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Category Archives: musings

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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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I’m sending you my dirty laundry writes Courbet to his parents in 1839. Courbet is only twenty years old, a student at Besançon, and looks like the self-assured young man in this self-portrait (not the larger-than-life painter who once bragged that he drank two bottles of Burgundy, three bottles of Bordeaux, one bottle of local wine, coffee laced with Cognac, followed by dessert, and then threw it all up Roman-style while staying at a friend’s estate in Saintonge). After giving his parents the heads up about the laundry Courbet says that one, he would like his parents to send him more cotton stockings (he doesn’t wear the woolen ones) and that two, he has blood in his stool, but contrary to the hemorrhoid diagnosis of his doctor, he believes he is simply suffering from a case of échauffement, or constipation. One of the reasons I like to read letters of the famous is for details just like these. Wow. Courbet had trouble pinching off a loaf now and then. Just like me.

It isn’t only to find out that they are just like us that I read letters. Reading the daily bric-a-brac of people’s lives; where Manet bought his shoes before his duel with Duranty, who met Courbet for dinner at the Café Andler, these small curios of information plunge me into their world in a way that a biography cannot do; I feel as if I know them when I finish reading their letters. When Manet complains in a letter to Zachary Astruc that he hasn’t heard from Baudelaire lately, Baudelaire sounds less like the unattainable poet-god on the pedestal where I keep him and more like a guy I might run into in a diner. (I recently found Charles Baudelaire on Facebook and asked him to be my friend; he hasn’t confirmed yet.) And what about the delicious innocence of Manet’s question to his friend Théodore Duret: “Who is this Monet whose name sounds like mine and who is taking advantage of my notoriety?”

Another reason to read letters? You become your own historian. Letters, along with church records, public records, maps, and treatises (to name just a few) constitute the flotsam of primary sources that historians pick up from puddles, lakes, and oceans of conserved, sometimes intentionally (sometimes not) debris. With them a version of a story is patched together to enlighten (or, when used as propaganda, to persuade) an audience. Delving into letters means that you can create yourstory.

A good example of the slippery nature of building a story occurred when I recently read Manet’s letters. I’ve read several books about Manet and the one I like for sheer readability is Beth Archer Brombert’s Rebel in a Frock Coat. Brombert constructs a tight, solid narrative of Manet’s life and work: saucy stories of the Belle Epoque, penetrating, but not overly academic, analysis of his paintings, investigative ferreting into Manet’s family life, and, like a good tour leader with a bright orange stick waving in the air, Brombert deftly guides us through the labyrinth of 19th century politics; the Empires, Republics, Monarchies, and insurrections.

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According to Brombert, Manet endured a loveless marriage with a Dutch woman named Suzanne Leenhoff. Manet, only twenty, got her pregnant while she was working as his music instructor and later married her out of honor (claiming, to save face, that his illegitimate son Léon was in fact Suzanne’s brother). Suzanne was beneath the Manets socially, rather homely, and fairly simple by all accounts. Berthe Morisot nicknamed her “la grosse Suzanne” – “fat Susan”. Brombert points out that Manet stayed married and led the kind of life the haute bougeoisie demanded of him; in the book there is no reference to love or tenderness between the two.

Enter primary sources! While reading Manet’s letters during the Franco-Prussian war (during which time Manet stayed in the capital as a volunteer and sent his family south for safety) one can’t help but notice that Manet wrote to Suzanne practically everyday and not just to say “Wassup, fat Susan”? Here are a few samples that were delivered by hot air balloons and pigeons from the besieged capital:

October 23, 1870: I spent a long time, my dear Suzanne, looking for your photograph – I eventually found the album in the table in the drawing room, so I can look at your comforting face from time to time. I woke up last night thinking I heard you calling me…

November 23, 1870: Goodbye my dear Suzanne, I embrace you lovingly and would give Alsace and Lorraine to be with you.

December 23, 1870: Goodbye my dear Suzanne, your portraits are hanging in every corner of the bedroom, so I see you first and last thing…

And so on and so on.

Brombert does mention the letters. She says that earlier biographies (citing one from 1947 by Adolphe Tabarant) used the letters to intimate “a vague picture of domestic bliss” and that “no attention has been paid to the probable dissatisfactions of both spouses.” Brombert read all the letters, but combined with other documentation and research, put together a new version of the Manet/Suzanne relationship, one based on her own reading of primary sources (a reading which is in all probability closer to reality than Tabarant’s “vague picture of domestic bliss”).

Reading other people’s letters is not for everyone. I’m still reading Courbet’s (632 pages and causing me a bit of tendonitis in my right arm from holding it upright in bed). My husband winces when he sees me reading them; he is appalled by my lack of discretion. He’s right in a way: pinching a letter from a postman’s cart is a criminal offense and reading someone else’s mail (such as when a friend of mine and I steamed upon an envelope addressed to her mother from her estranged father and then resealed it) is dishonest, disrespectful, and downright wrong. Yet, when someone famous dies letters become a free-for-all: the desk drawers are opened, spilled out, and we get to rummage through.

Luc Sante, writing about the recent publication of Susan Sontag’s journals (Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963) says that “the complicated, somewhat voyeuristic thrill the reader might derive from seemingly prying open the author’s desk drawer is […] to a certain extent, a fiction in which both parties are complicit”. Ah, another post-modern dilemma, and it may be true for modern writers: French philosopher and theorist Michel Foucault famously burned and destroyed every shred of personal writing before he died. Sante’s statement implies that in the end we only read what the foresighted author wanted us to read. Will all published letters begin then to fall into the self-aware, post-modern complicity that Sante writes about?

As for me, give me the age of innocence and the “voyeuristic thrill” I have when I read about bloody stool, passion (or lack of it), and dirty laundry. In a letter dated August 23, 1865, Manet writes to his friend Zacharie Astruc: “I should be going with Champfleury and Stevens, but they keep putting it off. Anyway, they are bloody bores. Excuse the unseeming language, but since my letter is not for publication, I can say what I please.” Touché.

Manet by himself, edited by Juliette Bareau-Wilson

Letters of Gustave Courbet, edited by Petra Ten-Doesschate Chu

The Writing of History, Michel de Certeau : The discourse designed to make the other speak remains the speaker’s discourse and the mirror of his undertaking.” – “Le discours destiné à dire l’autre reste son discours et le miroir de son opération.”

Just like us, US magazine. Wow. Rachel McAdams (who dat?) rides a bike too. I guess the stars really are just like us.

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I’ve been on sabbatical from teaching Middle School for six months now. I’ve done a lot of reading, quite a bit of writing, I’ve come up with a plan for my book and…my middle has expanded considerably. Teachers! You don’t realize how many calories you burn in a single day running down the hallway after little ones, taking Middle School girls to the nurse, or going to the special hiding place (every high school has one) to find so-and-so who is skipping class (or maybe necking as we called it in my days).

I’m sitting on my butt and yes, the middle is spreading. Yesterday, to console myself, I went to a mirror, took off my clothes and put myself in the position of Victorine Meurent in this painting of Manet. You know the argument: fuller figures were sexier back then! To my dismay, my gut was just as big, but my boobs were saggier and smaller, so even that didn’t make me feel better.

Following Obama’s adage that tough times call for tough measures I am going on a diet. You see, I’m going to France (the land of Carla Bruni, waxed legs, and petite women eating Brie) in only two months and I can’t bear (bare! ha!) the idea of going there with five extra kilos (kilos! I’m SO European!) around my midriff. To assuage my pain I’ve decided to detour my favorite foods from my mouth into my writing. Here goes:

Cauliflower au gratin: a simply, hearty dish. The low-calorie vegetable is first smothered in a rich Béchamel sauce and then covered in Gruyère cheese. It comes out of the oven golden and bubbling like a comestible puddle of lava. A crusty bread is recommended so that you can sop up the sauce.

Fish tagine with chermoula: fish, potatoes, and peppers layered and covered generously with chermoula, a mixture of garlic, parsley, cilantro, paprika, ground cumin, harissa, lemon juice, and olive oil. Chermoula is the Moroccan answer to pesto. This is all slow-baked (that is what the word tagine really means). When it comes out all the parts have miraculously fused into a taste too delicious to describe. I had this in a palace in Fez and mine is better. That is how good I am.

Profiteroles: OMG. Profiteroles bring together in one bite: crunchy, creamy, hot, cold, bitter, and sweet. It is mouth-ecstasy as only the French can do it. Into an airy puff of pastry insert high-quality vanilla ice-cream (no guar gum, please!) and cover with a hot dark chocolate sauce. I make these too, but my pastry succeeds only every other time, so you would have to come over on the right day. A photo of a young women with a profiterole in her mouth, chocolate and vanilla ice-cream dripping out of the corners, would surely be banned on Google in many countries.

Cheeses: unpasteurized so that they can walk up to your plate by themselves.

Roast chicken stuffed with rice and fresh figs: First of all, let’s talk about the perfect roast chicken. The skin has cooked so that when you bite into it it has a satisfying crackle. The breast meat is juicy with a hint of salt and barnyard fun: yes! the free-range bird’s flesh has an indelible taste of I’ve lived well and now give myself up to you. Into its cavern is stuffed a luxurious mix of cooked rice, onions sauteed in olive oil, and small, purple fresh figs. Don’t mix too much! It will become a purple haze. Restraint is of the essence.

Fresh figs brings me to my favorite piece of food porn writing by Walter Benjamin. In his essay simply called Food we can imagine what Julia Child would have written like if she had smoked a joint now and then. Enjoy:

No one who has never eaten a food to excess has ever really experienced it, or fully exposed himself to it. Unless you do this, you at best enjoy it, but never come to lust after it, or make the acquaintance of that diversion from the straight and narrow road of the appetite which leads to the primeval forest of greed. For in gluttony two things coincide: the boundelessness of desire and the uniformity of the food that sates it. Gourmandizing means above all else to devour one thing to the last crumb. There is no doubt that it enters more deeply into what you eat than mere enjoyment. For example, when you bite into mortadella as if it were bread, or bury your face in a melon as if it were a pillow, or gorge yourself on caviar out of crackling paper, or when confronted with the sight of a round Edam cheese, find that the existence of every other food simply vanishes from your mind. -How did I learn all this? It happened just before I had to make a very difficult decision. A letter had to be posted or torn up. I had carried it around in my pocket for two days, but had not given it a thought for some hours. I then took the noisy narrow-gauge railway up to Secondigliano through the sun-parched landscape. The village lay in still solemnity in the weekday peace and quiet. The only traces of the excitement of the previous Sunday were the poles on which Catherine wheels and rockets had been ignited. Now they stood there bare. Some of them still displayed a sign halfway up with the figure of a saint from Naples or an animal. Women sat in the open barns husking corn. I was walking along in a daze, when I noticed a cart with figs standing in the shade. It was sheer idleness that made me go up to them, sheer extravagance that I bought half a pound for a few soldi. The woman gave me a generous measure. But when the black, blue, bright green, violet, and brown fruit lay in the bowl of the scales, it turned out that she had no paper to wrap them in. The housewives of Secondigliano bring their baskets with them, and she was unprepared for globetrotters. For my part, I was ashamed to abandon the fruit. So I left her with figs stuffed in my trouser pockets and in my jacket, figs in both of my outstretched hands, and figs in my mouth. I couldn’t stop eating them and was forced to get rid of the mass of plump fruits as quickly as possible. But that could not be described as eating; it was more like a bath, so powerful was the smell of resin that it penetrated all my belongings, clung to my hands and impregnated the air through which I carried my burden. And then, after satiety and revulsion – the final bends in the path – had been surmounted, came the ultimate peak of taste. A vista over an unsuspected landscape of the palate spread out before my eyes – an insipid, undifferentiated, greenish flood of greed that could distinguish nothing but the stringy, fibrous waves of the flesh of the open fruit, the utter transformation of enjoyment into habit, of habit into vice. A hatred of those figs welled up inside me; I was desperate to finish with them, to liberate myself, to rid myself of all this overripe, bursting fruit. I ate to destroy it. Biting had rediscovered its most ancient purpose. When I pulled the last fig from the depths of my pocket, the letter was stuck to it. Its fate was sealed, ; it, too, had to succumb to the great purification. I took it and tore it into a thousand pieces.

Have you written any food porn? Feel like trying your hand at it? Send it my way.

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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!

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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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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?

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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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In the spring, my 6th graders and I study surrealism.  Nothing could be more logical for eleven-year-olds to study surrealism, whose credo is bringing objects together that normally don’t go together, a concept derived from the famous line The Chants de Maldadorthe chance encounter on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella, for theirs is a surreal world too, a world where a the girl is five foot seven, the boy is four foot ten, and they are on a dance floor in an awkward embrace, a world where moms empty lunch pails and find half-eaten sandwiches, incomplete, crumpled homework assignments, and

Every year we begin our unit by watching the beginning scene of Luis Buñuel’s surrealist classic An Andulusian Dog. The chain of associative events starts with a man sharpening a razor (the same kind of blade they later learn Van Gogh used to slice off part of his ear; decidedly the study of French art is not for sissies).  The camera then cuts (no pun intended) to a woman’s head, her eye being held open by the man’s hand, then to a perfectly gobular moon past which a thin, linear cloud passes, and finally back to the eye which is sliced open transversally by the razor (Buñuel used a cow’s eye).   You would think that given all the violent movies and videogames parents and educators constantly rail about that it would be hard to gross them out.  Wrong.  They are sickened to their core and a minute later experience a collective adrenaline at which point they decide that surrealism is the coolest art movement ever.  I must admit,  I’ve seen the scene at least thirty times and, despite the obvious fakery, despite being filmed in 1926,  it still makes me feel queasy too.

What provokes this unbearable uneasiness?  I think that it has to do with the eye.  If the wrist had been slit, if the finger had been chopped off, our reaction would not not have been the same.  Our innate urge to protect our eyes, what I call the protective eye syndrome, is as ancient as Greek mythology when our Western ancestors squirmed in the amphitheater watching Oedipus gouging his eyes out after learning that he killed his father and slept with his mother (way worse than not finishing your sandwich or your homework).

Fast forward to the 19th century, the beginning for all practical purposes of the modern era. In the Arcades Project Walter Benjamin reports the observation of a sociologist who writes the following in 1911:

“Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of visual activity over aural activity. The main reason for this is the public means of transportation. Before the development of buses, railroads, and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in situations where they had to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.”

This comment led Benjamin to posit that the eye of the city dweller had developed “protective functions.” In other words:  we have learned how not to see, all the while keeping our eyes open.  Of course, this is an indispensable skill: it keeps us from appearing impolite, perverted, or even psychopathic.  Last year an Italian man was fined forty euros for staring too long at a women across from him in a train. However, does “protective eye syndrome” sometimes leak its fluid into purposeful viewing?   Does it increase the likelihood that we spend some (even a lot) of our time looking but not really seeing?

I sometimes wonder about this when I watch people walking past paintings as if they were walking down a grocery aisle.    Would it not be marvelous (a favorite surrealist word*) to have a procedure done at the entrance of museums to unprotect the eyes?  A gloved employee peels away an outer layer of the cornea, drops it into a petri dish with some formaldehyde, and gives the visitor a claim ticket (to be stored in a very safe place).  Then, Eureka!  The visitor has a freshness of vision hitherto inexperienced, just like Monet claims to have undergone after cataract surgery when he was able to see certain colors for the first time in years.  Painting after painting stuns the unprotected eye, the visitor apprenhends truths, harmonies, discord, and beauty at an almost delirious level.  After two hours of intense viewing, the soul being elated, the visitor turns in the claim check, gets the protective film reapplied onto his eyeball, and walks out of the museum, stepping onto a big dog turd.  Whoops.  I guess he wasn’t looking!

Well, it’s a great fantasy, but it does not help us with protective eye syndrome.  Aside from peyote and other vision-transfiguring drugs, what can we do (that is legal) to help us unprotect our eyes?  In his book The Open Image, Georges Didi-Humberman speaks of the desire to see and I think that this is a good place to start.  One of the examples he gives is of pilgrams looking at the Shroud of Turin, where the following process of vision is time and again reported:  at first one sees nothing, then almost nothing, then little by little the eyes fall on the outline of something.  The catalyst for this movement from nothing to almost nothing to something is, in Didi-Humberman’s opinion, about the desire to see.  He goes on:  “for, the desire to see is an incredibly refined modality.  The “little by little” of this “discovery” (refering to the Shroud of Turin) is a vertiginous and spiraling movement:  precise, like a dialectic; blinding like a baptismal of the eyes.”  …but appreciating a painting by Mark Rothko, for example, does demand the same desire, effort, and ultimately, belief.

*Let us not mince words: the marvelous is always beautiful. anything marvelous is beautiful, in fact only the marvelous is beautiful.  – André Breton, 1924, The Surrealist Manifesto

A less invasive method: stop in front of a painting that speaks to you and stay there for at least five minutes staring, really staring. Let your unprotected eyes scrutinize the surface and the depth of the painting, follow the brush strokes (the physical traces of the artist present in the painting – think about it!), and allow yourself to be taken in by it, disarmed by it.

Museums offer us memorable, deep encounters with painting. Don’t try to see everything! But do try and really see something.

“On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 4.

“One observes in order to see what one would not see if one did not observe.” – Wittenstein, Remarks on Coulour, •326.