Treacly Piety

I’m about 12 months behind in reading through my stack of The New Yorker‘s. It’s interesting to read what was happening a year ago as the election was taking place and the economy was spiraling out of control. I remember how I felt in those days and am having an interesting time reminiscing about life the way it was one year ago.

I read an article in that magazine the other day titled “Dutch Master.” It was written by Peter Schjeldahl, and is about the career of Han van Meegeren, “the boldest modern forger of Old Masters.” Van Meegeren was an artist who gave up his own artistic ambitions in order to devote his life to the composition and selling of paintings that he claimed were lost works of long-dead Dutch Old Masters. He bilked many people out of lots of money, including Hermann Göring, the infamous Nazi.

The story of van Meegeren is interesting in itself, particularly his treatment by the people of his country during and after his trial. Instead of being vilified for his illegal activities, he was raised to the level of a national hero for having taken advantage of Göring ‘s greed. The general public took great comfort in the thought that rich and powerful people could be cheated and publicly humiliated doing the very things that only rich people can do – purchasing very expensive works of art.

Another aspect of the article by Schjeldahl that I find interesting is his use of words. I enjoy reading pieces by artists, art critics, musicians, and musical interpreters because they often contain very unusual and innovative word constructions and combinations. It comes with the territory, I believe. The description of art, whether visual or audio, requires the writers to explain the artists’ intentions and the consumers’ impressions with words. This often results in words and phrases not found in the daily conversations of regular folks. It’s a great way to exercise one’s verbal skills.

I can best relay Schjeldahl’s verbal skills with examples from his article. He used the term “treacly piety” when discussing van Meegeren’s second personal art exhibition of a series of religious paintings. I think we all know what piety is, and know various ways to express it. But what about treacly? When is the last time you used that word? Like, never? Google treacly and see what you get.

Eventually, van Meegeren gave up on refining his own style to go full time into the forgery business. Schjeldahl’s conclusion was that the “state of being oneself dies when set aside.” In other words, van Meegeren’s decision to paint forgeries virtually dissolved his artistic self.

Other interesting snippets from the article:

“piquant accounts of . . . the gulled Bredius, a gay, once brilliant, aesthete”

“a seduction trenchantly conveyed”

“impecunious émigrés”

“anatomical solecisms”

“putatively to settle doubts of his confession”

“scurrilous magazine”

“earth-mother fecundity”

“recondite proof of influence”

“fulsomely congratulated the men”

“vilest of local quislings”

“exegesis of Nazi-tinged artistry”

And so on.

The best way to remember a word’s meaning is to use it, as soon as possible, after first hearing or reading it and discovering its meaning. It’s the same rule as remembering jokes. Tell them right after hearing them so you don’t screw them up a week later. There’s nothing more embarrassing than ruining a good joke. Nothing, that is, except for misusing a word in the presence of someone who truly understands its meaning and proper usage.

Maybe you know someone who displays treacly piety. Quick, think of that person right now and you will forever remember him or her (or them) by this perky little two word phrase.

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