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Monthly Archives: April 2009

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Tomorrow I’m going to the Louvre, so please indulge me the cheap rhyme in the title of this post:  April is, after all, National Poetry Month and rest assured, nothing rhymes with “Louvre” in English (it’s now 2:42 a.m. and I’ve been lying in bed trying to think of something).

Today was the much anticipated day to see the Courbet paintings that I’ve been reading about over the past year.  The one that really packed a whollup was Courbet’s self-portrait Man with Leather Belt (pictured above).  This painting is much like the self-portraits of Rembrandt that whisper to you from a quiet space filled with inner light, materializing from darkness to be (quite suddenly) in front of you with tangible fullness and emotion, as if you were alone in a dark room, shining a flashlight onto them one at a time.

Much has been said about this self-portrait, the most interesting comment coming from Michael Fried who observed that the hands in Courbet’s self-portraits are often mirror images of the artist in the act of painting, holding his palette (see the belt) and the paintbrush (the left hand, which reminds me of the hand in Da Vinci’s St. Jean Baptist, but rather than pointing to heaven, the hand of the artist is solidly anchored in the here and now).

Michael Fried aside (gods of Art History, please spare me), what really struck me today was a detail smack in the center of the painting:  the white cuff of the artist’s sleeve.  I is almost as if Courbet literally pressed his sleeve against the wet paint on the canvas.  The rest of the painting has a smooth, academic surface, so this small textural gesture reaches out of the painting (much like Rembrandt’s figures out of the darkness) with the material tangibility of rough cotton or linen.  This little patch of painting breaks through the rest:  it is so physical that it made me want to itch my wrist (or touch the painting, and we know what would happen then in France:  the riot police would be in front of Orsay in five seconds flat).

Speaking of the CRS, the (which makes the Chicago Police look like a bunch of donut-eating sissies), I was a bit worried about interviewing people in French museums, which are more formal than their American counterparts.   For instance, no one (and I mean no one) sits on stairs or fills out school worksheets on the floor like in American museums.  I once observed guards telling visitors in a newly renovated sculpture court in the Louvre not to sit on the cool, inviting marble stairs (there are no benches) about once every ten seconds, thinking that if a smart curator were to observe this she would come to the conclusion that the was a policy problem, since so many people were, quite naturally, committing the same infraction.

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In addition to a more formal decorum, there is a rule in French museums regarding who can and can’t “prendre la parole”.  “Prendre la parole” is a fancy way of saying “to speak”.  When I take students to the Musée d’Orsay  in the summer, even if it is a very small group, I have to procure a special badge giving me the right to speak within the public space of the museum.  This special badge indicates that I’m an expert, someone who can dish out the correct version of Art History (capital a, capital h).   This is all strangely wonderful in a country where one can bring one’s pooch to a two or three-star restaurant.

In any case, my fears were unfounded.  The only comment (friendly, in a critical, French sort of way) was from a guard who saw me scrawling in my notebook, Caliban-like, my pencil grip having been passed down to me from a great-great-great-great-great-Neanderthal aunt who never got along with the rest of my Homo-Sapien family.

More about who I interviewed later.  It is 4:19 a.m.  I hope I can get back to sleep.

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My friend Karen and I have been entertaining ourselves lately by trading Carla Bruni ‘isms (they are even funnier when you say them with a fake French accent):  in one of them the beautiful, former top-model confesses that she doesn’t need make-up to look good.  Duh.  We like sing to each other too, in the thin Bruni voice: “I am a child, despite my forty years, despite my thirty lovers, a child” (lyrics from Bruni’s recent compact disk).

A few days ago my friend sent me a link to an article in the Huffington Post entitled Seven Lessons to be Learned From Carla Bruni. When I saw that Pfetten was serving up lessons to live by from France’s First Lady I decided I had a duty to respond publicly before women start throwing out their make-up and start purring like Pussy Galore.  So, here are von Pfetten’s lessons, each followed by my Midwestern common sense.

Lesson number 1:  Carla loves flats.

Moi:  Puhlesse.  Carla Bruni is 5’9″ and Nicolas Sarkozy is 5’5″.  Her “love of flats” is inversely proportional to the President of France’s love of heels.  Mind you that Sarkozy is not the first French leader to wear heels:  Louis XIV made them popular for both men and women; the “well-heeled” French (yes!  the expression comes from shoe heels) continued to wear them until the French Revolution when heels could give you away for upper crust and send your head rolling.  To conclude:  flats aren’t a choice for Carla.  They are a State Mandate.

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Lesson number 2:  Her thanks but not thanks stance on make-up.

Moi:  Ladies, I don’t know about you, but when everything I try on in a department store looks ridiculous I head over to the make-up counter to find a new lipstick with a beguiling name like Sirocco (my new Chanel favorite) and leave feeling beautiful.  Carla might not need it, but I sure do.

Lesson number 3Her laissez-faire attitude of her love life.  The First Lady has famously declared that monogamy is “terribly boring”.

Moi:  OMG.  Does she really think that she is the first to have made this discovery?

Lesson number 4:  Ms. Bruni’s voice:  Verena can’t get enough of it.

Moi:  I sure as hell can and if you really want to get on my nerves you’ll pretend that you are a twelve-year-old girl trying to get daddy to buy you some candy too.  I have never understood the French predilection for women who sound like prepubescent girls (Jane Birkin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, etc.).  Give me my Janis Joplins and Aretha Franklins.

Lesson number 5:  She has her own career.

Moi:  Me too.  This “lesson” is so redundant I don’t even know what to say.

Lesson number 6:  For Carla “objects, clothes, and jewelry” give her “no pleasure”.

Moi:  How quaint.

Lesson number 7:  She makes “coy seem positively cutthroat”.

Moi:  Coyness, the affectation of appearing demure in a provocative way, is and always has been cutthroat:  it is used by calculating women to get what they want from men, all the while leaving their machismo intact.  I wish I could pull it off:  watching Carla Bruni on David Letterman with her hushed, little girl voice and her hand brushing back her hair at just the right moments, one gets the sense that she could have talked him into making her the primary beneficiary of his will with the promise of just one kiss.

There they are; my riposts to The Seven Lessons of Carla.  Mind you, I have nothing against France’s First Lady.  Au contraire, if she can have all those Chanel bags, Prada shoes and outifts from Dior without really caring about them, more power to her.  However, when it comes to looking for female role models, rich former super-models just don’t cut it for me.  So far the only book of lessons by a First Lady I have on my bookshelves is You Learn by Living:  Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life by Eleanor Roosevelt and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

A photo of the author, with plenty of make-up and bling:

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This is me in the room where we read, where the kids do their homework, and where we put up the Christmas tree.  This is the room where I phoned my dad a year or so before he died:  we were both catheterized, me following an operation for postpartum incontinence and him because the cancer that eventually killed him had taken over his lower body.  We had a laugh about the improbability of us both having tubes coming out of our bladder at the same time, me at forty-two, him at seventy-three.  This is the room where we entertain guests, where we watch birds in the tree right outside the window, and where we listen to the radio.  It’s the most lived-in room in the house; facing south, it is the only room that floods with light during the day.  This is the room where only last week a man climbed through an unlocked window while we were sleeping and helped himself to my computer, an Xbox, games, and two Ipods, which makes me wonder if there are any creative thieves out there, ones who might have prefered my husband’s  old cameras, my cookbooks, or our truncated, travel-weary garden gnome.  No.  Technology.  Always technology.  How predictably boring.

This is me:  pint-sized, a pointy chin, thin lips, blue eyes, and a hair-mop made up of three different colors.  I’m wearing a sweater I knitted, my sloppy slippers lined with sheep’s wool, and black toenail polish (which makes me look a bit more hard ass than I am).  The artist (more about her later) painted two portraits of me.  In one I am featured more prominently, the room figures less.  I prefer the composition of this one:  I am in the center, I anchor the painting, but at the same time I’m a bit dwarfed by it all, the room isn’t mine as much as I am a part of it, which is the way a home, a real home, fits around its dwellers; it not only encases them but slowly penetrates them, imposing itself in between their fingers and toes, fusing the space between them and their things (I’m recalling how my daughter cried when she saw a decrepit, old bathroom cabinet we had replaced out in the alley; it was as if we had pulled out some of her teeth to give away to the shamanic junk collectors who make their rounds in the alleys of our neighborhood).  I also love the scale of the painting:  the leaves of the plant are bigger than my head, the dictionary takes up a big space on the rug – just the kind of metaphorical space it embodies in our house where we play Scrabble, Boggle, and are challenged by new words.  What is pralltriller?  Look it up! Finally, the wall is a tricolor reverie in the hands of the painter:  reflections of the chair, my sweater, and my eyes cast vibrant shadows onto the wall that is, in reality, a monotonous grey.

I picked this painting up today from Emily Rapport’s house.  Emily Rapport is a Chicago-based artist with hot pink hair and a shy, friendly smile. Emily has a distinctive style,  rooted in the gritty working class Chicago of Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren.   Her colors and composition style remind me of Edward Hopper, though the series she did in the Chicago Northside bar Delilah’s harkens back to the sordid tenderness Lautrec painted with in the bars and cabarats of Montmartre.  I called Emily in February to commission this portrait.  I wanted to enter the painting process from the back screen door (certainly not through an unlocked window!), experience what others had felt under the gaze of an artist, and engage in a dialogue with a painter about their side of the experience; the working side of painting.

So, what was it like?  First of all, there is the strangeness, the awkwardness, of looking at the painter.  Unlike normal social exchanges where looking at someone means recognition and communication (of a sort), the painter looks at you but does not return your gaze.  The gaze is the detached gaze of the scientist, analyzing the face like a staph culture, deciding which details to focus on and which to pass over.  For the painter, the mouth is no more sacred than a slipper or the leg of a chair.  Indeed, spending too much time on a face out of a desire for photographic precision can lead the artist to over-paint, a problematic temptation Emily Rapport describes on her blog:  “Faces can always be difficult.  We tend to pay too much attention to the details in an effort to get the recognizable person ‘right’ and lose the impression of the whole face.”

Secondly, there is the unexpected physicality of painting.  I had envisioned the sitting as a hushed ceremony with the sable brushes gliding silently on the canvas.  Wrong.  Tools scrape, instruments rasp, and tubes squelch.  To paint is to work; the technical side is as much about a gardener raking soil and gravel as it is about the fine artist (an image inherited from the Romantics) dabbing the canvas with color in a transe-like state of genuis.   One wonders if Courbet, while painting The Stonebreakers (destroyed during the bombing of Dresden), didn’t see himself in the men breaking stones into so many different sizes, combing the ground with dusty fingernails, and dropping their work into an iron pail, marked by countless mishaps and travails?

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Indeed, the tactility of paint, the imprint of the artist, and the gesture of work involved in the process are all key elements that distinguish the photo of a person from the painted portrait.   Unlike a mechanical reproduction where the image is captured by light hitting a chemically treated surface or by a sensor that digitalizes light waves, the painted image is set down on the surface through the painting act of a person, an act that includes her movements, concentration, hope, frustration, and will.    That each brushstroke is a deliberate choice of the painter as opposed to a reflection of light or the arrangement of pixels; that these brushstrokes coalesce to give an image, is nothing short of a miracle; the everyday miracle of creation.*

Now, there is the problem of where to hang my portrait.  Certainly not in the reading room where it was painted:  settling into the very chair where I was painted with the portrait looming above would be a bit like the nightmarish funhouse scene in The Lady from Shanghai.  I suggested putting it in the room where we watch t.v., but my son was creeped out by the image of my unblinking stare forever looking out onto the spectacle (as if I don’t already given him and his sister enough shit for watching t.v.).  It might just end up in the narrow, dark red corridor leading into my bedroom, in between the framed posters of other women:  Vermeer’s Girl with the Red Hat and  Young Girl with a Flute, as well as the painting Gabrielle d’Estrées and one of her sisters (which aforementioned son, then only four, made me buy in the Louvre, so delighted was he by a painting in a museum where one woman tweeks another one’s nipple).

It might not end up in a veritable room for the time being, but at least I’ll be in good company.

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*The word “miracle” has the caché of a Hallmark card today.   Writers concerned with aesthetics (among them Elaine Scarry in her book On Beauty and Being Just) have pointed to our post-modern discomfort with talking about or even using the word “beauty”; the word “miracle” has, in my mind, succumbed to the same problematic.  A writer can’t use the word “miracle” without conjuring up images of puppies (“the miracle of birth”).

And yet.  If one hasn’t stood in front of a painting long enough to be baffled (and entranced) by a brush stroke that can yield a likeness and at the same time something fuller than a likeness (because not mechanical), then one hasn’t spent enough time in front of a single painting.   The last time this happened to me was in front of Fantin Latour’s painting Still Life:  Corner of a Table while looking at the sugar bowl.

So, I do mean “miracle” when I say it; that is how I regard the fuller-than-a-likeness phenomenon that painting yields for those with the time and intention to look.