A MONKEY AND THE PAINTING OF HORSES
Once a monkey took up the painting of horses. It felt good to get out with one’s brushes and spend a sunny afternoon in the company of these exemplars of natural beauty, watching them saunter gracefully about their pasture or abruptly gallop over the hill and back again in less time than it took to set up one’s easel. What joy it must be to possess such mastery! These rippling flanks, this sureness of hoof and stride, even the confidence with which the horses raised their heads and proudly whinnied their presence was exhilarating. Not to mention the colors. What a glorious range across the herd—and for some an equal range within their own coat! To the monkey’s mind, nothing else in all of creation embodied life’s power and beauty like a horse did. And painting them would put the monkey in touch with that power and that beauty in its own life, it confidently believed. So the monkey set to capturing the intensity of each moment, leaving until later any refinement into art. For these euphoric hours of daylight, it would let color, line, form, and motion run free in every brushstroke. To one horse after another it would open itself in turn until, deep within, it might come to know the full glory of all the herd combined. At sundown, the monkey gathered up what it had brought with it and headed back to the studio, still elated by the day’s experience. The anticipation of turning the immediate impressions into finished paintings made the return trip race by, as if the monkey had only to wish their completion for the studio to fill with masterworks inspired by the herd. But that night, after hours of unexpected false starts and increasingly frustrated daubs, the monkey stood bewildered in front of the one remaining unspoiled canvas, searching for some clue as to what had happened. From the beginning, the vitality of the sketches faded away with each successive brushstroke until it vanished completely beneath layers of stiff, uninspired technique. Once the paint dried, would the day’s transports at feeling in touch with the very essence of being alive also have hardened into nothing more than facile convention? Even the day’s sketches, now that the monkey examined them again closely, appeared to have lost much of their original vigor. Had this change happened since its return to the studio or were the colors already losing their forcefulness from the start? Had the monkey’s enthusiasm failed all along to capture the truth about horses? Had the horses themselves actually been quite different from what the monkey thought it saw in them? Consumed by these anxieties, the monkey grabbed brush and paint and raced out into the night, not stopping, not even to catch its breath, until it had reached again the field of horses. There they stood in the light of a crescent moon and the distant stars, their forms as vague as their now muted colors. The monkey moved silently in among them, hoping to get close enough to assure itself it hadn’t been wrong. Yet even though it succeeded in stepping right up to one flank after another, no farther away than the tips of its fingers, none of them matched what it remembered. In fact, each appeared quite different now. What had become of the taut muscles, the commanding hues—that match to the majestic qualities so evident earlier? It seemed the horses no longer stood for all they had in the daylight. What was happening here? If a horse didn’t measure up to being a “horse” regardless of the hour, what good was it to the monkey? Would some other creature have to be found to take over the role of representing everything the horses had? But what substitute in the entire world could prove so suited to that charge? The monkey decided it must act without another moment’s delay. Smearing a brush with every color remembered from the afternoon, it swung up onto the nearest horse before it could shy away, clamped both knees in the suddenly quaking sides, wrapped its long tail around its mount’s nose and pulled so hard a spot of blood showed in one nostril, then began to paint away at the twisted neck for all it was worth. Rearing and bucking against this strange assault, the horse looked back at the sweep of the brush across its coat with a surprise as deep as the determination in the eye of this rider it could not throw. For there in the dim moonlight, seized with confusion, the horse saw it was turning a shade it hardly knew. One that looked very much like the monkey’s own.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans