Why has Iceland no Tiepolo?
World’s most ambitious clouds, and no
portraitist to do them justice;
is it because they won’t sit still? Racing,
as if from the weather they bring,

and bring away, they’re more suited to a motion
picture screen. The new configuration
locked in each frame is the fingerprint
of the moment. Round up the usual suspects, but
these won’t come again, let

alone in this lineup’s order: not the cloud
of scallops stacked like a candle’s cooled
puddles of melted tallow, followed by
an ivory envelope, from which the torn
edge of one fuchsia sheet emerges. Shorn

sheep’s wool figures in nearly any account
of clouds; easier to describe than paint
a rough-hewn hug of nubbled shearling, thrown
perilously near the sun, as if on
the floor before a fire. What happens when

a comer of it ignites? Here,
as you might have guessed, a geysir (or geyser:
among the few Icelandic words to spring
up in English) from an airborne surface
rises in puffs, sallow and sulfurous.

All this takes shape in a howling Arctic
wind: strong enough to blow a cloud back-
wards and inside-out, like an umbrella,
disperse it, or dispense with it altogether.
If half the sky’s blackened in, like a weather-
man’s diagram of “partly cloudy,” the thunder-
head may well amount to nothing and/or
everything: an enormous, deafening chain
of hail linked with rain, dashed on the deck
of the windowsill, even while a weak

joke of a sun smiles drily, not far off.
Black bleeds to gray, gray to an overlay of
violet; a peaceful co-existence like
the aftermath of an argument in a play:
“They were both right,” the audience learns to say.


Is it possible no such message was ever meant?
—For now a new crop of clouds looks innocent
and dumb as the rubbery filaments on the top
of egg-drop soup; or coming down to
earth, like a white-haired crown below a blue

bald spot. Let’s face it: life means precious little.
Which is why we keep staring at it, and the beautiful
is the ideal, why pictures have to be painted,
and painters may try to excel quite free,
if they wish, of allegory. “Why

has Iceland no Tiepolo?” was what
we began with, and still hope to answer, but
why, for that matter, the Icelanders’ lame
idea of beauty at home: the ghastly
antimacassars, the fuss-budget curtains, the pea-

green bedroom suites, the gilded table-
and chair-legs, the scratchy sofas, the unbearable
(but tantalizingly breakable) bric-a-brac?
Could this be something universal, a crying
need to sabotage or unsay the undying

presence of the Sublime—the uplifting rain-
bow and arrow of sun, or the measured spoon-
ful of snow-bright light in the distant
valley’s cup, or even the flattened suds
in the day’s last tilted dishpan of used-up clouds?

One hopes not, but thinks so; and suspects Tiepolo
would probably not have had much of a window,
in his turf-house here, to look out from. This
lesson’s a shaggy-dog tale, in which the snow’s
blowing in all directions, like the shadows

in a bad painting; the simplest explanation
fell into place as soon as I asked Steinunn,
a woman of taste, who runs the prettiest
café in greater Reykjavik. She said, “My
grandparents were farmers. When the sky

looked a certain way, over a certain mountain,
they knew the snows were coming. And that within
a day or two they’d have to travel over
miles of lava fields, gathering all their sheep.
When you have to watch your footing, you don’t look up;

when the weather’s treacherous, and life’s a struggle,
neither the clouds nor the land is beautiful.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 9 Number 8, on page 34
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