The Oak and the Reed

20 August 2013

An afternoon visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and, as has become habit, after walking up the steps and passing through the swivel door main entrance I immediately made for the first floor galleries. My first priority each time I visit is to find a small painting by Achille-Etna Michallon, ‘The Oak and the Reed’. Some paintings can be easily passed by but others have that special kind of magic that makes them leap from the wall and speak, and from the moment of our first meeting many years ago this one grabbed my attention.

Not a famous painting, nor on a grand scale and not painted by a well known artist it hangs quietly amongst others in a corner of the central gallery and could be easily overlooked. As I sat close by to enjoy its company today many visitors didn’t even give it a glance. Yet for me it is the most important and thought provoking in the collection.

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It was painted in 1816, is quite dark and relatively small at 43.5 x 53.5cm. A wind ravaged figure in the left side corner stands in shock beneath a tempestuous sky as a strong and sturdy oak is destroyed by an overpowering storm. In the foreground, reeds sway and bend with supple flexibility as the full force of nature vents its rage and fury on the scene.

Perhaps this work has become so important to me because, like a good friend, it whispered life affirming advice into my eyes at a time when my world was falling apart. Its simple message put me back on track after problems with depression had caused me to slip into a very deep and black hole. My work as a lecturer, once so enjoyable and rewarding, had over several years become increasingly demanding and had made me very ill. To paraphrase a Hungarian expression, “a béka segge alatt”, I was at the bottom of a coalmine, under a frog’s arse!

Life can be quiet and undemanding, it can also be difficult and devastating, who knows what might be hurled in our direction. It can be littered with ‘perhaps’, ‘might have beens’, ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’. There are demands and challenges to be faced, and we have to deal with them as best we can but sometimes even the strong can be broken. Perhaps the secret to resolving some challenging situations is not to stand one’s ground and risk being destroyed, but to bend and adapt.

Michallon is not a household name in the history of art. He isn’t mentioned in the Larousse Dictionary of Painters, The Oxford Companion of Art or the Penguin Dictionary of Art & Artists and he died very young, in 1822, of pneumonia aged only 25. To me however, thanks to the message he sent through oil paint and his brushes almost 200 years ago, he is a colossus.

As a teacher one of his students was the very well known Camille Corot, so perhaps there is something more to be learned here too. The teacher may not be the one that reaps success, but if he’s a good one, his students might. Today I have relished standing in the shadow of a quiet master whose teaching and advice is still alive. In my heart of hearts I’d really like to think my previous life as a teacher was worthwhile too.

For as long as I remember I’ve had an ongoing battle with a ‘black cloud’ but I certainly experienced some very dark days when my work as a lecturer triggered years of depression. If only I’d forged a relationship with this painting before my world in education began causing me problems things might have turned out very differently, I’ve been a casualty for too long. There is power in painting, one can learn much from it to inspire and enrich one’s life.

Perhaps, in my dark distant past, I was an unhealthy ‘oak’. Now, hopefully, I’m a much stronger ‘reed’.

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