Whale-Balls for Breakfast
(chapters 52–68), painting
As cool as a cucumber
In pursuit of a sperm whale, the harpooner, Stubbs, calls on his oarsmen to remain as cool as a cucumber: ‘Cucumber is the word!’ After the kill of the whale, he demands a whale-steak as a reward, which the ship’s cook serves to him at the capstan-head, seen here in the top right. While the sharks (top left, in the X-ray style of the Aboriginals, and the angels at the bottom of the painting) feast on the carcase of the sperm whale, Stubbs, the biggest shark of all, grumbles that the steak is overdone and demands whale-balls for breakfast – the title of this painting.
In the middle of the background, we see a large piece of whale-blubber with scars, like the hieroglyphics of an Egyptian Book of the Dead, painted in red over the entire background of the canvas. On top of the blubber, we have the chains and hooks that the fat-cutters use.
To the left, we see the white giant squid that is taken for Moby Dick when it first emerges. It is painted in a striking visual rhythm with the cat-o’-nine-tales, shown to the right. In the background, we have a photograph of fat-cutters at work.
The story about the whale ship, The Town Ho, is a story within the story itself. It deals broadly with the same themes as the entire book. For example, how the tensions between the crew-members with their different characters and backgrounds can lead to violence, and how this – out of fear of punishment (the whip) – can escalate into a mutiny. Just as in Moby Dick, the highlight of the story is the hunt for Moby Dick, who swallows the harpooner Radney (Jonah).
Melville narrates this story to, among others, Don Sebastian (Saint Sebastian, killed by arrows, on the bottom left) in an inn in Lima, where the appearance of a priest raises some concern about the long arm of the Inquisition. Their coat of arms is depicted on the booklet in the middle of the lower part of the painting.
To the left of the booklet is a picture of a harbour view, a veduta. Apparently, it is a historical representation, but in reality, as is often the case with Reuvers, it is a pastiche, a jumble of a real print and details added by the artist.
The book’s navel
In this series, Reuvers was guided in many ways by the impressive erudition of Viola Sachs with regard to Melville’s Moby Dick. For example, Sachs had all the sentences counted to find out what the absolute middle of the book is. This central sentence is: ‘Of erections, how few are domed like St.
Peter’s!’ See the floor plan in the middle of the painting.
A Dutch savage
Whalers are savages, but they distinguish themselves not only by their fighting spirit, but also by their talent for patient handiwork in between the hunting sessions. For that reason, Melville calls Albert Dürer ‘a fine old Dutch savage’; represented here by Reuvers with a small reproduction of his self-portrait as Christ. Behind it, we see a whale ship from Amsterdam in the northern seas. It could be the ship Jonah in the Whale, described in 1671 by Peter Peterszoon from Friesland, whose images of whales Melville had denounced as an absolute travesty.
When comparing the painting Whale-balls for Breakfast with the etching Cutting In, both of which deal with the same section of the book, it is striking how much they differ. Reuvers chose the details that appeal to him the most from the material offered by Melville. This renders Reuvers’ interpretation of Moby Dick into something personal, almost autobiographical. Good and evil are one of the main themes of Moby Dick, and the Devil always lurks around the corner. The matchbox showing the Devil, however, was bought personally by Reuvers on a street in Colombia, and the picture of Saint Sebastian (painted by a painter called Sodama!) was purchased in the Vatican in the 1990’s. Reuvers grew up in a Roman-Catholic family, but looking back on this painting recently, he noticed how counter-reformational it actually is, with the diametrical opposition of Saint Sebastian and the Devil, the whip, Dürer as Christ, the Inquisition, the angels and the floor plan of the St. Peter’s.