In fourth period (Art Appreciation), Mr. Dunfry casually mentions that an X-ray of a 16th century Italian painting of Jesus revealed a man dressed in Renaissance clothing painted underneath. This gets our attention; we ask, “Does that mean that Jesus was, at heart, un uomo universale?” Dunfry says, “I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Have other paintings been X-rayed?” we ask. Dunfry shrugs and says, sure, some have; it wasn’t all that uncommon for painters to paint over old canvases, and now restorers sometimes notice that blah blah blah. Is it any wonder we don’t pay attention to him? So we interrupt: “Why has no one told us this before?” we all cry.
Dunfry tells us another example: the Arnolfini wedding portrait that we went over last week was also X-rayed, and the scan showed the subjects’ feet were sketched in one position, painted in a second position, and then this was painted over in a third position. “Show us!” we demand. He finds it on the computer, and we are startled to see that when all three sets of feet are looped, the Arnolfinis are doing the Foxtrot. “Was Jan Van Eyck the palimpsest for Arthur Murray?” we want to know. “OK, that’s enough,” Dunfry says, alarmed by our shouting. But this is pretty much how it starts. We all become obsessed with Pentimento.
By happy accident, Andrew Hunt has gotten second place at the science fair for a working infra-red spectrometer and we commandeer this (over his protests); we head to the school’s library, find a big reference book of famous paintings and put it to work (we know: it shouldn’t work but it does; don’t question). We scan a print of Picasso’s “Old Guitarist” and find the image of a woman behind him. Is it supposed to be Melpomene? Or is it just the person that the guitarist is singing is about? Did they break up? Is this the guy who wrote “I Know It’s Over” for The Smiths? That song is SAD. (And he kind of looks like Morrissey.)
Further scans reveal:
(1) Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” originally depicted just one sunflower and a ton of baby’s breath;
(2) The guy in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” originally had glasses, a pitchfork and was standing next to the “American Gothic” lady (who was also screaming, N.B.);
(3) the appearance of the Mona Lisa’s smile was originally a result of the shadowing as opposed to the shadowing being a result of the smile (also: no bra);
(4) “Whistler’s Mother” started off life as “Whistler’s Father” (if you get what we’re saying).
Mr. Dunfry finally tracks us down and threatens us all with Saturday detention if we don’t give the spectrometer back (you only got second place, so get over yourself, Andrew Hunt). “Please!” we tell him, “One more!” and before he can say anything we point the spectrometer at him.
The scan shows beneath that he used to not have a beard, that he grew it to conceal malocclusion; that when he was little he wanted to grow up to be Ricky Nelson (which, who?); that his heart was broken early and he never really loved again (though he is married, N.B.); that he wanted to be a painter himself but could not overcome the fear of failure; that as each new year arrives, he thinks he could still have made a go of it the previous year, but this year it really is too late; that he plans to give everyone in fourth period a B.
(Looking at him with the spectrometer, it occurs to some of us, is like the opposite of when he puts a whole stack of transparencies on the overhead and then removes them one by one until he gets to the one he wants and the chaos resolves itself into words: it is totally our favorite trick of his.)
Dunfry is quiet as we do this: each underpainting influences in some way the next layer and we are all like the onion metaphor in Peer Gynt (we are reading this in AP English), each layer of paint nudging the next layer of paint one way or another until the mammoth commune of neurotransmissions gets complex enough to be a “soul”. We are not supposed to talk about religion in school (due to the separation of Church and State) but that is what it is, right? But like we said: Dunfry is quiet. But then Dunfry looks like he is about to not be quiet; he is about to say something about what the implications of this might be, but then the bell that ends fourth period rings, and we all literally scream our heads off and run into the cafeteria.
Today is pizza day.