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Monthly Archives: January 2009

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This morning I listened to Terry Gross’ interviews with John Updike and since I’ve been mulling over the nature of portraits and what draws us to them, I was struck by this comment he made about faces:

“The whole idea of a face is slightly funny, isn’t it? If you can put yourself outside of the species a moment these faces we carry around with the holes in them, the shiny holes and the dark holes and the one which shows a lot of teeth, it’s all odd beyond belief, really.”

This quote, which is so on the mark, makes me think of what happens when you look at a face upside down for awhile, how it begins to look creepy because it is at the same time so familiar and yet so different from what you’re used to: the holes are all there, but they are in the wrong places. If you haven’t experienced this (a sad comment on your childhood) you should try it: have someone lay down on their back with their head hanging over the edge, then stare at it and enjoy!

There’s no question about it – I’m a “people person”. How else could I spend my days in a museum approaching total strangers and engaging them in conversation? So, when I walk through a gallery I’m most often struck by paintings that look back at me, that is to say, by portraits.

What makes a portrait a portrait? This sounds like a “duh” question, I know, and the “duh” answer would be “a painting where a person is the focus,” right? What happens, then, when the person has their back turned to us? Is this still a portrait? The luminous painting Betty by Gerhard Richter poses this question. In the same way, how do we categorize a painting where the person is facing the viewer, but is blindfolded? Isn’t that what is so unsettling about certain paintings by Magritte (I’m thinking of The Lovers and the iconic Son of Man)? By covering the face in the first painting and by simply occluding the eyes in the second, Magritte challenges the very notion of portraiture.

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To my view, there are two basic elements essential to the portrait. One, the subject faces us (not necessarily straight-on, but the face must be visible). Two, we must be able to see the gaze (or lack thereof; a portrait of a blind person is still a portrait). One could go so far as to say that since the act of consuming a painting or of consummating its existence is effectuated through the eyes, through vision, that portraits are a modis operandi for the visitor, a sort of visual demonstration of what one should do while at the museum.

It turns out that I’m not alone in my predilection for portraits: roughly sixty percent of the people I’ve interviewed at the Art Institute say they prefer them. Why? Erin from Ohio said that portraits make her feel as if she could “reach across time and experience someone else’s life”. Robert from Minnesota is drawn to portraits for the same reasons that he prefers reading biographies: he likes to “connect with people and understand what their life is like”. Brooke, a student from Northern Illinois University, put into words a simple and altogether naïve experience that I also have in front of portraits (but am too embarrassed or snobbish to say it): she looks at the painting and sees at the same time its subject and a person who really existed; someone who might have been a friend. Indeed, every time I walk by Charles-Antione Coypel’s Portrait of Philippe Coypel and His Wife I feel as if they are beckoning me inside their 18th century apartment to talk about liberty, equality, and fraternity (over a glass of Veuve Cliquot, bien sûr).

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This brings us to perhaps the most compelling of all reasons for the power of portraits: as much as we would like to share some bubbly with the Coypels, they are long gone. Indeed, in portraits we stare at our own mortality: the paintings are there, immortal and static and we are outside of them, human and dynamic. This is why Rembrandt’s self-portraits are so moving: the process of changing, of aging, and of anticipating death finds itself depicted in painting; the permanence of the person is challenged before our eyes; Rembrandt crosses over to our side of time.

Additional thoughts:

When looking at Betty, think about Watteau and his profils perdus

The Fayum portraits also mix up questions of temporality and immortality: painted while the person was living, their sole use was for burial (we were not meant to see them). Surely the fact that one’s likeness will remain after death has crossed the minds of many people who have sat for portraits, but these people were actually preparing for their death by posing.

Finally (hang in there, dear reader), I wonder if our predisposition for searching out a face sometimes leads us to find them in unpredictable places. For instance, the Boo Radley type standing behind Gabrielle in Rêverie or Portrait of Gabrielle, the eye (some see a face) staring out from a bush in Gauguin’s Arlésiennes, and the faces in some of Courbet’s landscapes, usually in rock formations, which gives the Latin word for face, facies, even more of a punch when one considers that in geology a facies is a part of the rock that stands out, that looks different, from the rest.

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Two days ago at a press conference in Millennium Park, Mayor Daley warned residents about this week’s dangerously cold temperatures while at the same time announcing a new campaign to attract tourists from around the world to Chicago in the winter. In his cavalier way, Mayor Daley mocked the media for sounding the alarm every time it snowed: “We’ve had snow, I mean, we’ve always had ice.” (click here to hear it with the Chicago accent) Yes, we’ve always had it, I tolerate it (badly), but if he thinks a gaggle of Australians are going to leave their summer behind to experience mounds of snow, sheets of ice falling from buildings, temperatures below zero, and, when it all starts to melt, slush and muck so deep you could lose a baby in it, well, I think he is in for a bit of a disappointment.

I’m already sick of winter and it has only just begun. I’m tired of the cold, fed up with the snow, and sick of well-meaning people telling me “how pretty it is”. Aesthetically speaking, I’m sick of the color white. On sunless days white has a hegemonic dominance over the landscape. Looking at the cottony blur in the morning makes me feel as if I’m in a continual process of coming out of anaesthesia, clarity always a bit beyond my reach. Besides, isn’t it unsettling, almost unnatural, when the bottom of the landscape matches the top? Just ask any sailor.

White might symbolize innocence and purity for some, but in India women wear white saris when their husbands die. White doesn’t fare much better in Moby Dick. In the chapter The Whiteness of the Whale Melville writes, “…it is, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color, and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that ere is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows – a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” For Melville, white is absence (“dumb blankness”) and it is precisely this which makes it so full of meaning: it is the ultimate fear, the fear of nothingness; it is the great, white leviathan that drags the crew into the vortex of non-being.

In his short essay Black or White, American abstract expressionist Robert Motherwell doesn’t go into the symbolic powers of white (though he does mention Melville), but he’s pretty blunt about the chemical properties of the respective pigments black and white. Black, he writes, being made of soot, is “light and fluffy” whereas whites are either “cold” and “slimy” (zinc oxide) or “extremely poisonous on contact of the body” (lead). ‘Nuf said.

White is also a real stickler for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: at least half his comments in Remarks on Color focus on white as a problematic concept. The crux of the conundrum is that white is the only color that doesn’t have an opaque and transparent version. Think about it: grass is opaque green, old Coke bottles are transparent green. An apple is opaque red, a red piece of stained glass is transparent. One can even imagine transparent black, though when a sheet of white paper is put behind it, it appears dark grey (which poses yet another problem according to Wittgenstein, for white dilutes other colors but cannot itself be diluted). All this brings Wittgenstein to postulate: if milk is opaque white then doesn’t it follow that water is transparent white?

Chicagoans know all too well what happens when our white, opaque stuff begins to turn into (white) transparent stuff: first it gets speckled with exhaust, then the large, grey mounds melt, which produces a flow (not very transparent) of water, dirt, spit, and grease, all of which ends up in a water treatment facility somewhere. Which brings me, oddly, to the beautiful painting on this post by Gerhard Richter called Ice 1, which will soon resurface in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute. Richter takes on the colors of our cold, drab winter and turns them into three amazing paintings of ice; ice out of which seeps infinite and at times almost imperceptible variations of color and texture. Imagine one of our whitish-grey mounds of plowed snow lit up from the inside and embedded within it tiny particles of color: at first glance it looks like ice, upon closer inspection the whole thing is pulsating with color. Now that might (just might) bring the tourists here in January.

Remarks on Colour, Ludwig Wittgenstein, University of California Press

The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, University of California Press

The Daily Practice of Painting, Gerhard Richter, The MIT Pres
Gerhard Richter’s notes are so honest, deep, and poetic that I have an inkling to do a “best of” post with some of his quotes and paintings. Read this book!

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«Le temps est abominable ici. Chaque matin quand je me réveille, je regarde par les vitres le temps qu’il fait : il pleut ou il neige ou, pour varier, il neige ou il pleut ou bien, chose plus amusante, il a neigé. Alors il y a sur ma fenêtre, qui est horizontale, un ou deux pouces de neige, voile très bien qui met mon atelier dans un clair-obscur charmant mais où l’on ne peut travailler. Alors je monte sur mon toit avec des baquets d’eau et je fais dissoudre tout cela fort bien.» Lettre de Courbet à son père, Paris, début 1845.

“The weather is horrible here. Every morning when I wake up I look out the window to see the weather: it is raining or snowing or, for a little variety, it is snowing or raining, or something even funnier, it is snowing. On the ledge of my window, the one or two inches of snow make a veil that gives my studio a charming chiaroscuro effect but makes it impossible to work. So I get up on the roof with buckets of water and I wash all of it away.” Letter from Courbet to his father, Paris, the beginning of 1845.

Tomorrow I continue my reflections on the weather by addressing the problem of the color white. Oh yes. It is a problem.

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Okay, I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and would like your indulgence: I’m going to journal. I won’t burden you with what I’m eating or knitting or wearing, but I will tell you all about my day at the ‘stute because it was uplifting, stimulating, and just plain ol’ fun.

It started in the recently re-opened Impressionist galleries. They are laid out well, a lot more spacious than before, but benches are sorely needed. It’s interesting how familiar paintings, like Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, command renewed attention just because they have been moved somewhere else (a bit like changing the furniture around in your apartment – it’s all the same stuff and yet it looks fresh and new).

What made today the best day ever was the number of encounters I had with people who love art. First, I spoke with an adorable young man (I say this in a maternal way, not in a creepy way) with a full mouth, dimples, and beautiful eyes (again, all this in a maternal way) who is studying French and linguistics in college – get this – because he likes it (what kind of goofy idea is that?). We were both mesmerized by an incredible pastel that I had never seen before: Jean-François Raffaëlli’s Germaine at her Toilette.

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The girl is a street urchin, a gamine, who at best will end up working in a shop (or as a model, for that matter) and will most likely have to turn some tricks as a grisette to make ends meet. There is a sense of defeat on the young girl’s face and in the slackness of her body while at the same time there is a certain dose of defiance and self-assurance. Her drab clothes and the dirty walls contrast with the bright red shawl fringed with white lace; the white lace is so tactile, the artist’s own hand holding the pastel so seemingly present, that I wanted to reach out and trace its trail with my own finger.

My next stop was to check out the three Cezanne still lifes. There I observed an older man, still in his overcoat, totally absorbed by Cezanne’s Vase of Tulips. After about five minutes he sighed rather loudly with unrestrained pleasure (not at all in a paternal way). I thought it best not to talk to him, some moments are better if undisturbed, although I would have given him a cigarette if the museum rules allowed such a thing.

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Finally, Brooke and Dorota from Rockford, Illinois. Best friends since grade school, they were still on break from college and drove to Chicago to spend the day at the museum. Brooke is studying art and Dorota studies English (don’t tell me – I bet they choose what they’re studying because they like it). We spent nearly forty minutes talking about painting, movies by Kieslowski, and even touched on Kevin Barnes, the lead singer for Of Montreal, because Brooke, in addition to being fascinated by Medieval and Renaissance painting also likes snazzy face make-up, so I suggested she google Mr. Barnes. These women were bursting with intelligence, curiosity, and graciousness. When we got to the question about what they had enjoyed that day at the museum Dorota told me that she really liked a painting of a head from Dante’s Inferno. When I found it (Head of a Damned Soul from Dante’s Inferno by Henry Fuseli) I couldn’t believe that another one of his paintings was one that I had read about that very day in Jean Starobinski’s book 1789: The Emblems of Reason. If you’ve seen any movies by Kieslowski, you know that this is a Kieslowski moment: strangers who meet in chance circumstances encounter some sort of weird coincidence that later becomes ripe with meaning. Needless to say, I started running around the museum to find the Rockford girls, but to no avail. I hope they read this post.

Back to today’s title: the best day ever. Perhaps you guessed it? It comes from a Sponge Bob song. Sponge Bob is a hero of mine, although I guess he is more of an anti-hero (which makes him, of course, even more of a hero). Bob, the Sponge, has a grouchy squid of a neighbor whose nose looks like a penis, his best friend is a loyal but helplessly stupid starfish named Patrick, and his only pet is a snail that leaves a trail of mucousy slime behind him as he slides around Bob’s pineapple-under-the-sea. What makes Sponge Bob an existentialist hero is that despite all odds he makes every day the best day ever; he is Sisyphus with a smile. He is like Doctor Rieux in Camus’ The Plague (okay, I know I’m getting carried away here, but I’m having so much fun!) who is surrounded by people like the poor schmuk writing a novel who can’t get past the first sentence and yet faces every day with an amazing attitude, except that the doctor is battling a disease that causes people to be covered with supperating pustules while Sponge Bob just has to deal every now and then with pesky jelly fish.

Tomorrow I think I’ll head back to the Art Institute – I bet it will be my best day ever.

P.S. One of the details that fascinated me in Germaine and her Toilette was the sponge next to the wash bowl. Wow. Writing is certainly an interesting process (I just thought of the sponge/Sponge Bob thing now) and because of all this sponginess I’ll leave you with my favorite literary sponge moment. It is out of Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant.

“I have known a man who loved sponges. I am not in the habit of using this verb in the weak sense. I repeat, this man loved sponges. He possessed specimens of every conceivable shape and size. Pink ones, saffron ones, purplish ones. He took on their tinge. And some were so soft and tender that he could not resist hitting them. Sometimes in his frenzy he tore the most beautiful ones apart, and cried real tears over their scattered splendours. Certain ones he licked. Others he would never have dared touch, for they were queens, truly regal personalities. Others again he simply threaded on a string. And I have a friend who made love to sponges in his dreams. But to consummate this passion he merely cupped them in his palms and squeezed them: you see how easy it is.”

Click here to listen to the Sponge Bob tune and have a great day!

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I’m slowly coming out of my holiday coma of sleep, food, and liquor and would like to extend an apology to all those who wanted to read something new during the holidays, only to see Méry Laurent’s (Olympia’s) blasé countenance challenging them to a staring match each time they logged on. I just read in a back copy of Oeil that Olympia’s bracelet belonged to Manet and contained a lock of his baby hair. Make of it what you will…

In the meantime, tell me dear reader: did you go to a museum during the holidays? where? what did you see?