The Poet's Princess

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The enigma variations

Who could define beauty? Synonyms touch it without cutting into it. We may grasp beauty through its bond with perfection. As it seems, this is an individual, intransigent impression. And yet, beauty is a shared phenomenon. This I realised at Sotheby’s auctions in London. Those works of art that I cherished and hoped to acquire for a sum I could afford, were equally attractive to the others. The dainty mother-of-pearl fairness of the Victorian beauties, the creamy transparency of their oval faces, their somnambulant glance, the delicacy of their hands, clasping the lily of their virtue, were lost for me who could not pay enough to compete for them.

I tried the impossible to hide my craving for them. Like a cat playing with a mouse, I walked along in front of my chosen beauties, feigning indifference, fixing my regard in the void, snubbing the slightest sign of interest others offered to my coveted treasures.

‘Well, if your taste is low enough as to admire this appalling Victorian kitsch, help yourself!’

How I wished to begrime the paintings with another layer of dust, to return them to their mouldy attics, to be the only one capable to track the immaculate radiance of my bygone beauties under the fly specks. With what sophisticated cunning did I toy with the idea of winning them for me!

On the day of the auction, lost in the motley crowd of Sotheby’s habitués, art-dealers, speculators, hunters of beauty and its platonic admirers, I settled down on a brocade chair biding its time for the next auction. I selected it for its elegance in order to signal to my Victorian ladies that they can fearlessly fall into my arms.

I spied on the sloppy gestures of Sotheby’s assistants. I was appalled to see their paws touching the frail frames with the same crudeness they would have handled thickset crates. When their turn came and, like doves from a magician’s hat, my beauties appeared on the pulpit, I blushed with shame. I shall never reconcile myself to the fact that art can be an object of haggling.

Here I am, siding with the guilty, trying to stop myself from raising my hand, yet wanting my share of the spoils and realising that, through my non-interference, I shall lose out on my chance of protecting art against the profane. Thus, with the best intention, I finally took part in the sales. A fact that makes me grasp the distress of a statesman faced with the choice of renouncing on his principles or failing in his responsibility to those whose interests he has to protect.

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