Four Brass Lions Sept. 4, 2013
Two days ago, Labor Day, Hannah and I rode our bikes the six easy miles to Vienna on errands, and to shop the junk stores for Christmas presents. It was a warm day, and we stopped where the trail crosses Maple and went to the nice little junk store on the corner there. In front, sitting in a chair and smoking a cigarette, was a short, fat, middle aged woman of vaguely Middle Eastern origin dressed in a loud shirt and black capri pants, and she welcomed us in with much bonhomie.
Perhaps it is not fair to call it a junk store per se, for the objects varied widely in quality and taste, and most were overpriced and then impressively discounted; and we soon found that the price would appear to drop even more precipitously when we showed interest and then hesitated. I am a haggler of no skill whatsoever, but sometimes just dithering gets me discounts I had not expected. The objects offered were a chaotic hash of cheap art, decorative objects, rugs and furniture, with glassware and ceramics in precarious standing cases. All prices had been 'slashed' for Labor Day. We stopped in front of a very nice carved Chinese folding desk and opened it up, noting the asking price of $1400, and the lady instantly rushed up and bargained herself down to $700 in quick decrements. We didn't feel that prosperous right now though it is the kind of thing we have liked in the past.
While wandering I was intrigued by a grimy brass vase, of the kind of general style I remembered from living in Lahore several years in my grade-school days. On its sides was a frieze of animals, clearly handmade, in bas-relief, jamming the whole bulging middle section. There were two lions, fierce and terrible, and a number of ruminants – goats, antelope and so forth, all seeming to writhe and run on the black background. I walked around holding it and browsing, and I realized that this object, unlike anything else in the store, possessed, at least for me, the Japanese qualities they call wabi – a 'loneliness in nature', a bleakness – and also sabi – the quality of being aged and worn, rusty or covered with the patina of time. There was no attempt, in this frieze, to ingratiate the onlooker with anything indicating man's dominion, or symbolic of civilization, except for a small set of arched buildings, crowded into the trees and mountains briefly sketched near the top, which could perhaps indicate hunting lodges of Mughal emperors, or possible the huts of Buddhist hermits.
When the lady saw me holding the vase, she said, “There's another one!” and she hunted around until she found it. I wondered if it would be a nearly identical unit, and was amazed to see that it was clearly meant to be a companion piece, by the same artist and with the exact same motif – two lions and several fleeing ruminants, and the little buildings and so forth – and yet every animal was unique and different in posture and placement. The artist had repeated his work of art, but had carefully varied every part of it, so that the viewer's eye wanders endlessly among the details of wildness and wilderness, searching for the abstract, for identities and correspondences, and never finding them.
So I bought them without arguing, at the Labor Day discount price, (still not cheap, in my scale – but, Hannah said, “You never ask for anything, so you must have them) and took them home. Soon I found, using a magnet, that they were real brass, not plated, and I cleaned them with white vinegar and a stiff plastic brush, and a mild scrubby-sponge. They emerged after a couple of hours with most of the sabi-patina and considerable dirt washed off; the black areas between the animals turned out to be completely stippled with extremely fine textured details. And here are the four brass lions for you to admire:
Now perhaps I should try to find out something of their country of origin; but it hardly matters to me; they've taken their place as totemic objects around the house. Most of my other totems are just pretty stones I found in the mountains, or odd little things from my youth. I still have a poor-quality “bowie knife” that I had to have when I was about 13, and I still keep it sharp and useful, battered and beat-up though it is. It is clearly both wabi and sabi; it might as well be the the blade Tarzan found in the cottage with his parents' bones, that he kept ever afterward. (The knife, not the bones!)
At that same time we bought, as part of a package deal, a weirdly elegant 3-ball light fixture that Hannah liked, which the lady devalued several times as we hemmed and hawed. It is neither wabi nor sabi, but it may serve very well as the Sign of the Three Balls Tavern in Brackney.