I feel exhaustion from time to time when things do not go as smoothly as I presumed them to be, and that exhaustion might be coupled with weariness when in nervous anticipation of something bad afoot. It is principally a physical exhaustion that influences psychological listlessness. In paintings, exhaustion is not merely represented by whirls and swirls- a sensation I often clichely correlate to Hitchcock’s Vertigo- but it can also appear as a transient moment of rapture: when one is exhausted the head grows fuzzy, and gradually the body is levitated. Bearing in my mind now is a picture of a decadent beauty, made wearied by strings of engagements and courtships day and night, eyes constantly bleary and heavy-lidded. Exhaustion turns into sultriness, which is like wisps of smoke lingering in the air.
The Pre-Raphaelite beauty is one that seems invariably indolent and lackadaisical, weighed down by the labour of god-knows-what. One can only probe into the character’s mentality to discover what is really bothering her. In John Everett Millais’ Mariana (1851) it is obvious that worries and woes burden the heroine’s heart so, as made manifest by her positioning before the window, waiting presumably for the homecoming of her enamoured one. But as yet another day of disappoint goes by the impatience and anxiety of Mariana are revealed in her body language: stretching her back fitfully and wilted leaves scattering the room- the sign of long suffering that makes one bored and indifferent to the domestic matters that were once so indispensible. The painting is based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in which the heroine, amidst the excited preparation for her wedding, is cruelly rejected when her dowry is sunk together with a shipwreck. Mariana is not waiting for her beau but witnessing wearily the lost of her fortune and happiness.
If only exhaustion can transform into something more sublime, as mentioned earlier the levitation opens a pathway of communicating with God. It is not exactly exhaustion that Jules Bastien-Lepage, in his painting The Blind Beggar, depicts, but simply a poor blind boy begging for a morsel of food. It could be that the boy was taking his daily respite, seeing that his furry companion beside him is all consumed by slumber. Blindness can thus serve as a disguise which situates in the twilight zone between alertness and unconsciousness. In this case the blind boy is easily passed as a shaman- the one who boasts connection with God but not insentient of the pain and travails of human being.
The earthly beings need hardly to ennoble their indolence as a sublime asset, but some of them do not flinch from indulging themselves in protracted inactivity, lounging everywhere from the beach to the park, where everything is basked in the hazy sun and days are thus uneventfully frittered away. Gustave Courbet, a French realist who created some of the most horrific paintings I’ve ever seen, shows us such bourgeois delight in Les Demoiselles au bord de la Seine (1857). Those ladies in the painting dress rather elaborately. I wonder whether that impatient frown of the one in the back bespeaks her displeasure of having her ritzy get-up hidden under the shades of the thicket instead of admired by a band of suitors. Her friend is obviously more contented with the siesta, her hands caressing the wild plantation, and hogging the attention with her sultry gaze that seems more apt in a sleazy jazz club.
Exhaustion, weariness, indolence, listlessness, ennui… These emotions are like a sky free of clouds and other natural happenings. It is often when gazing at a sky like this- one with infinite clearness and cleanness- that I feel a lurking sense of apprehension. It is like waiting for a flash of thunderbolt that galvanizes every living thing under the firmament and incites the vigour that long lays dormant. And it is when, ultimately, extreme emotions erupt.