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Frame by Frame

Spanning realms of awareness, the party goes on

MOUNT HOLYOKE COLLEGE ART MUSEUM

SOUTH HADLEY - The excellent little museum at Mount Holyoke bought this Dutch painting by Hendrick Sorgh (1606/11-1670) just a few weeks ago. It went on display at the museum for the first time last week.

It shows, as the title helpfully explains, a bunch of peasants making merry in a barn. Some are playing cards. Others are looking on as they drink or smoke. One - really the hero of the picture, to my way of thinking - is falling asleep.

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What’s he thinking about?

Embarrassingly, I look at the picture and can’t stop playing back in my head a song by U2: “We ate the food. We drank the wine. Everybody having a good time. Except you. You were talking about the end of the world.’’

Admittedly, that skittish, anorexic, very 1990s sentiment - call it “world’s-endism’’ - really has nothing to do with this picture. Or with our sleeping hero.

After all, there’s a faint smile on his 17th-century lips. He’s probably nicely drunk, physically exhausted, his thoughts blurred and sweetly haloed, his world reassuringly unchanged. Unlikely to change.

You try to enter into his thoughts, his dreams, and time drags and billows. It’s elastic.

But in Sorgh’s picture, there’s a distinct contrast between him, and his companion, also in the foreground, who leans back on his chair and seems to occupy a much tighter, sharper, more fleeting pocket of time. There’s a precariousness about him: the foot on the low table; his awkward hold on his full glass of beer; the fleeting expression on his face as he blows out smoke.

He represents a sharpened consciousness which some associate with the act of smoking and which finds its equivalents across the whole foreground of the picture: in the dagger that dangles from his belt; and in extraordinary details like the air bubble in the glass that holds his beer, the chip in the ceramic bowl that holds the hot coals that warm his feet, and the exquisitely fine textures of the straw hat and the wicker basket over on the right.

His dozing friend, by contrast, has a looser, dream-slow quality about him which finds its equivalent in the sketchy, monochromatic rendering of the background.

So these two different visual registers - one precise, exquisitely colored, and detailed; the other sketchy, blurred, brown - suggest two modes of being.

For some reason, as I said, I identify most easily with the man falling asleep. But what I find incredible, and poignant, is that three and a half centuries later, the card game, the party, goes on - as it must - even with half the deck missing, the cards scattered wantonly on the floor.

The end of the world no closer perhaps (or is it?). Everybody having a good time.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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