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Category Archives: people and art

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So, call it a midlife crisis:  I recently got out my old guitar, its case covered with political slogans and names of punk bands, and tried my hand at a couple songs by Georges Brassens and Nick Drake. The crooning is okay, but the strumming is halting and clumsy, after years of not playing.  It occurred to me (since part of my mind is, subconsciously or not, always thinking about food) that a musical score is a bit like a recipe: the G chord is like an onion, easy to play and always in the pantry, whereas the F7sus4 is like those hard-to-find ingredients (place the truffles and fiddlehead ferns in warmed pistachio oil – puhleese) that certain recipe books sadistically taunt the would-be cook to try and find. Andando, easy and flowing, is how we do the prep work, staccato is like frying, and largo is slow-roasting (the mutton tagine baked at 250 degrees for four hours). Implicit in the recipe is the notion that if we follow it we will have a final product, song or soup, the way its creator intended it to be; it will sound (or taste) delicious. Of course, reproducing it can take a lot of practice, just like my ongoing attempt to master puff pastry, but the fact of the matter is that we have a map, a recipe, a blueprint.

This is different with the visual arts. The painting or sculpture is, so to speak, already cooked and we are invited to dinner. This is especially evident in the sculptures of Claes Oldenberg (who is a School of the Art Institute graduate) or in Dutch still lifes, but it is in fact true of all paintings.  Go into a quiet gallery and listen.  They are whispering to you: eat me, mange-moi, take a bite, i∫ mich; all invitations to a meal. Come as you are.

The problem is that sometimes museum visitors aren’t hungry or they’re not listening closely enough to hear the invitation. How many times have I watched bedraggled, bleary-eyed visitors trudging past paintings as if following an invisible track laid down along the perimeter of the gallery?   The spectacle reminds me of a crazy public health scheme from some twenty years ago (a friend doing her Ph.D. in public health would regale us with stories of penile injuries caused by vacuum cleaners and dissertations on subjects like grass skirt burns in Papua New Guinea): old people would be fitted out with harnesses, the harnesses connected with cords, and the cords connected to tracks in the ceiling,  thereby eliminating all chance of  falling as they ambulated around the prescribed trails in their rooms.

Visitors! Cut those cords, approach that painting, and dig in! Eating a painting, digesting it, making it yours is vastly different from looking at it. Seeing a painting is automatic: it is in front of us and our eyes capture the image. This is similar to feeling pain when touching a hot iron or hearing an ambulance as it screams by. In Art as Experience, John Dewey describes the distinction between looking at the painting and eating it as recognizing it (yep, it’s a painting alright) and perceiving it (creating an sensorial experience with it). Recognition is passive, we see the painting; perception is active and makes certain demands on us (Dewey describes it as an out-going of energy in order to receive and says that we have to plunge into the experience).

So, how to plunge?  First, be selective. I’ve interviewed countless visitors who find museums overwhelming. They are of the mind that if they don’t take a look (recognition) at almost everything that they have, in some way, let down the museum. Balderdash! Instead, go into a room and look around. Perhaps one or two paintings will appeal to you. Perhaps none. Choose only one or two and focus on them. (Would you eat out with every, single person in a given subway car or bus? I think not!)

Second, take your time. In Daniel Pennac’s book School of Evil students find themselves with the following assignment one evening: go home, do nothing for twenty minutes, and share your experience with the class the following day. The students are dumbfounded. Nothing? Not even music? Pennac does this to give them the taste of solitude and of silence. I think it’s the same with a painting: I’ve never had a satisfying experience in front of a painting in less than five minutes and the experience I’m talking about is impossible if someone is jabbering next to you. So, accept the dinner invitation and than settle down, alone, in front of your host.

Third, be present.  Think about the all the flavors and textures of the food.  Great paintings have multiple layers of pleasure, so chew slowly and with intention, so as to enjoy fully.  This means following a narrative if there is one and looking at the colors and forms long enough so that you begin to see patterns that either balance the composition (or intentionally tilt it out of whack). Back up and look. Go closer and gaze. Imagine what you might tell the artist if he or she were to ask your opinion about the painting.

Fourth, acknowledge the effort of the cook. Some of the visitors I’ve interviewed have talked about their awareness of and gratitude for the artist’s gift. Indeed, the artist notices an aspect of beauty (or life) and translates it,  intensifies it, and gives us the opportunity to see it differently. Marcel Proust writes of the gift of painter Johannes Vermeer in Time Regained, the last of in the series In Rememberence of Things Past:

There is no reason inherent in the conditions of this life on earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work, the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms. Like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must forever remain unknown and is barely identified under the name Vermeer.

Finally, indulge yourself that extra glass of wine during the meal, let yourself loosen up and give in; be seduced by the painting!  Every now and then I have an experience that approaches meditation: my mind becomes clear and focused only on the image before me, yielding perhaps only a few moments of plenitude, but leaving me replenished spiritually.  Sometimes this happens when looking at the most mundane of details (gifts) in a painting, such as silver sugar bowl in Fantin-Latour’s Still life, Corner of a Table. French philosopher Simone Weil describes this experience in almost Star-Trekien terms: When we come upon beautiful things […] they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.

In the end, the experience you construct with a given painting is utterly unique, a creative act that takes place between you and the work of art.  Some days it might be just a good salad or a nice sandwich, but hang in there, don’t give up:  a four-course meal and a bottle of Bordeaux may be heading your way.

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I would like to thank two friends who, when they read the first draft of this piece, told me it was unclear and unfocused.  I practically rewrote it to get at exactly what I meant.  It made me realize that for me eliminating lots of prose (as opposed to simply rewriting) feels like having a big litter of kittens and having to drown half of them in a river because you simply can’t take care of them.  I wonder if a lot of writers feel this way?

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Yesterday I returned to the Musée d’Orsay.  The first thing I did was to take the five floors up to the Post-Impressionist collection to Douanier Rousseau’s painting War.  Last year I regretted not having taken a picture of it to use in the classes I teach at the Lab School because there is no reproduction available (don’t get me started about the glut of Mona Lisa postcards, posters, puzzles, coasters, clocks and the comparative dearth of other works of art:  this is a whole other issue that deserves to be treated at length).

Anywho.  I was framing the picture in the viewer of my discrete digital camera and a little, tiny corner of an old leather jacket was in the picture.  I waited a minute or so and then politely asked the man wearing the leather jacket if he could move over for a second while I snapped a photo.  Well.  He looked at me (down at me – I’m a mere five foot tall), his face of an equine sort, his bad teeth showing as his mouth dropped open, and didn’t say anything for a few seconds.  I thought maybe he hadn’t understood my request, so I repeated myself, this time in English.  That’s when I got the snub of a lifetime (in a British accent, no less):  “I come to museums to look at paintings, not to take pictures.  What do you come here for?”  Well, the Goddess of Repartee was with me that day (normally good comebacks materialize a few days later while I’m knitting or sitting on the pot):  “I come to museums to take pictures, but I like to buy stuff too.”  He snorted at me, spun on his heels, and trotted off.

This brings me to a subject that I’ve been pondering all year while visiting museums:  to shoot or not to shoot.  Susan Sontag in her book On Photography discusses the role it plays in tourism and vacations:  people in today’s mundus imaginum (I did that just to sound impressive – it simply means world of images) have come to depend on photos to validate experience.  A young woman I interviewed from Berck-sur-Mer told me a joke the other day that I’m sure Sontag would have enjoyed:  a friend asks a friend how his trip was, to which he replies:  “I don’t know, I haven’t developed the pictures yet.”

Those who take pictures in museums often do it for just this reason:  to prove that they saw the painting (this is especially true when the person poses with the painting as they would with a friend or family member).  Taking a photo of the painting, “shooting” it (Sontag discusses the semantic reverberations of “to take” and “to shoot” in her book) means to capture it, to consume it; the photo serves as a talisman representing the visitor’s taste and his journey through the museum.

Taking pictures of paintings can also reduce one’s own experience with painting.  The camera is the thing looking at the painting, not the person.  The person focuses on mechanical issues:  framing, turning off the flash (if he follows the rules), and holding his hand still, so that the camera makes a good reproduction of what is right in front of him.  It is as if I were to take a friend to a restaurant, watch him eat a good meal, and then ask, How was it?

For to experience a painting is different from looking at its reproduction.  Walter Benjamin speaks of the real deal as having an aura:  just as radium emits radiation, a painting emanates the effort and presence of the painter which comes out of the painting to greet us as we stand before it.  Taking a picture of an image is a one-sided experience.  Looking at a painting without the mediation of the camera is a two-sided one; we enter into a dialogue with it.  In his book The Open Image French art critic and historian George Didi-Huberman speaks of images as if they were organic objects:  “Images embrace us:  they open up to us and close themselves to us in so far as they conjure up in us something that we could call an interior experience.”  If we open up to the image, without protection or the desire to possess it, the image will reciprocally open itself up to us.

I sound as if I agree with Mr. Horse Snob (Equi-Snobus), don’t I?   Well, that’s just it.  I did agree with him at the start of the year, but after spending time talking to people in museums about why they take pictures of paintings I have come to realize that there are some excellent reasons.  It’s easy to go to museums with preconceived notions about how people really don’t take the time to look at paintings (such notions flatter one’s own sense of cultural superiority); it’s much more interesting to talk to people and learn that museums are in fact filled with people for whom art resonates quietly (or loudly) in their lives and that taking a picture of a painting doesn’t necessarily mean that a museum experience is qualitatively any less for them than it is for someone who shuns the camera.

Here are some interesting examples I’ve encountered this year about how the camera aids people’s experience at museums:  Kamilah from California keeps a portfolio of paintings on her computer that have moved her and writes about her experiences,  a man I spoke to takes a picture of a painting only when he finds one that particularly speaks to him and doesn’t know the painter well; he takes a picture of the painting along with the identification plate so he can further research the artist and the painting later.  At the Louvre a few days ago a young Russian pianist living in Paris and I talked at length about Watteau’s painting Pierrot, dit autrefois Gilles. She was so thrilled to have discussed the painting with someone that she wanted me to take her picture with the painting as a visual memory of our encounter (besides, her red hair matched the wall behind the painting to a tee).  Finally, I’ve come up with my own use of photographed paintings in museums:  as desktop pictures.  I take just part of the painting (for instance, an up-close Courbet’s signature from L’Hallili du cerf or part of the allegorical painting The Funeral of Love by Antoine Caron where one of the cupids looks at the observer – he alone does this – as if to say can you believe this painting?!).  My favorite (and the one currently on my computer) is an up-close of Gilles, slightly off-center:  his face, quiet and almost blank, reveals a different emotion, whispers a different story, every time I turn on my machine.

I would like to thank Michel Colson, a museum man if there ever was one, for allowing me to use his wonderful drawing La foule et la Joconde at the beginning of this post.  Michel spends three or four days at the Louvre, drawing his observations, copying works, and talking to people.  We spent nearly two hours together as he led me through the museum, sharing with me his favorite paintings.

Referenced works:  On Photography by Susan Sontag and L’image ouverte by George Didi-Huberman (not yet translated, the quote in the post is my translation).  If you are interested in Watteau I highly recommend Watteau and the Cultural Politics of Eighteenth-Century France by Julie Anne Plax.  Being a 19th century specialist, I knew que dalle (damn near nothing) about 18th century art and this book helped me to delight in the world of Watteau while in Paris.

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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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I recently finished a book by Michel Butor called Histoire Extraordinaire; an essay on a dream of Baudelaire. It begins with a dream that Baudelaire recorded at five o’clock in the morning, when it was nice and warm, for his friend Charles Asselineau. (I love the idea of calling a dream nice and warm; it makes me think of a croissant in the morning.) Butor then takes up threads of the dream and with them illuminates much of Baudelaire’s writing, including the translations he did of Edgar Allen Poe’s Extraordinary Stories.

While reading the book I was reminded of one of my favorite prose poems by Baudelaire, called Crowds. Baudelaire is surely one of the first, if not the first, to write of the essentially modern, urban experience of solitude in crowds. What struck me this time when I reread the poem was that it echoes the comments of people I’ve interviewed when they have talked about portraits. Here is paragraph three of Crowds:

The poet enjoys the incomparable privilege of being able to be himself or some one else, as he chooses. Like those wandering souls who go by looking for a body, he enters as he likes into each man’s character. For him alone everything is vacant; and if certain places seem closed to him, it is only because in his eyes they are not worth visiting.

The whole idea has a vampire quality to it: I love the image of people, wandering souls, walking past portraits in a museum, only to stop in front of one and feel as if they are entering into the life, if only for a moment, of someone else. I recall Erin’s comment when she was in front of the Mona Lisa: she felt as if she had reached across time and experienced someone else’s life.

Doesn’t this mean that we are all become poets in a certain sense when we enter a museum? Or, do we become image-gobbling vampires? Maybe we become both, for the act of observing a painting is one, an act of consumption and two, an act of creation; we create our own experience with a painting. John Dewey, an experience-vampire if there ever was one, speaks of this moment (act) in these terms:

The esthetic or undergoing phase of experience is receptive. It involves surrender. […] Perception is an act of the going-out of energy in order to receive, not a withholding of energy. To steep ourselves in a subject-matter we have to first plunge into it.

After we plunge into the painting (or suck out its blood), we digest it and this digestion constitutes the creation of a unique experience for every person, poet, or vampire.

Paris Spleen, Charles Baudelaire

Art as Experience, John Dewey

Here’s paragraph three in the original: Le poëte jouit de cet incomparable privilège, qu’il peut à sa guise être lui-même et autrui. Comme ces âmes errantes qui cherchent un corps, il entre, quand il veut, dans le personnage de chacun. Pour lui seul, tout est vacant; et si de certaines places paraissent lui être fermées, c’est qu’à ses yeux elles ne valent pas la peine d’être visitées.

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A few months ago, I interviewed a person who touched this painting. That’s right. He put his finger right on it in order to point something out to me. More about this transgressive act later.

Today I watched as the painting handlers (those hardy young men who drill holes in museum walls, pick up paintings worth millions of dollars, and hang them) took down a painting by Bazille and replaced it with one by Monet. If it weren’t for the fact that I have seen this happen numerous times this year I would still believe that fairies hang paintings at night, but the fact is that real people wearing (real) blue gloves take down and put up real paintings, almost in the same way that you did in your college dorm with your poster of Gene Simmons and Kiss (except you probably weren’t wearing blue gloves). Previously, I fantasized about having an Art Institute badge to hang around my neck so I could go in and out of the doors in certain galleries; doors so discreet that one is sometimes startled when they open and someone walks out, but now if I win the Art Institute’s Be Whoever You Want to Be For a Day prize I think I’ll choose paint handler.

What is it about seeing a person handle a painting that causes visitors in a museum to drop what they’re doing and gather around the roped-off area to watch? The most obvious reason could be called the thrill of the touch: we see someone doing what we aren’t allowed to do. The paint handlers are like priests, touching sacred relics in a holy spectacle that we must be contented simply to watch. Or, is it that by coming off the wall and being handled the painting is in fact desacralized for a moment? Physically, a painting is not dissimilar from a piece of furniture or a lamp that can be moved around from one spot to another. A painting is an object that has been touched by various people (first and foremost by the artist), has been in studios and homes, has changed places many times, and has most likely traveled long distances. I think that this is why we are so intrigued when a work comes off the wall: we are breathless by its objectness, something that only minutes earlier seemed intangible and eternal is part of the space that we occupy everyday.

Now I would like to come back to Amare, a recent immigrant, whom I interviewed a few months ago. Amare was studying economics in Ethiopia when he learned that he won a green card in the United States Green Card Lottery (which differs from the 1948 classic that we all read in public schools where the winner is stoned to death by the community). Amare now lives in a Chicago suburb where he is a dental assistant. He had taken the train in to spend the entire day at the Art Institute.

After our interview, Amare wanted to show me some of the paintings he had particularly liked. We started downstairs in the African collection where he showed me the Miracles of Mary, a beautiful 158 page bound manuscript from 17th century Ethiopia. Next, we looked at Francisco de Zurbaràn’s The Crucifixion. Amare pointed out how Zurbaràn had painted Christ’s feet resting on a slight ledge, a small detail that he thought added a degree of realism to the painting.

The Amare Tour ended in the Dutch room, gallery 213, in front of Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain (pictured above). I have admired this painting many times before: it is an uncanny coup of verisimilitude, the blue satin curtain is so lifelike that one is tempted to try and pull it to the side to see more of the painting. Then, it happened. Amare, wanting to point out a detail, touched the painting with his finger. I was so shocked, so taken aback, that before I knew it the most absurd utterance came out of my mouth (it was like a sneeze, totally involuntary): “Don’t do that! They might arrest you!” What (other than the fact that George Bush was still president) would have made me say such a thing? And who was “they”? The guards? James Cuno, the museum director, and his administrative assistant? Amare looked at me, his brown, soulful eyes full of terror, and I immediately realized the profound stupidity of what I had said. I quickly corrected myself: “I mean, you aren’t supposed to touch paintings in a museum; you’ll get yelled at.” There. That made more sense. Luckily for Amare the guard hadn’t seen him (though she would probably have been calmer and less hyperbolic than I). Besides, it is hard to imagine a section in the Cook County Jail for painting touchers (and if there were one, those poor guys wouldn’t get much respect).

Amare and I parted ways in gallery 213. Later on, I got to thinking about my reaction and realized that mixed up in it was a  teeny, tiny bit of envy, even of awe (like what I felt when Tod called our English teacher an asshole, for he truly was one, though I would never, ever have said it). Amare had touched a 17th century Dutch painting, something I would never do. His finger had met the surface where the painter, some three hundred years ago, had applied the paint. The closest I’ll ever get is perhaps, one day, hoisting a gilded frame to its place, and that only if I plan my strategy carefully. I’m thinking of the fourteen year old boy who recently dressed up as a Chicago policemen and spent a giddy six hours riding around in a police car before getting busted. I know where to buy blue gloves, but I wonder where I can get one of those blue work jackets with my name embroidered on it?

Addendum: while writing, I googled “penitentiary, Cook County” to find out its exact name and read this most unusual statement on the homepage: “Going to jail can be a scary experience. However, with the right information, you can feel better prepared for the day to day experiences of jail. CookCoJail.com provides you with information from actual ex-inmates. […] While we can’t promise jail won’t still be hard, we can hope that the information you find here will help you make the transition as easy as possible.” It doesn’t sound much different than going off to college, does it?

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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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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…”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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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!

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First, Erin of Los Angeles talked to me about her. The very next day, Isabel from Colombia. Then, Gerhard Richter, one of my favorite artists, said in an interview yesterday about the corrected (depressed) art market that, in his opinion, only paintings by Da Vinci and Raphael should ever sell for more than a million dollars (including his?). I took these as signs that it was about time to mention her on my blog. Who else? La Gioconda, La Joconde, Mona Lisa, Ms. L.H.O.O.Q.! Whose painted face is more ubiquitous? No one’s! She is the Marilyn Monroe of Renaissance painting, iconic and everywhere you look: on tee-shirts, Christmas cards, street art, and wall-clocks (a word before you click to see this creepy wall-clock: it may start inhabiting your dreams, and not in a good way!).

Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of the Mona Lisa. I like the other Da Vinci dame in the Salle de la Joconde (the Mona Lisa room), la Belle Ferronière, which, in any case, one has a better chance at really seeing: the Mona Lisa is almost impossible to study since one, there are always throngs of people in front of her and two, she is encased in a bulletproof, temperature and humidity-controlled, air-tight glass case (making the painting look, sadly, even more like merchandise). Given that works of art are occasionally attacked by vandals and that the medium of oil on wood is highly volatile, the Louvre has every interest in protecting and preserving this treasure, but imagine how our experience with art would change if all paintings in museums were suddenly put into glass bubbles or see-through boxes?

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But, I’m digressing. Revenons à nos moutons as they say in French (back to our sheep – a strange expression if there ever was one for let’s get back to the subject). Erin and Isabel had similar experiences in front of the Mona Lisa, experiences anchored in the notion of authenticity. Both had seen reproductions of the Mona Lisa but when they stood in front of it they were moved by the realness, the uniqueness of the painting. Isabel described it this way: “the interaction between us, between me and the painting, was pure; there were no intermediaries, no third party.” Erin felt euphoria at “finally seeing it” and said that the experience deeply affected who she became; that before seeing the Mona Lisa she had been a typical teenager, concerned about her hair and clothes, and that seeing this painting made her “reach across time” and “experience someone else’s life.” She felt as if she had “left her own space and gone into someone else’s”, and hence developed a sense of empathy and curiosity of who and what was around her. The encounter was so profound that Erin wrote her college entrance essay on it. (Erin’s experience points to effects portraits have on people which I think differ from other genres of painting; a subject I hope to explore later.)

Indeed, one of the foremost roles that museums play is to provide their public with the read deal. Stephen Greenblatt speaks of “the power of the displayed object to stop the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” In the same vein, Philippe de Montebello says this about a painting by Velasquez: “The thrill comes from his (the viewer’s) complete trust in the fact that this object […] is the object before which Philip IV himself stood in admiration some 350 years ago. That magic, the magic of the original, the authentic, is what the museum can never lose, for the public will always demand it.”

Ironically, what Walter Benjamin feared after the advent of photography, that reproductions might come to replace our appetite for the real, has proved the opposite: seeing paintings that move us in books, hanging a reproduction on the wall in our college dorm, ultimately makes us crave the real object even more. In the two months that I’ve spent interviewing and observing people in the Art Institute, I have overheard twice a young person ask a guard with hushed awe, “Are these paintings real?” and the guard, with a tone of complicity, devoid of any ridicule, whisper back “Yes.” In a world glutted with reproduced images, most trying to sell us something, the silence, authenticity, and beauty of a painting is a gift and a solace.

Stephen Greenblatt, “Resonance and Wonder,” in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display

Philippe de Montebello, “Art Museums, Inspiring Public Trust,” in Whose Muse? Art Museums and the Public Trust

Walter Benjamin, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility,” in Selected Writings, Volume 4