There is a painting that has been hanging above the sink in my mother’s bathroom for as long as I can remember. Actually, it’s a replica. A print. A photograph of a painting.
In the print of the photo of the painting, a young woman looks out of a window. She wears a loose, white blouse with a matching skirt trimmed with pale blue. Her hair is brown, falling in three curls around the base of her neck. The curtains are old and translucent and the windows are open. In the reflection of the windowpane, there are other houses, with white stucco walls and red-tiled roofs. A harbor lies beyond, with a single sailboat along the coast of the opposite shoreline.
The painting is called Figure at a window (Figura en una finestra) by the Spanish painter, Salvador Dalí.
I grew up looking at this painting without any language to describe what I was seeing. The word “surrealism” now comes to mind, but I struggle to imagine what that would have meant to me when I was three, or eight or 11. The word “voyeurism” also comes to mind, but that too is a relatively recent addition to my vocabulary.
There is chaos in anonymity. We do not know who this girl is. She cannot see us and we cannot see her face. A romantic might say that through her we are all able to watch the sunlight play across the water. A pessimist might say that the male gaze tends not to linger on bodies of water. I myself can only say that as a child I found the painting incredibly sad.
The Belgian surrealist René Magritte has said plainly enough that there is chaos (and, yes, treachery) in images. For me, there is no painting more emblematic of this than Dalí’s Figura en una finestra.
Because for most of my life, I happened to believe that it was a painting of my mother.
Looking at it now, of course, I realize that this is impossible. My mother has light, wavy hair and she did not wear blousy shifts as a young woman. In fact, the woman in the painting is not entirely human — her hair has a fractal-like quality, like spiral seashells. But again, as a small child, the subtle chaos of surrealism was entirely lost on me. I assumed without question that my mother and the woman in her bathroom were one and the same.
You can imagine my astonishment when, years later, I was flipping through a tome of Dalí’s work at Moe’s Books and I came across my mother’s image. My first thought was: “My god, when did my mother have the time to do a sitting for Salvador Dalí before he died?” My second thought was: “My god, my mother has an original Salvador Dalí, we need to get it insured!”
It didn’t take me long to realize the truth, of course, but to this day some part of me is still not entirely convinced. A part of me still believes that if the woman in the painting turned around, she would have my mother’s face. The Dalí painting and the image I have of my mother in my head have begun to shape one another.
By which I mean — the clearest image I have of my mother is her sitting by a window. It is late February in California, and she is in a hotel room at the Berkeley City Club, with its old keyholes and large, iron-framed windowpanes. My mother’s hair is not brown, but it is shoulder-length. I cannot see her face because she is looking out the window at the Bay Bridge, the Golden Gate and the choppy water in between.
For a while, I felt guilty about confusing my mother with a faceless woman in a Spanish painting — a surreal creation. But as it turns out, my mother is actually quite fond of surrealists. As a young woman, she cut her hair very short and started wearing tiny men’s suits like Frida Kahlo. There is a print of Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pomme hanging in her room. Our house is scattered with small, colorful objects — painted animals, empty vases, burning hearts — from her travels in Central America, North Africa and Eastern Europe (immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union).
My mother taught me how to love art. She taught me to look for detail, to hold space for emotional impact, to decide for myself what feels beautiful. But more than that, my mother taught me that images change. Paintings and photographs may stand still but we do not. The things we attach to images, the things we expect from them, the things we hope to see — in essence, everything we bring to the table when we look at a piece of art — are subject to change. My mother taught me to sit with chaos, to interpret it, to drive a nail into the wall and hang it above the sink in the bathroom.