Fêtes and Folly: The Tea Party

7:00 AM

Andrei Ryabushkin, The Tea Party, 1903
Me, circa 2013.

A tea party? Count me in! It's all fun and games until someone sees the severed human heads in the background. Actually, wait. They probably haven't even noticed. By "they," of course, I mean the fearsome foursome lined up at the table, looking like clowns in their obscenely pretty clothes. The brightness is nauseating, like the guests' frostbite, which brings out the dullness of their eyes. The table is laden with simple yet sacred food: Fish and bread. Nobody is eating. (When I discovered this painting, I was overcome first by a sort of thrill at the perfidy of it all, followed by an uncanny familiarity. Lunch on the eating disorder unit had a similar vibe.) Many paintings are conducive to laughter. Others inspire the urge to vomit. But few can produce these two effects in tandem. What's going on here?

Here's how I see it. This posse of relatively moneyed hooligans is rolling through a poor neighborhood when some emergency-- perhaps an ambush, considering the heads-- forces them to take cover in a local eatery. They both ignore and are actively disgusted by the wealth discrepancy, which terrifies them even more than the commotion outside. In avoiding the food they are served, our guests assert their perceived superiority while simultaneously resisting the "truths" of excess and poverty, including that undeniable wholesomeness-- here, a holiness-- which accompanies subsistence at its most basic level. Every member of our fearsome foursome deals with their discomfort in a unique way. The man on the far left is pretending that nothing is wrong. His face exudes an expert blend of self-assurance and exhaustion. To his right sits a man with splendiferous hair, who wears a curiously bashful expression. Perhaps he envies the first man's composure. Personally, I think he is smitten with the man in blue. (After all, while a smidge of anxiety helps us disguise ourselves, fear is self-revealing.) The woman on the right is peeved not only by her spectacular out-of-place-ness but also by her husband's homoerotic tendencies. The crease in tablecloth accentuates their divide. And just look at that glare. Only the man on the far right responds sensibly to the whole predicament. He is drinking his troubles away.

Beside the individuality of each facial expression, my favorite aspect of this composition is that it has no true center. After escaping the woman's death-stare, my gaze tumbles down her shoulder and gradually descents the line of the tablecloth, where it must then find a new face to keep from falling off the painting. The constant motion inherent in this arrangement mimics the discomfort Ryabushkin creates in his depiction of a wealth which seems absurd, nearly laughable, when juxtaposed with a lack thereof. We humans like to associate with those similar to us in order to feel normal. Ryabushkin's Tea Party pushes back against this tendency, revealing a truth, or at least a difference, that can't not be noticed.

*** Editor's Note: Students developed the topic of Fêtes and Folly to chronicle elegant celebrations, bad dates, late nights, or other things related to that time in Spring where barbaric yawps can be heard from backyards, beaches, or the more familiar rooftop. Enjoy their revelry, cheeky overstatement, and occasional tales of ribaldry over the next couple of weeks.

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