Back on 12/31, I made a rather half-hearted attempt to do a New Year's Eve-themed posting over on 404. Included among the images was the picture below by the American illustrator Amos Sewell (on the admittedly marginal premise that New Year's Eve is traditionally about parties and it looks like these folks are off to a party).
(Via ondiraiduveau's prodigious flickr collection of (mostly) 20th Century popular illustration.)
At first glance, this looks like the sort of amusing family tableau that one might have expected to see on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post* mid-last century (note the B&W TV). Attractive couple, dressed to the nines, leaving for a party, as their young son, about to be left with a babysitter or older sister, his hands covered in food, rushes to give his mother a goodbye hug.
Maybe. But the more I look at this picture, the more I find myself imagining less benign scenarios.
What do we see?
- The young boy with an absolutely panic-stricken demeanor, desperately reaching for his mother as if he knows that if he lets her escape, he will certainly never see her again.
- The mother, rather that appearing amused or gratified at her son's obvious love and attachment (or just concerned for her dress), seems instead to project a profound sadness, as if the necessity to hold him at a distance is intensely painful. Yet hold him at a distance (i.e., reject him) she does. Via a viscerally disturbing method that ensures a maximum amount of frustrating flailing on his part. It's almost as if she doesn't really want to do this, but knows, regrettably, she must.
- The babysitter/sister, while obviously having made no effort to prevent this situation, looks on with an expression of sad concern, as if she is aware of the darker currents that swirl ominously beneath the family's stylish exterior.**
- And then there's the father (making no attempt to help his wife). While you might expect him to look on with a certain bemused affection, what I see instead is annoyance and impatience. Not an ounce of empathy for either his wife or his son. He's got a party to get to. Important people waiting. He paid a fortune for that dress and if that snot-nosed little brat gets food on it, there'll be hell to pay. He never wanted a fucking kid in the first place, but it's the 1950s and if you don't have a family, you're looked upon with social and career-destroying suspicion. And his wife knows it. Her job is to show up and be pretty. All he wants to do is turn that doorknob, open that door, and get the fuck out of there.
* After having written this, but before posting, I went looking for a link to more info about Amos Sewell. And what do you know? This illustration did, in fact, appear on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post of September 27, 1957 (the year before Edward Albee wrote his first play). How subversive of them.
** It's hard to imagine that I'd ever actually write a phrase like "darker currents that swirl ominously beneath the family's stylish exterior." But there you go. (Luckily, I don't believe in an afterlife, so the fear of an eternity in hell is not a concern.)