The Boy who Cried
Yesterday — listening to “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel and flitting through my computer — I inadvertently clicked on a folder which contained an image for which I had planned to write a short piece months earlier. What transfixes me most about the painting (whose artist is unknown) is not so much as its complicated and eerie history, but the mood of the subject-a crying toddler-and how this image extends its meaning to size into the context of modern anxieties. The art itself is plain enough, but is redolent with pain: the young toddler — ostensibly a three year old — stares directly into the eyes of whoever the looker is, his untidy locks fall softly unto his forehead, his eyes are glassed with tears, his infant face — chubby and unhappy — are stained with the falling tears. The boy himself was adopted from a Yorkshire orphanage in 1944 — a residence to which he belonged since his parents death in a fire when he was only a year old. The Spanish artist who painted the image approached the orphanage to adopt this boy and was warned by the women in charge not to do so as the boy was a “Fire starter” who could set things on fire without even touching them. This artist thought he seemed like an interesting child so he went on to adopt him either way. Two months into their relationship of father and son, he placed him on a stool one afternoon — when he thought the direction of sunlight was appropriate to make a good portrait — and started to make decisive strokes across the canvas. As he continued to paint, the little boy started to cry, not making a sound, but the tears rendering his mourning true as any other. The artist concluded the painting and hung it in the hallway of his studio, and like a trick of the paranormal, his studio and house burnt down three days later, killing the artist but not the boy. The boy walked away silently into the horizon, never looking back, never to be seen. In an uncanny twist of events, British police showed up at the scene of the fire and everything the artist owned had gone up in flames: his realms of paper, his materials, his rows of painting and sculpture now reduced to a heap of charred detritus. One thing remained however, the image of the crying child which lay in the rubble, unscathed, as though a fire never occurred. This story became the topic of local interest, and so the art institute of the district decided to take in the picture and display it in a museum. In the many years after that, the picture has been duplicated and distributed amongst many households in the UK, particularly in the working class areas of North England. What gave the portrait its unnerving air was this: There were a hundred and twenty cases reported in England in which houses were burnt to the ground but that same painting of the crying child remained.
Obsessed by this singular portrait and the uncanny story attached to it, I reached out to a research assistant in Watford via email and asked if they at the Building Research Establishment had ever consciously attempted to burn the image.
“Yes, the results were a little surprising” he wrote to me “a flame put immediately in front of the frame did set fire to a corner of the frame but only burnt around the outer edge of the child’s profile before petering out.”
The child remained, his image remained, and his memory persisted. Here was a visual representation of a toddler who still carried a pain from long ago, whose entrance could turn even the most boisterous gathering to a solemn assembly. This is a young boy who has made his agony ours as well. We are so often immersed in personal agenda that we forget the suffering of others, that others mourn too, and we ought to join them in that mourning. While researching on the painting, and parsing the many logical theories attributed to its resistance to fire, the now lost tranquillity of the boy was my immediate concern, I have been a child as well and I recognise that feeling of having no voice, what it is like to feel erased by those who have come before you. Staring at the picture yesterday — his tears frozen in time, his gaze locked on mine — I felt a sob rise in my chest: where is he now? Is he still burdened by a heavy past? In what form does he exist now?
The power of an image lies in its ability to turn our minds towards a different direction — or change our minds completely. What intensifies and brings about our emotional responses are pictorial compositions latent with the energies of its native concern. The image of a man lying dead in a lake is typical, but when the subject is replaced with a toddler who is still young enough to wear Velcro shoes, there is a shift in the emotional centre of the image. Objects sometimes carry pain with them, as do landscapes and architecture, but none is as large a repository of ache as the image of a child created into chromatic release, suffering a long ago depression, his little mind bearing the burden meant for a group.
The world today is a deeply divided place, we are gulfed on just about everything: religion, abortion, gun control, sexuality, immigration, public and Federal policy. The direct victims of the deepening divide are children — those who inadvertently, have been chosen to be young at a time when the world is in flames. We do not need a visual extension to recognise the pain of others. The interconnectedness of our lives permits us to lament in the pain of the next man — in the pain of the next child, who is forced to flee from airstrikes, forced to sleep in gas stations at night and forced to discontinue life when it never even begun. But more than anything (as idealistic as this may sound) I wish to live in a world where racist agendas are not validated, refugees are equated to the status of citizens and hate speech is not regarded a constitutional right.
And now here I am, exhausted from a night spent composing the article which I am writing (which you are reading). Time is at the interregnum between yesterday and today — on the threshold of daybreak. “The Sound of Silence” has been on heavy rotation for many hours. The air is cold — but then again the Air Conditioner is at its peak. I crouch over the desk in the corner, tapping at my keyboard. I feel so fatigued that it is as though I am watching myself from a distance. From my extended screen I catch a glimpse of the image from those many years ago. The child holds my gaze intently, stares at me, and watches me with those solemn sad eyes of his. Garfunkel’s voice continues to quiver in song, echoing through the room. I take my eyes off the portrait, but it does nothing to take away the feeling of being watched. From somewhere. Sounds. A crackle here. A whisper there. A slither across the marble floor. And as in a magician’s sleight of hand, I see the tears snake slowly down his cheeks, his brows appear to move. But I am sure that fatigue has forced my mind to play tricks on me, and so I leave the desk and lay on the living room couch, waiting for the blissfulness of dreams to arrive — where time and form ceases to exist. But as I close my eyes, the image is of a boy with tears stealing down his cheeks. I sit up straight, unable to drift off to sleep. I have inherited his pain. May you never be the mourner. May you never be the mourned.