Beest in show
The gallery guides were dreading the staff meeting. “Do you think we are going to close?” said one. “Our takings are down. Digitisation and Virtual Reality have decimated visitor numbers. People can’t be bothered to view the original artworks.”
To their surprise the curator smiled as he entered. “Welcome to the launch of a scientific development that will revolutionise the world of original art. This liquid doesn’t just clean our precious works but penetrates beneath the surface to actually bring the subject to life.”
The technician started the demonstration by painting the solution onto a still life painting of flowers. Suddenly the blooms became silky to the touch and everyone stroked the petals in wonder. As more canvases were treated, the air was soon filled with the aroma of ripe fruit from Caravaggio”s basket. Next in line was Marel’s overturned vase and, when someone walked over to investigate the steady drip drip from the bottom of the ornate gold frame, paramedics had to be called to deal with a cut finger from the broken shards.
The staff spread out and experimented, running their fingers along a wickerwork basket or the smooth, curved surface of a pewter jug. Admittedly the dead fish, game and meat favoured by Dutch Golden Age practitioners rather lost their appeal when a sniff revealed how long they must have taken to be captured in paint. After a while people were asked to gather round a Rachel Ruysch painting of an arrangement of flowers. The painstaking attention to detail on every flower and petal was notable, but they only realised why this one had been singled out when a bee staggered out of a fulsome pink peony and buzzed around the room.
Excitement grew, for everyone knew about the 17th century fashion to include not only insects but also butterflies, tiny snails and even lizards in artists’ elaborate concoctions, and wondered which work would be up next. The curator, however, quietly sought out de Heem’s rendition of ‘A Richly Laid Table with Parrots’ and imagined the sound of the admission tills ringing between its squawks.