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Monthly Archives: December 2008

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…”arguably the least love-struck woman in all Western painting.” – Michael Fried

In his book Pictures and Tears James Elkins explores the act of crying in front of painting, an act that if one is to believe him (and I do) strikes most academics to be as shameful as farting during an inopportune moment at the opera. Before writing, Elkins wrote to colleagues, friends who love art, and also posted inquiries in newspapers and journals. Everyone was asked the same, basic question: have you ever cried in front of a painting and if so, please share your story. His book is divided into “crying categories”: one chapter is about the weepy reactions in 18th century France to the paintings of Greuze, one chapter is based on the experience of an art historian in front of a series of Rothko paintings, and one marvelously zany chapter is about “the Stendhal syndrome,” named after the writer Stendhal who lost his marbles for a short time during his first visit to Italy, so moved was he by the painting he saw.

Elkins comes to the conclusion that historical knowledge and emotion make for very strange bedfellows: “In most cases, history kills. Luckily it kills slowly, over many years. During the long interval between the first poison pill and the death of all feeling, history can give a great deal of pleasure. […] Art history continues to deepen my experience of images, and I keep buying, reading, and writing books of art history, even though I know I am slowly corroding my ability to address paintings with full emotions and an open heart.” In short, knowing kills our ability to feel; there is no emotion where there is knowledge. Darn. I learned a lot over the course of reading this book. James, what are you doing trafficking the pills of detached wisdom? Thanks a lot!

Despite the trenchant thesis, Mr. Elkins knows that measuring tears is not a clear-cut science and says as much: “Learning did kill emotion for me, but I also have letters from people who know a great deal about paintings and still cry.” Second, one would be hard put to argue that an un-wet yet jarring experience in front of a painting is somehow qualitatively less “emotional” than a similiar experience with tears. Finally, one’s own affective experience with art can differ from day to day: looking at something after personal tragedy is different from looking at something after a day at the office is different from looking at something after you’ve been dropped by your boyfriend, etc. and this instability constitutes one of the miracles of art: each act of beholding is a unique creation in time, a singular creation between the viewer and object.

It turns out that I am a happy exception to Elkin’s conclusion: I’ve read loads of serious art history, the kind that revels in words like “ontological, teleological, metonymy” and have come out unscathed. I do occasionally cry in front of paintings (I also tear up while reading, the last time was in the bathtub while reading Rimbaud’s correspondence). In fact, my crying episodes in front of paintings have always been thanks to what I know, not the contrary. The last time I cried was in the Musée d’Orsay in front of Edouard Manet’s Carnations and Clematis in a Crystal Vase. At first I was simply entranced by the painting, by the brush strokes and colors. I looked at the painting for a few minutes, kind of “sinking into it” so that I was no longer looking at flowers or a vase per se but rather seeing how the shapes and colors echoed back and forth, as if calling each other into existence. Next, I pulled myself out and looked at the painting again as a compositional whole. Then my learning took hold: I remembered that many of Manet’s still lives (like this one) were painted at the end of his life when he was seriously ill and unable to work on large canvases. Méry Laurent, a good friend and former model (perhaps former lover too) would buy outrageous bouquets and take them to Manet when she visited him. I thought about how Manet had married his plain, portly wife Susanne out of a sense of duty, had agreed to pretend his son was his brother out of his mother’s bourgeois priggishness (so that no one would know Manet had had a child out of wedlock), and all of a sudden the painting, bearing no trace of self-pity or pain, serenely beautiful, seemed itself like an outrageous gift from the painter to me. My eyes welled up with tears.

Last week I met another weepy scholar, a former art student named Casey. Casey told me about her experience in the Musée d’Orsay in front of Manet’s Olympia. She had spent years studying 19th century French painting and Manet was a personal favorite. Yet, when she finally had a chance to see the painting in Paris it wasn’t just an academic pleasure: “I felt tears in my eyes, had chills, and somehow felt the painting all over my body.” The connection was at the same time so intellectual and physical that she had a hard time leaving the room.

I was happy to have found another educated crier and I asked her if she had ever seen Fantin-Latour’s painting of Manet in the Art Institute (for, I have to admit that in addition to knowing a fair amount about Manet and loving his painting, I also happen to think that he was quite a stud and this painting does my opinion justice). We got up from the bench, in my excitement I may have taken her by the arm (I don’t remember), led her to the painting, and then left her alone there, so that she could have a quiet moment with Ed.


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Last night I had my first museum dream! I was a giant, dark red protean-like blob hovering in the sky, much like the castles do in Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (the dark red was the same color as the beads worn by the Young Woman at an Open Half Door). Thousands of black ropes hung down from my outer edges, similar to those that moor ships. I was floating over a museum, trying to land on it, but each time I tried to get in the correct landing position my shape would change, making me off target: I was stuck in an eternal holding position in the sky.

Hmm…what to make of this? It occurred to me that Miyazaki’s original title was Laputa: Castle in the Sky which he changed due to the meaning of puta in Spanish and that I had recently found out that Gabrielle’s mom was a bit of a strumpet. On the other hand, I’ve spent four months on my butt writing and have gained about five pounds – do I fear becoming a giant mass, rising from the bench on the Grand Staircase in the Art Institute (this is where I poach interviewees) with the aid of a thick cane à la Marlon Brando? Or, can my desire to land on a museum mean that I want to devour it, to possess it? I think I need to take a few days off (and go to the gym)…

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Drats! Blasted 19th century infant mortality! Yesterday, I went back to the Ryerson library to finish reading Roger Bonniot’s Gustave Courbet en Saintonge in the hopes of finding some clues about Gabrielle’s descendants. The news was sobering. Let’s start out with her mother, Laure. She had five children: Louise Corinne, Louise Laure, Gabrielle (not my Gabrielle, I’m getting there soon), Jules Ernest, and Jules Lucien. Three out of the five died before their second birthday. It turns out that my Gabrielle is actually Louise number two (her full name was Louise Laure Zoïde Borreau). Her parents nicknamed her after her sister Gabrielle who died shortly after she was born, a bit like Van Gogh’s parents did Van Gogh. That wasn’t a happy ending either, now was it?

The Borreaus moved to Paris from the Saintonge region in 1870. Monsieur Borreau set up a toy workshop in their apartment. Laure and her daughter Gabrielle visited Courbet often during his stay at the prison Sainte-Pélagie (where he was for his role in the Commune). It is possible that we have one more painting of Gabrielle Bourreau – Courbet painted Head of Woman and Flowers while in prison and some scholars have suggested that it is Gabrielle. For those who don’t find Rêverie as bewitching as me, don’t even click to see Head of Woman and Flowers. It is a dreamlike, if not disturbing painting (signaling the work of Odilon Redon and the Nabis): neither face nor bouquet look entirely finished and we see them as if through a filter that distorts images, much in the same way that those mirrors do at carnivals (or the “bulge”, “dent”, “twirl” and “stretch” features in Photo Booth which transform any normal person into Elephant Man).

During one visit at Sainte-Pélagie, Courbet gave Gabrielle a painting of flowers that she hung onto all her life, in the end donating (anonymously) to the French government. Gabrielle took over the family business in 1882 and won honorable mention at the 1889 Universal Exposition for her handmade dolls. In 1882 she married widower Thomas Breban and they had two children, Laure who died at four and Jules who died at six. Gabrielle’s remaining brother (Jules Lucien) died in 1902 and was followed to the grave three years later by his only son, aged fifteen. Gabrielle herself died in 1918, four years after her husband. She made it long enough to see World War I and the advent of trench warfare. Joy. Her son-in-law (her husband’s son from his first marriage) described her as “thin, lonely, and full of melancholy”. Gee, I wonder why?

The whole story begged for a dead baby joke, but I was in no mood to think of one yesterday in the Ryerson Library. Not a single Borreau remains. Zip. Zilch. Zero. I had already purchased my ticket and was ready to sleuth through Paris to find Gabrielle’s descendants. Now what was I going to do? Luckily I have a friend whose strength is bringing me back to reality. She reminded me that there are museums, great food, and lots of wine in Paris and that just because I wouldn’t find some dead person’s relatives didn’t mean that I wouldn’t have a good time. Touché.

Amidst all the dead babies, adultery, and prison there is at least some sunny news! Yesterday in gallery 222, brandished with my new questionnaire on Rêverie (Portrait de Gabrielle Borreau), I interviewed an older couple about the painting. They spent at least five minutes staring at it and coming up with responses. When they came over and joined me on the bench, a whole other group of people quickly went to look at the painting (what were they missing?). I looked out of the corner of my eye and smiled. Gabrielle is on her way, albeit posthumously, to stardom.

Postscriptum: I’m seeing her face all over Chicago now. If you live here and are on the North Side, check out the H & M billboard at Belmont and Sheffield, the girl to the very left.

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One of my favorite paintings at the Art Institute is Rêverie (portrait de Gabrielle Borreau). (This painting is mentioned in an earlier post about asymmetric faces – see Putting your best face forward.) The painting is in gallery 222 in a corner, right next to a hydrothermograph. Unfortunately, most visitors spend more time watching the hydrothermograph’s hypnotic needle trace its path on the roll of paper than they do looking at poor Gabrielle. I have therefore decided to champion her cause. At the moment you can’t even buy a postcard of Rêverie at the museum shop. By the time I’m done maybe there’ll even be posters and mugs!

As I said in my previous post, Gabrielle is what one would call belle laide in French: her unusual features, bordering on ugly, are what constitute her beauty. However, most critics during Courbet’s time stopped at the “bordering on ugly” part of the last sentence. Take for instance this comment about the painting from the Fine Arts Quarterly Review written by Philip Gilbert Hamerton in 1863: “It is difficult to speak of Courbet without losing patience. Everything he touches becomes unpleasant. If he had to paint the most exquisite beauty, he would find something ugly about her.” Don’t get me wrong; not everyone today is as mesmerized by Gabrielle’s beauty as I am: one person I interviewed, seeing how much I loved the painting and not wanting to rain on my parade, said “I like how her head is oversized; it makes me want to know what she is thinking.” Translation: “Damn! What a big head! What was the artist thinking?”

Last week I was reading about the painting’s history: who owned it, where it had been exhibited, what had been written about it, and I noticed something strange: during its 145 years of existence the painting has had no less than three different names: in 1863 it was Rêverie, in 1922 it was Portrait de Mme. Boreau, and then in 1977 it suddenly became Rêverie (portrait de Gabrielle Borreau). Who added the extra “r”? Where did “Gabrielle” come from? I suddenly felt like a forty-something Nancy Drew with a history-mystery to solve! Vicki Schneider and the Case of the Borreau Painting. I thought of the name Borreau, how by adding a “u” to it it becomes “executioner” (bourreau) and a chill ran down my spine…

My investigation began by reading a biography of Courbet where I learned that he spent eleven months in Saintonge, a region in Poitou-Charentes, and had an affair with a woman named Laure Boreau. Bam! I was onto something. I spent the next day in the Ryerson Library at the Art Institute, a regal place where young people solemnly bring books to your table and you feel as if you should be dressed in organza or tulle instead of denim. Here’s what I found: Gabrielle was Laure’s daughter and “Borreau” is the correct spelling. Curators corrected the gaffe in 1966 during a Courbet exposition in Rome thanks to the painstaking research of Roger Bonniot who wrote a 405 page book on the eleven months Courbet spent in Saintonge – that’s approximately 36 pages per month! Bonniot combed through every document however innocuous, interviewed every living witness possible, and (thankfully) doesn’t spare us the trite, lurid, and comic tales of French provincial life in his book. My favorite anecdote: Courbet fell for Laure whose husband Jules (in slang this first name loosely translates as “loverboy”) owned a shop for ladies called La Fiancée. Well, La Fiancée was on the brink of bankruptcy and Courbet saw his opening: he saved Jule’s store and got Laure in return – he even lived with the Borreaus and set up his studio on their second floor. In short, Jules pimped his wife! Of course, Laure didn’t mind and already had quite a reputation in Saintes as a party girl. As for Gabrielle, Courbet developed a real fondness for her and nicknamed her “Briolette” (which sounds to me like a name for a mini-wheel of Brie). Briolette was also devoted to “uncle” Courbet and visited him years later at Sainte-Pélagie where he was imprisoned for political activities during the Commune.

If there aren’t posters of Gabrielle by the end of next year at least I can try to get her moved away from the distracting hydrothermograph. Of course, to be successful, I think I should go to France and do some research (perhaps track down the living relatives of Laure and Gabrielle?). I can just see myself having an apératif in the salon with Laure’s great-great-grand-daughter and later looking through old family albums and letters. I wonder if she’ll have a big head? Tomorrow I’ll finish Bionnet’s book in the Ryerson library and try to find some clues about the descendants’ whereabouts, but there are also pecuniary details to consider – getting to France is expensive these days. What I need is a big advance on my book or a Jules to pay for the trip. Maybe Oprah could help? John D. and Catherine C., where are you?

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Here are some questions for consideration when you see Rêverie. Let me know what you think (and give me the reading on the hydrothermograph).

For those of you who speak French, I want to share with you two quotes from Roger Bionnet’s book Gustave Courbet en Saintonge. First, the author’s comment on Courbet’s situation with the Borreaus:

“Tirons de ces faits cette conclusion insolite que si les mécènes des Beaux-Arts se recrutent souvent dans le haut négoce, il peut se faire par exception qu’un grand artiste devienne le bienfaiteur du petit commerce.” Assez précieux notre Bionnet, n’est-ce pas?

And this one out of a letter from Courbet to Laure Borreau upon learning that she is pregnant in 1873 (which would make her well into her fifties):

“…ce qui m’étonne, c’est que vous soyez encore en mal d’enfant. Enfin! Vous voulez à vous seule repeupler la terre de républicains!” Sacré Courbet!