinsic challenge of individuals forming a couple.

I think of my parents. How would Hockney portray them?

They sit in their den. Each stakes claim to a side of the room. My mother sits on the far end of a leather sofa, and rests her feet on the coffee table before her. She wears a tan sweater and brown woolen pants. Her head inclines as she scans the newspaper on her lap. At the other end of the room, my father sits, his back to a large paned window opening to a lawn of bare maple trees, his legs cross at the knees. Dressed in trousers and his favorite holey, mustard-colored sweater, which my mother will later discard, his hands fall onto the open book, face down on his lap, and poised to slide to the floor. He dozes, his head bobbing slightly with each breath. Dusk fills the room.

“Ralph,” my mother says. Looking up, she sees his closed eyes and hears his breathing. As she rises and walks behind him to close the curtains, he stirs, opening his eyes and closing them again. She returns to the sofa, reaches for the paper, lifts a pen, and resumes her crossword puzzle.

What lies between them? A rectangular room with a high arched and beamed ceiling, an oriental rug, and furniture—a sofa against the back wall, a coffee table in front of it, windows on three sides of the room, two chairs at either end, and a television cabinet across from the sofa.

What lies between them? Over fifty-five years of marriage, four children, six grandchildren, a daughter’s estrangement from and return to them, a son’s cruelty, their parents’ deaths, their children’s marriages and divorces, love, anger, illness, joy, sorrow, regret, deep caring, good fortune, unfulfilled hopes. Likely no different than others’ lives.

I imagine how Hockney would paint them. Perhaps it would not vary much from his portrait of his own parents inMy Parents, 1977. There they sit on either side of the canvas separated by an artist’s carrel in the center of the room against the wall. His mother faces forward, erect in her folding wooden chair, her hands folded on her lap. She looks straight ahead, her expression unblinking, her lips clamped together. Her eyes meet ours. His father sits, turning into the room at a forty-five degree angle. Seemingly oblivious to the portrait session, Mr. Hockney bows his head and reads the book on his lap. Mrs. Hockney’s engagement lies with her son, his with a private endeavor.

Maybe the angle of his chair—facing into the room but away from the painter—signifies an emotional inaccessibility. Then again, he is turned toward his wife. Maybe her direct gaze indicates that her primary intimacy lies with her son. Perhaps this portrait represents a map of the Hockneys’ lives together. Perhaps it reflects only a moment in time.

In the documentary, one of Hockney’s subjects noted that when he posed, the painter looked right into him, as a spy would. Another spoke of the artist’s ability to capture an aspect of the person when she is off-balance and to create a “psychological theater and kind of performance.” Still others remarked on his ability to expose the feelings between people, to capture the ambiguity in a relationship, and his relationship to his sitters.  

If the portraits are objective portrayals, they are still somehow tinged with the artist’s own subjectivity. Hockney, though not on the canvas, is present in the portrait. In the film, he confessed as much. When asked how much of a portrait was about a couple and how much about himself, he replied, “Most is probably me, isn’t it?”

His response cast doubt on his ability to observe and record objectively, and his inability to wipe himself from his canvas. But art is necessarily subjective. The photographer, Richard Avedon, is reported to have written to Jacques-Henri Lartigue after viewing his photographs, “Seeing them was for me like reading Proust for the first time. You brought me into your world, and isn’t that, after all, the purpose of art?”

What then of my parents?

Viewing the Hockney portraits caused me to “look at” my parents differently—to examine the physical space they occupy with respect to one another as well as the distance between them in an effort to examine their relationship. Unlike a painter, though, I am not confined to portraying a static, two-dimensional world. Writing allows me to describe movement and something more closely approximating three-dimensionality.
I mull over how I can “paint” them on the page. For certain, I’ve observed them in many moments in time. For certain, I’ve brought myself to the sitting as an observer, but also as their daughter. I want to create as objective a portrait as possible but know that it will be tinged with my feelings.
To me, their poses reveal their separateness but also their connectedness; they sit in the same room though they do not engage with one another. My father feels free enough to doze in my mother’s presence. My mother does not interrupt his nap to ask him to draw the curtains. They take comfort in one another’s presence, at least in the moment. Or, maybe, I misread them.

Consider my father’s napping as a conscious or unconscious disengagement from my mother—or, from me. Consider my mother choosing not to wake him because she prefers to spend the time alone—or, with me. Perhaps, these interpretations, too, miss the mark. Perhaps, they sit in the den in a position of stalemate, or of accommodation. I can’t know. I will never know.

I can’t know either how they sit in my absence, though I believe that their “poses” are habitual, with slight variations: that, in late afternoon, before my mother prepares dinner, they sit in the den. Together apart. Alone together.