Seoul, Korea, July 2009
An exhibition of the paintings of
“The artist who never painted tragedies.”
Rosy cheeks, chubby limbs, flowered frocks:
“A picture has to be
Pleasant, delightful.” The man himself declared.
No potato-eating farmers, no soldiers,
No arrow-pierced Sebastians,
No gaunt Saint John in camels’ hair.
His nudes are milkmaids, sweet girls,
Not images of Venus or Diana, or St. Agnes,
Or Catherine martyred on her wheel.
A small group of us went to see his works.
We were a bit distracted, trying to remember
What the building looked like the last time we were in it
Thirty years ago and some,
Before the place was gutted and the old Supreme Court building
Morphed into a museum of art.
The stone façade, forbidding then,
Is draped in banners, now,
Of golden-haired French children
And jeune filles in their flowered gowns.
Through that once awesome entrance,
Our little group went one April morning
To attend a solemn hearing:
Death sentences passed upon eight men
At a very questionable military trial six months before
Were to be reviewed that day;
Revoked, perhaps, reduced
Or possibly confirmed.
The courtroom filled with family members.
In due time we stood, the judges,
Thirteen of them, paraded in
Sat in their high backed plush red chairs.
A short statement, read aloud,
Confirmed eight sentences of death.
Later in the day, the state-controlled
Communications, press, radio and television,
Told the world the news.
One T.V. station, D.B.S., Renoir-like
Sanitized the situation thus:
With a thirty-second voiceover,
The camera scanned women weeping silently,
As they had before the judges entered.
It ended with the close-up of a priest,
Renoir, who never painted tragedies,
Would have approved the editing.
Truth was that pandemonium erupted;
The eight women and the priest
Along with many others stood up and shouted
Their disapproval of the verdict.
A goon squad of plainclothesmen rushed in.
They cleared the room,
Forcing all down four flights of stairs.
Thirty four years later
There isn’t any dark back staircase anymore,
Large glass wall panels welcome in the sun,
The walls are bright and high,
Fit for hanging paintings.
Eight men were hanged at dawn,
Just eighteen hours after the reading of the verdict.
Wide hallways now, and well-lit landings,
A spacious, incandescent place for art.
But about the visitors today,
The widows and the priest,
There hangs an aura of discomfort,
Disorientation, as they view the works
“Pleasant and delightful”
As Renoir had wanted life to seem.